The Day I Hit the Wall

From Leadership Journal
By Gordon MacDonald

Marathon runners speak of “hitting the wall,” a moment in a race when the body appears to have exhausted all of its energy and pleads to quit.

I borrow this phrase when I recall a life-altering experience I had one Saturday morning in my fourth year as a pastor. For me, hitting the wall meant facing the reality that I was spiritually drained, physically spent, emotionally broken.

The day began with a 5:30 a.m. decision to skip breakfast at home and head right to work at the church. “I have so much to do at the office,” I said to my wife, Gail. “I have to preach twice tomorrow, and I have no idea what I’m going to preach about. I have to finish writing an article that’s past its deadline. And,” I added, “there are two program leaders who are unhappy about something and want to talk with me this afternoon.”

Apparently, Gail had been hearing this so-much-to-do thing from me too many times

“Do you realize how long it’s been since you’ve spent any meaningful time with the children?” she asked. She could have added—but graciously didn’t—that in the past few weeks she’d not seen much of me either.

Her question was a fair one, and even though I wanted to defend myself, I knew she was right. My busyness left nothing of me for those I claimed I loved the most.

I should also mention that during the previous week, I’d presided at two funerals of homeless men. The meaninglessness of their lives and deaths had profoundly saddened me. Add to this that someone had sent me a book that posed certain theological questions I wasn’t smart enough to rebut. My sense of certainty had been rocked … by death and by intellectual intimidation.

Sleep-deprived, my self-confidence threatened, in over my head when it came to living up to my commitments and promises, trying to pretend to everyone (including my family) that I was just fine: this was my state of heart and mind when Gail asked her simple question that morning.

“Gordon, do you realize how long it’s been since you’ve spent any meaningful time with the children?” Having nothing to say in response, I hit the wall.

Meaning that I burst into tears … tears of total frustration. I went to the living room where I collapsed on the floor and sobbed uncontrollably.

Gail wisely sent our children to a neighbor’s home and then joined me in the living room and held me in her arms as I bawled my way through the next four hours. She was perceptive enough to know that I did not need someone to fix me. She simply remained present throughout that cathartic morning and continuously reminded me of her love … and God’s.

Today, almost fifty years later, I still recall that morning in vivid detail. It became, strangely, one of the most sacred experiences in my life. It changed me!

What was happening? I kept asking that morning. Was I cracking up? Was this what they called a breakdown? Why had no one ever warned me (at least in ways that I could understand) that there might come a wall-hitting moment like this?

Wherever had I gotten the idea that these sorts of things never happened to Christian leaders?

Since then I have often told this story to men and women in leadership positions, and I have been careful (because I possess all the ego traits of men who do not like to bring attention to their tears) to tell them that this deeply jolting morning had never happened before nor has it happened quite like that since. But it surely happened that day, and I had no choice but to suspend the day’s schedule and seek out what this experience meant.

That morning I was forced, for the first time, to face the fact that I could not go on doing ministry the way I was doing it if I expected to be a healthy man over the forty-plus possible years I had ahead of me.

Natural Born Pastor

Since childhood, I had always wanted to be a pastor. My father had been one, and I wanted to do what he did: preach the Bible, solve problems, point people to Jesus. The love of pastoral life was in my blood.

My father taught me almost everything there was to know about how to lead a church. Words came easily to me from the earliest days. I had no problem with social skills. I learned how to engage with people, think quickly on my feet, identify issues and problems from the largest possible perspective. By nature I was an idea man, a visionary of sorts, and I possessed an ability to persuade people to dream along with me.

Later, I would come to call all these things talents or natural gifts. They come in the course of life to some people through genetic inheritance, temperament, life experiences, and the influence of mentors and friends. To a considerable extent, this is what helped me get a fast start in public ministry.

But let me tell you what I did not possess as I entered adulthood and moved closer to becoming a pastor. I didn’t have an instinct to explore my inner universe and invite God’s presence as the writer of Psalm 139 did when he wrote, “Search me, O God, and know me.” I didn’t have an ability to quietly submit to the whispers of the Holy Spirit as Mary, the mother of our Lord, did. I didn’t have a passion to absorb the various character lessons of Jesus and make them my own as Paul did. And I didn’t have a humble spirit that put other people first as Barnabas did.

Some of this simply cannot be learned until one has (shall we say) been beaten up a bit by the realities of life and leadership. I had my time coming.

Upon seminary graduation, a congregation of several hundred people in the Midwest called me to be their pastor. I was barely 27 when Gail and I moved into the home they provided us. In the first couple of years almost everything seemed to go right. Well, not everything. But it seemed like that.

There were other practical explanations for my early success. For example, Gail was a remarkably mature and insightful partner who invested every bit of her strength (spiritual and otherwise) into my pastoral leadership and, in so doing, saved me from countless errors of judgment.

Then, too, my pastoral predecessor had made some serious leadership mistakes, which meant that almost everything I did, by contrast, was viewed with favor and affection by the congregation.

I intend no arrogance or conceit when I say that, if ministry was all about talent, exciting organizational vision, and loyal support from those who love you, I was on my way. Natural gifts. We all have them, I suppose, and they can carry would-be leaders for a considerable distance. They certainly carried me. But only so far.

One who leads purely out of natural giftedness can often appear to possess spiritual depth. Like the wheat and the tares in Jesus’ story, it can be difficult to tell natural giftedness and spiritual maturity apart. Until it’s too late.

