Inward Light and Outward Light

When people get together for a business meeting in a non-Quaker setting, they analyze each problem, share the best solutions they can think of, discuss the implications of each alternative, and choose the one they consider most likely to succeed. In a healthy meeting, there is a lot of give and take—what one person says can spark an idea in another. People will speak often, sometimes interrupting each other, as they come to better understand the problem and various alternative solutions to it. Inevitably, there are personalities involved. Some people don’t like some others. There are personal agendas and politics to consider. People may become so attached to their own ideas that it is difficult for them to really consider other approaches. But, the clock is running—the problem won’t just go away by itself, so people find a way to work together. Eventually, enough people are persuaded to accept one particular solution and it is adopted.

Many of us have been in such meetings as part of our jobs and often the solutions that come out of that process are exciting, original, and productive. So, why don’t we use the same techniques in our Friends meetings for business? We are the same people on Sunday afternoon as we were in a conference room on Thursday morning. But, thinking through a problem and waiting for God’s guidance on it are as different as seeing and hearing. We use our minds in both cases, but different parts are called into play.

The Light to Early Friends

When early Friends spoke of the Inward Light, they were referring to the Light near the beginning of the gospel of John (1:9): "The true Light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." Although for them, this Light was identified with Christ, it conveyed much the same meaning that the expression "that of God in every one" has for many contemporary Friends. The Light is something of God, not something that belongs to the individual. It enlightens all people—allowing them, in a spiritual sense, to see clearly. And because it is "of God" and not God, the Inward Light is just those few beams of an infinitely larger "Outward Light" that happens to strike their hearts and illuminate their consciences. Everyone shares in that same Outward Light, but it is incomplete within any particular person.

Unlike natural light, which shines passively, the Inward Light works actively on each person. Early Friends understood that for anyone who is not spiritually blind (i.e., closed his or her inward, spiritual eyes or looked away from the Light to darkness), the Light has three distinct actions:

First, by enlightening the conscience, it makes one’s own sins visible. "Conviction" was the term used to describe the moment when a person sees those flaws and shortcomings and realizes that he or she has acted in ways contrary to the will of God. Like a judge and jury for the soul, the Light convicts people of having done wrong.

But becoming aware that you have fallen short is only the first step. We all know how easy it is to avoid acknowledging our own faults. In its second action, the Light works on each person, urging one to repent—to stop doing anything sinful and to accept one’s need for God’s forgiveness. This is "convincement," the point at which the Light convinces the individual of the need to change.

But, admitting that one is lost doesn’t show the way home. In its third action, the Light is a spiritual guide. It directs each person to "conversion." This is more than just stopping old behaviors and asking for forgiveness. Individuals are converted or spiritually transformed—they change the way they live their lives, actively seeking to know and do what God desires. In words that George Fox borrowed from the apostle Paul, they are "turned from darkness to Light and from the power of Satan to God."

The Light in Meeting for Business

Besides working within each individually, early Friends believed that the Light acted on them collectively during meeting for business. Perhaps it is easiest to see this in the last sense given above. The Light is available as a guide for each person in the meeting. When a piece of business is considered, if everyone looks to the same Light to see what God desires, they are inevitably all drawn towards the same solution. Unity is achieved when everyone present is spiritually pointed in the same direction, following the same guide. Achieving unity requires patience and careful listening—both to that still, small voice of God within, and to each other. Speaking more than once to a topic becomes unnecessary. If each person waits to hear that voice and shares only what the Light leads him or her to say, then speaking only once is natural. And, since the Light within any one person is a unique portion of the total Outward Light, it is important that each be willing to share with the meeting what he or she has been given.

The work of the Light as a guide is only part of what it can do for the participants in a meeting for business. Despite our best efforts, we still bring our personalities; our likes and dislikes; our beliefs, attitudes, and ambitions to the meeting. These characteristics can, if we let them, dominate us and keep us from finding unity. But, when we are in the Light, our shortcomings become visible. If we do not turn away, the Light can convict us of playing politics or trying to advance our own agendas. When that happens, the Light can convince us (if we let it) to repent of that gamesmanship and to convert our energies to listening and waiting for God’s guidance.

Sometimes, this happens in remarkable ways, leading the meeting to solutions that would never have been found through logic, analysis, argument, or compromise. When all turn to the Light, the solution to a seemingly intractable problem may suddenly seem obvious—not because we have been persuaded by thoughtful reasoning, but because that it is what God is calling us to do.

If we are outside and the sun is shining, it is not remarkable that we all point in the same direction when asked where the light comes from. If we are in meeting for business, with our spiritual eyes open, why should we think it remarkable that we all see the same Light?

Paul Buckley

Paul Buckley is a Quaker historian and theologian living in Richmond, Indiana, where he attends Clear Creek Meeting.