Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Life of David - Part 4: The Inner Life of a Political Leader


Preston Manning

This article is the fourth in a series by Preston Manning on leadership lessons from the life of the biblical David. A member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1993 to 2001, founder of two new political parties—the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance—and the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000, Preston works with the MI on the development and communication of faith-informed approaches to political leadership and public policy.

Revelations of the Heart

Besides being a political and military leader, David was also a writer of poetry, a musician, and a composer of songs. Many of his poems and songs, as any reader of the Psalms will know, were expressions of his innermost fears, anxieties, and joys. Some give direct insight into what he was thinking and feeling at the time of various political and military incidents in his life, enabling us to tell what was “on the heart” of this particular leader under those circumstances. Since at least some of his poems and songs apparently entered the public domain during his lifetime, they even enabled those he led (at least in his inner circle) to know what was “on the heart” of their leader.

In constantly giving verbal and written expression to his innermost thoughts – articulating them to God, himself, and even to others – David stands apart from most political leaders today. Contemporary politicians who write and publish serious poetry or music are extremely rare. In my recollection of my years in politics, two of the few who come to mind are the late Václav Havel,[1] former President of Czechoslovakia, and the late Dag Hammarskjold,[2] former Secretary General of the United Nations.

Hammarskjold, who was extremely active in a political role on the world stage, is credited with saying, "I would rather live my life as though there is a God and die to find out that there isn't, than to live my life as though there is no God and die to find out there is.” His diary, Markings, published posthumously in 1963, was described by the theologian Henry P. Van Dusen as "the noblest self-disclosure of spiritual struggle and triumph, perhaps the greatest testament of personal faith written ... in the heat of professional life and amidst the most exacting responsibilities for world peace and order."[3]

Most political leaders today, however, are extremely guarded even in their personal memoirs and autobiographies, rarely if ever sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings or specifically linking them to particular incidents in their careers. Certainly they are most guarded in giving expression to those thoughts and feelings during their politically active years for obvious reasons.

If political leaders are fearful in a particular situation, the last thing they want to do is to show those fears to their followers, the media, and their opponents. If contemporary leaders are wracked with uncertainty as to how to proceed in certain circumstances, they are highly unlikely to admit that uncertainty even to themselves, let alone to others. After all, isn’t a leader supposed to be courageous rather than fearful, confident rather than plagued with doubts?

Not so with David. Time and time again when he is on the run from King Saul he pours out his heart to God, acknowledging his fear and distress but also finding strength in his faith. One example is Psalm 18,[4] which, according to the ancient headnotes, “David sang to the Lord when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul”:

The cords of death entangled me,
The torrents of destruction overwhelmed me,
   The cords of the grave coiled around me;
The snares of death confronted me.
  In my distress I cried to my God for help…
He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
He drew me out of deep waters,
He rescued me from my powerful enemy
from my foes who were too strong for me.
   (Who) confronted me in the day of my disaster…
Therefore I will praise you among the nations, O Lord;
I will sing praises to your name.

What about us?

Have you and I cultivated the habit of pouring out our innermost thoughts and feelings to God in verbal or written prayer on a regular basis? Surely there are good reasons for doing so.

We are invited by God himself to do so as an integral part of the development of our spiritual life and relationship with him. David says, “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:8). Jesus invites his followers to come to him with all those fears and anxieties that can so heavily burden and oppress us, saying, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Likewise Paul in his letter to the Philippians says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). Peter also advises us, “Cast all your anxiety on [God] because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7).

Particularly relevant to political practitioners or anyone in a pressure-packed occupation is the fact that most of us very much need a safe and cathartic outlet for our emotions, especially our fears and anxieties. Otherwise we unhealthily suppress them or vent them at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and in the wrong place.

In my own case, I acquired from my father the habit of dealing with the constant personal attacks that characterize modern politics, and the fears and anxieties they are intended to generate, by deliberately and systematically ignoring and suppressing them. This is the “develop a thick skin” approach whereby you never let any attack “get to you” emotionally, and you consciously suppress and avoid any emotional response.  This can be quite an effective short-run coping strategy. But the danger with it is that you can become emotionally insensitive generally: insensitive to anything with emotional content or requiring an emotional response, even appeals and inputs from family and friends to whom you should be emotionally sensitive and responsive.

The other approach of course is to allow personal attacks to move you onto emotional ground and to respond in kind, in frustration and anger expressed physically and verbally and directed to your antagonists and their media allies. The danger in this approach, at least in the political arena, is that it is exactly how your opponents want you to react, their assumption (a valid one) being that if they can get you reacting emotionally rather than rationally, you will make serious mistakes in judgment. Some of the worst mistakes in political debates and campaigns are made when a candidate or a leader lashes out in anger and frustration at an opponent, saying words better left unsaid, doing things better left undone, and in the public’s view “going over the top.”

I myself have used the tactic in debate of leading (some would say goading) an opponent onto emotional ground and provoking an intemperate outburst. This then allows me the come-back: “If Mr. X here cannot govern his own tongue, if he cannot govern his own emotions, if he cannot govern his own temper, why should you (the voting public) trust him to govern you?”

While we do not know from the Scriptures the full extent to which David may have suppressed[5] his fears and anxieties or how often he unwisely “vented his spleen” publicly in response to the taunts of his enemies,[6] what we do know is that his primary approach throughout his life was to “take it to the Lord in prayer.” In the magnificent book of Psalms we have example after example of a man of God, from shepherd to political leader, bringing the whole range of his emotional life – his fears, his frustrations, his doubts, his joys, his hopes – to the God who listens, cares, and responds in his own way and time.

You and I, no matter what public or private events and pressures stimulate our emotional life and reactions, can do no better than to follow David’s example.

Prayers for Public and Political Concerns

This is not the place to attempt a thorough analysis of all the subject matter of David’s poems and songs. But those active in the political world might note the following:

First, note the relatively infrequent instances of David bringing what might be considered “public policy concerns” to God in prayer. For instance, there is no specific prayer by David for guidance on whether or not to expand trade with the Phoenicians, or whether to raise or decrease taxes, or what to do about the olive oil cartel, or how best to strengthen the unity of the nation.[7]

David’s overwhelming concern in his prayers is for his own safety (understandable, as his life was constantly threatened) and the protection of the nation from its enemies. You might therefore say that he certainly brought the issue of “national security” – the number-one concern of Israel’s political and military leaders – to the Lord. His prayers also reflect an awareness of God’s concern for social justice,[8] which likely increased and directed his own awareness of and concern for the needs of the poor and oppressed. Several of David’s prayers also acknowledge the dependence of Israel’s agricultural economy on God’s providential provision and care.[9]

Should the Christian in politics bring public policy concerns more explicitly to God in prayer? I would answer yes, but with a caution. Yes, because we are encouraged to bring all our concerns to him. And yes, because for his will to be “done on earth as it is in heaven” it is appropriate to seek his guidance in all spheres of human life, including those affected by public policy. It would appear, for example, that David was unwise in failing to confirm God’s will as to whether or not he should conduct a national census, a public policy decision which brought judgement and grief to himself and Israel.[10]

The caution, however, is the need for great discernment in interpreting, following, and communicating God’s will in such matters, given our tendency as believers to interpret our own will as God’s and the complete unwillingness of modern publics to accept that spiritual considerations should have any bearing at all on public policy.[11]

Second, as a Christian believer active in politics I cannot help but read the Psalms and find individual passages that speak significantly to my political interests and concerns. I take this as an indication that God is interested in, and has something to say about, all our earthly preoccupations, including the political.

For example, Psalm 2 asks the question, why is the political world so hostile to genuine faith in God? Psalm 8 provides an antidote to pride – the pride that has gone before the fall of many political leaders. Psalm 19 extols the virtue of the law – law being an occupational interest of any legislator. Psalm 22, where David expresses his feelings of abandonment, even abandonment by God himself, speaks to the loneliness of high office. Psalm 69 provides a caution against being carried away by religious zeal, something Christians in politics are susceptible to. Psalm 71 reflects the worries of an aging leader that his strength is failing and he may be “cast away.” Psalm 78 (by Asaph) provides a spiritual/political history of Israel and raises the question, where is the equivalent for our nation? Psalm 80 is a prayer for national spiritual revival, something our country has never really experienced. Psalm 104 speaks of God’s role and ours in environmental stewardship.

And of course, for Canadians, it was meditation by one of our Fathers of Confederation, Leonard Tilley, on Psalm 72:8, “He shall have dominion from sea to sea,” which gave our country the name of the Dominion of Canada. The words of Psalm 72:1 are inscribed over the south window of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, “Give the King thy judgement, O God, and thy righteousness unto the King’s son.”

My point is that that there is much in the Psalms of David to encourage and instruct participants in our political processes, no matter what our particular interests and concerns may be.

The Difficulties in Cultivating the Inner Life

Unlike David, most of the political people I know, including myself and other professing Christians in politics, do not devote nearly enough time and attention to cultivating the inner life and the spiritual resources required to sustain it, especially during our politically active years. Those in active political life today find that the spiritual is constantly crowded out by external and secular pressures and inputs, especially those originating with the media.

Upon rising in the morning, the first thing many of us do is review the clippings file or online media scans to see what attacks we are subject to and what issues or developments will be disturbing the public mind that day. This is considered an absolute necessity in order to be able to respond to the media and public inquiries that are bound to follow. And then the last thing many of us do at the end of the day is watch the evening news on television, receiving yet another dose of secular anxiety-creating input capable of generating fresh worries and concerns that can last long into the night.

One of the reasons why constantly absorbing input from the media is not conducive to the cultivation of inner resources and the spiritual life has to do with the contemporary definition of what constitutes “news.” For most mass media and much of the social media, negative is more newsworthy than positive, short-run is more newsworthy than long-run, acts of violence and hatred are more newsworthy than acts of love, tragedy and pathos are more newsworthy and more easily found than contentment and happiness, and controversy and conflict are far more newsworthy than agreement and cooperation.

Beginning and ending the day absorbing and reacting to these kinds of inputs is a far cry from David’s “meditating on the law of the Lord” day and night. And it is hard to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace – when constantly feeding on media-transmitted and amplified hatred, tragedy, and conflict.

Countermeasures for Cultivating the Inner Life

One of the things I regret is that I did not come upon Christian teaching on “the spiritual disciplines” until I was out of the political arena. I feel that a greater familiarity with these disciplines would have been of much help in maintaining my inner spiritual life and resources while in the arena.

While I realize that there is a vast literature on this subject, an introduction to it which has been very helpful to me and would be helpful to anyone active in politics, wanting to sustain their spiritual life under secular political pressures, is that provided by Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation.[12]

To counter the fishbowl dimension of public life – always being open and available to demanding people and constantly in the public eye – there is the discipline of Solitude: consciously separating oneself periodically from the madding crowd and creating space for God.

To avoid reducing the reading and study of the Scriptures to a mere intellectual enterprise akin to reading any other book, there is the discipline of Lectio Divina. The purpose is to encounter God through the Scriptures via regular preparation (Silencio), reading short select passages (Lectio), personally reflecting on the application of the passage to oneself (Meditatio), responding to God based on what one has read and encountered (Oratio), resting in the word one has received (Contemplatio), and finally, resolving to act and live out the word received in the place where God has planted us (Incarnatio).

To counter the pressures that would completely absorb us into the world, particularly the political world, there is Prayer itself as a spiritual discipline. This is prayer more like David’s Psalms; it is prayer beyond words, prayer that is akin to the inhaling and exhaling of breathing, prayer that goes beyond mere recitation and petitioning to truly deepen an intimate relationship with God.

To counter the all-to-easy temptation to neglect diet, exercise, and sleep in the hurly burly of the political world, there is the spiritual discipline of Honouring the Body as a gift from the Creator and temple of the Holy Spirit.

To counter the tendency in the secular political world toward unawareness of, and indifference to, the presence of God and the spiritual roots of the evils that plague our personal lives and societies, there is the spiritual discipline of regular and thorough Self Examination: the examen of consciousness which awakens us to the presence of God in our daily lives and the examen of conscience which confronts us with the evils of our own lives and societies and our need for forgiveness and cleansing.

To counter the hubris of the political world, which claims that decision-making guided solely by human wisdom is sufficient to cope with any and all personal and public problems, there is the discipline of Spiritual Discernment: learning how to seek and know the will of God and bringing it to bear wisely and graciously on the challenges that confront us.

To counter the fatigue and frustration of a political world that never pauses and never sleeps, there is the spiritual discipline of Sabbath Observance: establishing a disciplined balance between work and rest, not only periodic rest from work, but learning to periodically “turn off” the technological devices and media upon which we have become so dependent.

Finally, to counter the pressures to have our life completely defined and governed by the demands of the secular political world, there is the amalgam of all of the above into a Rule or Rhythm of Life which fulfills Jesus’ last great prayer for us his followers: that we might be “in the world,” as salt and light and as his ambassadors, but not “of the world.”

Did David practise anything comparable to these spiritual disciplines? Perhaps not in this systematic form. But certainly in his prayers and mediations there are abundant resources for the practice of such spiritual disciplines. It is significant that those who practise these disciplines find themselves drawn time and time again to the poems and songs of one man: David, the servant of God, whose assiduous cultivation of his inner spiritual life enabled him to survive and prosper at the dangerous and pressure-packed interface of faith and politics.


  1. See for example Václav Havel’s Summer Meditations (written while he was President of Czechoslovakia).
  2. Dag Hammarskjold, Markings (1963).
  3. Henry P. Van Dusen, Dag Hammarskjold: A Biographical Interpretation of Markings (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), 5.
  4. Additional references to David pouring out his heart concerning fears and sufferings caused by his enemies, are found in Psalms 2-4, 7,13, 16-17, 35, 52, 54, 57, 59, 63, and 142. Note that the attacks and sufferings that most often prompted these outpourings were sufferings that came about not so much by attacks from his external enemies such as the Philistines (see Psalms 34 and 56) but by attacks by his own countrymen (the house of Saul) and his own household (Absalom, see Psalms 2-4, and 63)..
  5. See Psalm 32:3-5 where David acknowledges such suppression and its disastrous impact upon him.
  6. Many of the so-called “imprecatory” or cursing Psalms indicate the language he might have used. See, for example, Psalms 35, 58, 109, 140.
  7. The united kingdom of Israel would later come apart at the seams under the onerous and discriminatory taxation policies of David’s son Solomon and the misguided policies of David’s grandson Rehoboam.
  8. See Psalm 68:4-6 and Psalm 72:1-4, 12-14.
  9. See, for example Psalm 65: 9-13.
  10. See II Samuel 24:1-17.
  11. I will have more to say on this subject in a future study entitled “Faith and Politics: Lessons in Leadership from the Life of Daniel.”
  12. Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (IVP Books, 2006).

Source: Marketplace Institute

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