Overcoming the Paralysis of Crippling Fear
6 Spiritual Practices of Martin Luther King Jr.
On January 27, 1956, as Martin Luther King, Jr. was in his kitchen, crying out to the Lord in prayer, expressing fear, doubt, and weakness he heard an inner voice saying to him: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even to the end of the world” (Garrow 1990:20). During King’s life and ministry, he often referred back to what biographer David Garrow calls “the vision in the kitchen” (:21). This vision in the kitchen became a touchstone of strength for King. The presence of Jesus in King’s kitchen after receiving a death threat cleared him “almost at once” of any fears and uncertainty.
From this posture of humility and presence, King could move out in strength, power, and spiritual authority, knowing that the King of Kings was with him, no matter what may come.
In my undergraduate studies at Pepperdine University, I majored in Creative Writing and minored in Speech and Debate. During Advanced Speech class, I remember analyzing the rhetorical devices of Martin Luther King, Jr. I believe it was then that I “fell in love” with the man behind the words. He was a master storyteller. His use of figurative language and rhetorical devices left audiences and readers with mental pictures emblazoned on their minds. King used words to shape reality. King preached, wrote, and creatively used language for God’s Kingdom work on earth—mainly that of protesting the injustices of his day.
The protest tradition thrived within the African-American church in which King grew up. This tradition included the rage of the disenfranchised expressed through violence as well as a “quiet, nonviolent protest” (Franklin 1990:97). King chose the latter manifestation of the protest tradition following in a long tradition of African-Americans who had protested “against slavery, against disenfranchisement, against discrimination, against degradation” (:97). King was so convinced that the nonviolent protest tradition was the right way that he said even “if every Negro in the United States turns to violence, I will choose to be that one lone voice preaching that this is the wrong way” (:100). King was a man of deep-seated conviction.
A Posture of Prayer in a Culture of Hatred and Violence
Throughout his ministry, King took up a posture of prayer in a culture of hatred and violence. Because of King’s ministry, he and his family became the target of death threats, hate rhetoric, and outright crime. Perhaps, more than anything else, these threats and attempts to take his life propelled King into a deeper connection with Jesus. Instead of running, King took up a posture of prayer.
Stand Up and be Counted
King’s great prayer was that God would save him from the “paralysis of crippling fear” (Garrow 1986:75). King knew that he was called to initiate justice where injustice reigned. King knew that he was called to risk life and limb in order to lift others out of the margins of society. King knew that he himself would not be able to “stand up and be counted” (:75) unless the Lord removed his spirit of fear, and replaced it with a Spirit of power, love, and sound mind (The Holy Bible, 2 Ti. 1:7). King understood that without a supernatural empowering and overshadowing of fleshly fear, one is not able to stand against the evils and injustices in the world. In his own words:
“I think when a person lives with the fear of consequences for his personal life, he can never do anything in terms of lifting the whole of humanity and solving many of the social problems that we confront” (Garrow 1986:75).
Meditating on the Image of the Cross
Biographer David Garrow explains that as King’s involvement in the civil rights struggle went on, “more and more King thought of his own life in terms of the cross. It was an image he invoked repeatedly over the years beginning as early as his 1960 imprisonment” (Garrow 1990:26). King identified with the “pain and agony” of Jesus on the cross and the inherent call within discipleship to take up one’s personal cross and follow Jesus (Mk. 8:34). King’s meditation upon the cross especially during times of trial, suffering, death threats, and imprisonment comforted and strengthened him. King called other Christians to do similarly, to not avoid suffering, but to enter into it in order to be redeemed to a “more excellent way which comes only through suffering” (:26):
“We are gravely mistaken to think that religion protects us from the pain and agony of moral existence. Life is not a euphoria of unalloyed comfort and untroubled ease . . . To be a Christian one must take up his cross, with its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content and carry it until that very cross leaves its mark upon us.”
6 Spiritual Practices of Martin Luther King Jr.
I’ve learned a lot from studying Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhythms of spirituality and mission. He developed an inner spirituality or life that guided his outward mission in the world. It is this inner spirituality that King taught his followers and adhered to himself. A few of the key principles of King’s spirituality were:
1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus
2. Seek justice and reconciliation, not victory
3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love
4. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all might be free
5. Seek to perform regular service for others and the world
6. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue, or heart (Thompson 1995:140).
Seemingly central to King’s rhythms was the ebb and flow of inward and outward movement. How can you stand for non-violence in the face of violence without the supernatural empowering from the God who is love (1 Jn. 4:16)? How can you seek justice and reconciliation in the world apart from knowing that you stand, as a believer, in the victory of the cross of Christ (1 Co. 15:57)? Why perform “regular service,” unnoticed by the world, apart from imitating the humility of Christ Himself (Phil. 2:3-11)?
King’s inward spiritual rhythms fueled his outward motion in the world.
King was a prophet, “a person who speaks, not of his or her time but to it, because the word of God is in his or her mouth” (Fukada 1988:18). May we, like King, and the prophetic people before him, speak to our time. May we be a part of the voice of change within our places of work, our cities, and our governments.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s life proves: words change the world.
His life inspires me to continue to write, speak, and act on behalf of the oppressed, the silenced, and the victimized. To stand up and be counted. And just as God used King’s voice to speak for the voiceless (The Holy Bible, Prov. 31:8-9), perhaps, in some small way, He will choose to do similarly with ours.
Visual Artist: Aaron Moore
Franklin, John Hope. 1990. We Shall Overcome: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Freedom Struggle. In "Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Afro-American Protest Tradition", edited by P. Albert and R. Hoffman. New York, NY: United States Capitol Historical Society.
Fukada, Robert. 1988. "The Legacy of Toyohito Kagawa". International Bulletin of Missionary Research 12 (1):18-22.
Garrow, David. 1990. We Shall Overcome: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Freedom Struggle. In "Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Spirit of Leadership", edited by P. Albert and R. Hoffman. New York, NY: United States Capitol Historical Society.
Garrow, David J. 1986. Bearing the Cross : Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 1st ed. New York: W. Morrow.
King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. 1986. A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Thompson, Marjorie. 1995. "Putting It All Together". In Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.