So there I was on that landmark Saturday morning: in our living room, on the floor, empty. A young man who was rich, perhaps, in talent and charisma but impoverished when it came to an inner life of wisdom, spiritual power, and Christlike depth.

It was nearly noon before I exhausted myself of my tears. Leaving me alone, Gail suggested that I spend the afternoon trying to decode the meaning in what had happened. 

What did this Ambush mean?

And so the questions began. What did this ambush of tears mean? Was this a judgment of sorts on the pace and direction of my life and work? Was God trying to shatter my conceit? Was this an indicator, an instruction, a preview of unpleasant consequences yet to come? Was God forcing me to face unknown weaknesses, questionable motivations, spiritual shallowness?

Somewhere in this reflective process I heard a “voice” that spoke only a dozen or so words.

Now, I’m not one to talk about hearing voices. But if I ever heard a voice from heaven it was that day. The words? I’ve never—ever!—forgotten them: “Now you know what it’s like to live out of an empty soul.”

An empty soul! Was that what this was all about?

You might think it strange if I confess that the day I hit the wall was the first time I seriously considered the state and spaciousness of my soul and concluded that I could never again neglect it. Some other things were going to have to drop out of my busy life in order to make room for soul-work.

By the end of that day, I felt as if I’d gone through something similar to an old-time conversion experience. What the voice had said made me determine that I would deliberately reorder my world, and that I would do my best to move from a life and work based on natural giftedness to one built on spiritual activity and intentionality. I would freshen and deepen my commitment to walk in accord with the spirit of Jesus. Or to say it another way, I determined to order my private, interior world so that God was welcomed to establish a greater presence in me.

Full disclosure. This was the day that led to my writing a book called Ordering Your Private World. It would take a few years to fully develop what the book would say, and once I had the mind to do it, the book fairly wrote itself.

If there was a first practical step in that pledge to re-order my private world, it was the decision to acquire a simple, spiral-bound notebook that I came to call my journal. I’d read about journal-keeping from time to time, how many of the great saints had done this and had passed on to later generations the stories of their inner and outer lives.

Later that day I made my first entry into my new journal. I described my efforts to be self-sufficient. I wrote about Gail’s confronting question. And I mentioned the resulting ambush of tears. I said something about what it felt like to face my empty soul. And I made some sincere promises (one tends to do this in moments like those) that I would reorganize my work and take spiritual stock of where I was and where I was going. Finally, I declared to the journal, I was going to bring my life under control, into order. I was, for sure, never going to go through a wall-hitting day like this one again.

In the days that followed, I discovered that putting my thoughts on paper caused me to maintain a lively and meaningful dialogue with myself. Feelings, questions, conclusions, and mysteries were put into words. Events and their larger meanings were recorded for later recollection and assessment. Prayers and meditations from the Scriptures and the spiritual classics were copied so that they were not lost or forgotten. Months, even years later, I would look back through these journals and see the spiritual progress I’d made.

Today I look back on that Saturday as one of the most important days in my life. It was the day when I saw all too clearly where I was headed if something deep within me did not change.

Truthfully, I’ve hit a few other walls in the 47 years since and hit them hard. Each wall has represented a different kind of experience: failure, illness, conflict, disillusionment, the fruit of bad decisions. And each time God has had a fresh message, a new direction for me. He has been utterly faithful and gracious in doing that.

Over time I have comprised a bulleted list of the insights that resulted from that December day so many years ago. I include them not because I have mastered them, but because they represent the direction in which I like to walk each day.

My allocation of time and energy must begin by inserting Sabbath pauses into my calendar before work begins … not after work ends. Because ministry work never ends.

  • I have come to appreciate the importance of searching events and personal encounters for the embedded messages of wisdom and discernment that God offers.
  • I have tried to be sensitive to the various ways God makes his presence felt: in creation’s beauty and art, in suffering, in study, in various forms of private and corporate worship, in the wonderful stories of Jesus.
  • I have gathered a small cadre of personal friends who know my heart (and I, theirs) and who are not reluctant to either encourage me or rebuke me when necessary.
  • I have pursued the discipline of intercessory prayer for my family and friends, for the church in the world, for global leaders, for those who suffer.
  • I have treasured the insights that come from the biographies of great men and women of God who have lived through the centuries.
  • I have come to love the Bible, to draw from its pages the thoughts and purposes of God.
  • I have understood the importance of readily repenting when I am wrong and quickly forgiving when others have hurt me.
  • I have made it a priority to move toward those who are weak and vulnerable with words of hope … as Jesus did.
  • I have sought to discipline my lifestyle: to keep free of clutter, to downsize, to keep simple, to accept the obscurity that comes with the aging life.
  • I have heard the call of God in my older years to be a spiritual father to any younger people who want to welcome me into their experience.
  • I have determined to daily return to the cross and reaffirm my conversion and call to follow Jesus.

At another time in my life when I came face to face with a wall, a friend visited Gail and me. He said, “Gordon, Gail, I know the pain must be terrible. But I have a challenge for you to consider. You can resist the pain, run from it, blame it on someone else. OR, you can embrace the pain and listen to what God says into your lives that you could never have heard under any other circumstances.”

Later that day Gail and I knelt and told Jesus that we would embrace the pain in that wall-hitting moment as long as we could be sure that he was present to us.

And he was. Just as he always has been.

Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal.