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(Gordon MacDonald, Highland Books, 1984)

A Review by Theo Todman

November 1987

The author's aim in writing this book is to address our internal or spiritual organisation. He claims that it is possible for Christians to appear successful externally but to be on the verge of failing apart internally, due to the disorganisation of what he calls their "private worlds". He points out that sin thrives in a state of disorder where wrong motives and values may be hidden away. He adds that any treatment must be founded entirely on the indwelling Christ, but states that much preaching on these matters leaves people moved emotionally but with no specific direction. He divides the private world into five areas:-

Before analysing these areas in detail, what does the author mean by "public" and "private" worlds? He is not drawing a distinction between our "Christian" and our "secular" lives, but rather between that which is external to ourselves (our public world, that is what we do and have, whether explicitly Christian or not - our work, play, possessions, acquaintances, academic achievements, physical qualities) and that which is internal (our private world, that is, what we are - our choices and values, solitude and reflection). His approach to Christian living is a correct unitary one, but his aim is to base the external on a solid internal foundation, without which it may collapse.

To illustrate this principle that we should order our inner world so that it influences the outer, rather than let ourselves be shaped by the outer sphere, Gordon MacDonald quotes these two passages of Scripture, amongst others:-

Watch over your heart with all diligence, for out of it flow the springs of life (Proverbs 4:23)

Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds (Romans 12:2)

He holds that the development and maintenance of a strong inner world should be the single most important function of our existence. We now turn to his five categories.


Men are either driven or called. He claims that the driven man is propelled towards goals without always understanding why, though these undisclosed motivating factors may include such as an unappreciative childhood home background, an early experience of deprivation or shame, or simply inherited parental attitudes. His description of the driven man is graphic - sounding like a Wall Street arbitrageur - and includes symptoms such as gratification only by accomplishment, a limited regard for integrity, a greater concern for projects than for people, extreme competitiveness, a proneness to volcanic anger and abnormal busyness. Some of us will see much of this where we work, and it is contagious! Such are caught in a golden cage of success which they need to maintain and expand with all their time and energy. An example given of a driven man is Saul (the king, though the other would do) - a man of external quality without a solid inner world.

By contrast, the called person knows that his job may be sacrificed to another - he is the steward, not the owner, of whatever he does or possesses, and does not confuse his identity with his role. His clear sense of purpose is built on a commitment rather than on needs and drives. Hence he knows inner peace and joy. To become a called person one must submit to God's ways, methods and criteria for success. The example given of a called person is John the Baptist.

Use of Time

Unless we command the time God has given us, the fruit of our talents will not get outside our dreams. What are the symptoms of disorganisation? A general untidiness of desk, home or car; the fear that people are not receiving value for money from our labour; forgotten appointments, missed deadlines, broken commitments, lame excuses; energies invested in unproductive tasks; small and boring things done simply to get something accomplished; decision avoidance and a creeping lack of will to work steadily and excellently. The Lord is put before us as the best example of a man who used his time to the full, and the reasons given are that He clearly understood his mission (in all its fullness), that he understood his own limits (taking time out for prayer and solitude when necessary), and that he trained others to share his ministry where this was possible.

Where does lost time go? Gordon MacDonald identifies four areas. Firstly, unseized time flows towards our weaknesses. We spend most time on the things we are bad at because we can most easily let our strengths take care of themselves. Instead, we should recognise our mission and concentrate on our strengths, finding creative ways of sharing tasks for which we have no talent with those who do. Secondly, unseized time comes under the influence of dominant people - if I haven't a clear plan for my time, someone else will provide one. Thirdly, unplanned time surrenders to any apparent emergency rather than checking that an interruption really is urgent. Finally, undirected time gets invested in things that gain the greatest public acclaim.

How may lost time be recovered? Firstly by recognising your daily/weekly/etc. times of greatest effectiveness and using them (as far as you can) for the most important things. Secondly, use good criteria for deciding how to use time. Consider your mission and don't be afraid to say "no". Thirdly, budget time in advance, especially for essentials such as spiritual and mental disciplines, Sabbath rest, family and special friendships and the main work to which you are committed. Things like these, which are the last to complain when pushed out, should be entered in the diary well in advance and strictly adhered to.

Wisdom and Knowledge

Endurance as well as talent is required to finish the race. The ordering of our private world requires mental endurance and intellectual growth. There is a difference between knowing a little about a lot and being able to think deeply and insightfully about what we know, and this requires work - the mind needs to be trained to analyse and innovate. The mind has become undervalued as unspiritual in some Christian circles, but we are "to love God ... with all our mind" and "have the mind of Christ". Christians need to be amongst the strongest, broadest and most creative thinkers of our generation and to understand the direction that history is taking so that we can ask relevant questions of our society and form independent judgements. Within the church, we must not mistake the gathering of facts, doctrinal systems and lists of rules for thinking but must be prepared for open-ended questions without neatly packaged answers. Gordon MacDonald suggests three general reasons for developing the intellectual dimensions of our private world - to discipline the mind to think Christianly, to observe and appreciate God's messages written in creation and to be able to pursue ideas, information and insights for serving those in our public world. Intellectual development should never be a means merely to personal advancement.

How does the author suggest we improve our minds? He suggests that there is a difference between merely learning enough to pass exams and being an aggressive thinker who loves learning. This learning may be pursued in three ways. Firstly, by learning to listen by asking questions (in the area of personal relations as well as academic study), by visiting people in their places of work, by listening to mentors and to critics (finding the kernel of truth). Secondly, by reading actively and making notes - for at least an hour a day! Finally, by disciplined study. Here, he distinguishes between defensive study (required for a specific need) and offensive study which attempts to gather large clusters of information and insights out of which future work may grow. He thinks that it is the latter study that leads to growth and that one's study should not be considered a second class use of time by one's spouse but as necessary work requiring discipline and determination. Hence, wives should not interrupt their husbands while they are studying and husbands should recognise that their wives need study time too!

Spiritual Strength

The cultivation of the spirit is a disciplined relationship with God, not a quick experience or a round of feverish activity. For our inner spiritual centre (he prefers the term "spirit" to "soul") Gordon MacDonald uses the analogy of a garden - a quiet place that needs cultivation. Moreover, we need to decide to start that cultivation. What are the consequences of neglect. The author lists six losses :-

The gains are the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace etc. Though it can be overdone, a regular withdrawal from routines and relationships is a requirement for spiritual strength, as pointed out by the Christian mystics, but this is not to be confused with a meagre "quiet time" with its study guides and prayer lists. He gives four spiritual exercises that are easily neglected :-

Of silence he says that modern society surrounds us with noise and crowds out God, while solitude seems alike unnatural for us, but continuous crowding makes reflection impossible. Listening to God may be through the medium of the Scriptures, preaching or "the proddings of God's indwelling Holy Spirit". The author is a practised journal keeper and thinks that the unselfconscious writing down of our thoughts presses order into our private worlds by refusing to allow fears and struggles to remain inside without definition. Reflection is the internalising of what we hear and understand while meditation is like tuning the spirit to heavenly frequencies: the imagination working upon the Bible or the Christian classics.

More space is devoted to prayer as worship and intercession. This is a battleground which few Christians have under control. He gives three reasons for this. Firstly, worship and intercession seem unnatural acts now that sin has robbed us of our original desire to have communion with God. We must overcome the propaganda of our culture and be convinced that prayer is a highly significant activity which reaches beyond space and time to the God who is actually there. Secondly, worship and intercession are tacit admissions of weakness - but there is something deep within us that vigorously denies our dependence. This may explain why many men do not like praying with their wives because they don't then feel comfortable enough to pray authentically. Finally, prayer often seems unrelated to actual results. Gordon MacDonald believes that God does answer prayer, but not always in the forms or according to the schedules that we like. However, he suggests that prayer has more to do with aligning ourselves with God's purposes than with asking him to align himself with ours.

As for the form of prayer, he considers such things as time and position unimportant - just do what is appropriate for you. Prayer should start with adoration, as we remind ourselves that the universe is not closed and of how great God is, and continue with confession as we consider what we are by comparison with God. Seeing - and being repelled by - our sin is a sign of Christian growth. Intercession should only commence after we have fully worshipped and should be governed by a prayer list to provide structure. He also considers praying round the globe by geographical region, on a weekly basis, a good way of interceding for world evangelism.


A sabbath rest is a cessation from our preoccupations that prevents them getting out of hand and puts them in their true perspective. Rest is distinct from leisure, which may be pursued as exhaustingly as work. It is not a luxury but a necessity ordained by God at creation - it allows us to look back at what we have done, as God did, and see whether it was good. It also allows us to ask such questions as "what does my work mean?" "for whom did I do it?" "how well was it done?" "why did I do it?" "what results did I expect and achieve?", i.e. it allows us to interpret and supply meaning to our work as well as to dedicate it. Sabbath rest also gives us the opportunity to reflect on eternal truths, the values by which we should make all our decisions, and allows us time to reaffirm our commitment to Christ and in the things we believe. Finally, rest allows us to look forwards - to define our objectives so that we do not lay ourselves open to mistakes of judgement and direction.

To accomplish all this, we must avoid making Sunday, if that is our "day of rest", into a busier day than the rest of the week, crowded out with meetings. It should be a regular allocation enjoyed before our work is done not reserved until after, which may never be the case! It may, of course be viewed in both senses.


I found this book full of good ideas worth putting into practise and of many telling comments that applied to me directly. The actual writing style is, of course, much less condensed than in the review - the book is packed with appropriate illustrations from the author's own life and from Christian biography. The approach is, I believe, Biblical, though he doesn't proceed from an exegesis of Biblical texts. The Scriptures are quoted or alluded to fairly frequently but mainly as supporting material. I don't consider this a drawback, however. The explicit "Scriptural" approach (unless copiously backed by practical application) may well be the "inspiring but inapplicable" message that he refers to in his introduction. How about the readership? The author writes from his experience as a successful American pastor with plenty on his plate, and really the book is written from the point of view of someone with the luxury of having too many talents and opportunities to be able to fully utilise them all in one lifetime. If you don't consider yourself to fall within this category, don't think the book has nothing to say to you. Every Christian has talents to be used, relationships to develop and maintain and opportunities for service all of which need to be governed in the light of his relationship with his Lord. If you are a Christian with any of the problems outlined in this review, this book will help you plan a way out, if you have the will to be changed.

© Theo Todman November 1987.

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