Book: Ordering Your Private World

Ordering Your Private World by Gordon Macdonald

I grew up thinking that I could achieve anything I set my mind to. When I was a kid, I wanted to be good at soccer, so I practiced everyday and made the high school varsity team. In college, I wanted to learn about the stock market, so I applied to the business program and got accepted. After college, I wanted to become a programmer, so I learned how to code and pivoted my career. When I had to leave the US, I did not want to go back to Korea so I found a way to stay in Canada.

That isn’t to say that everything was smooth sailing. I spent a lot of time on the bench in varsity soccer. I struggled to get internships in college. Many times, I found myself pulling my hair out while trying to debug a simple error. Moving to Montreal during COVID was challenging to say the least. Yet, these were things that could have improved had I put in more thought and effort - or so I told myself. Everything seemed possible and within my control.

Then, in late 2022, something happened that struck me with such great force that it completely shattered my confidence that everything was under control. I realized that for 28 years, I had been living under an illusion, and suddenly, I had to confront the reality of being powerless. The more I tried to hold on, the more painful it became.

I asked my Church’s elder for help who told me to read the Bible and pray. Around the same time, I started running, which gave me space to shut myself off from the outside noise and listen to my inner voice. Praying, reading the Bible and meditating while running helped me to start the process of reevaluating what I once thought were sound beliefs and searching for what matters to me.

The search has been ongoing ever since, but at times, I have felt lost. I couldn’t tell if my goals were my own or something that I assumed to satisfy the expectation of others. I’ve become a software engineer with the hopes of starting my own company one day, but do I really want to go down the entrepreneurial route? I decided not to go back to Korea, but do I really want to stay away from home? It’s been a constant struggle to find the right balance between family and career - the two things that I consider important in my life.

When I shared my story at church, a friend recommended this book to me. I enjoyed the read because it felt like the author had gone through a similar struggle. I could relate to his stories and was encouraged to learn how he overcame his sinkhole moment. It was a relief to know that many people go through this phase of self-discovery. Having read the book, I feel like I am now better equipped to navigate, and furthermore, cultivate my private world.


Preface: The Day I Hit the Wall

I determined, and I would do my best to jump the track from a life and work based on natural giftedness to one built on discipline and intentionality. Or to put it in terms in keeping with the title of this book, I determined to order my private world.

Today I look back on that Saturday in the thirtieth year of my life—the day I hit the wall—as one of the most important days of my life journey. That was the day the warning sirens sounded, the day I saw all too clearly where I was headed if something did not change in my private world. It was the day I started the search for inner (and a resulting outer) orderliness. A process that continues until this day.

1. The Sinkhole Syndrome

But there is this private world in every one of us, a world that may be as infinite in size as we perceive our public worlds to be. But often the private world—like the depths of the ocean—remains unexplored, full of surprises, ambushes, emotions, and dreams.

Wayne Muller wrote: The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others. To be unavailable to our friends and family, to be unable to find time for the sunset (or even to know that the sun has set at all), to whiz through our obligations without time for a single mindful breath, this has become the model of a successful life.

I want first of all… to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can.

2. A View from the Bridge

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, / for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4: 23).

In the New Testament, Paul made the same sort of observation when he challenged Christ-followers to “not be conformed to this [outer] world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12: 2). He’s talking heart here. I’ve always preferred J. B. Phillip’s version of this verse: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.” The great apostle set forth an ageless truth when he wrote this. He was directing his readers to make a right choice. Are we going to order our inner worlds, our hearts, so that they will radiate influence into the outer world? Or will we neglect our private worlds and, thus, permit the outer influences to shape us? This is a choice we must make every day of our lives.

“It is easy in the world,” he wrote, “to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

3. Caught in a Golden Cage

DRIVEN PERSON IS GRATIFIED (AND GRATIFIED TEMPORARILY) ONLY BY ACCOMPLISHMENT. “Look at everything I’m doing. I must be special. Don’t you get it? I’m special!” Somewhere in the process of maturation a driven person concludes that the only way he can feel good about himself and his world is to create a formidable list of achievements.

Because driven people rarely think they have accomplished enough, they seize every available minute to attend more meetings, to study more material, to initiate more projects. They operate on the precept that a reputation for busyness is a sign of success and personal importance.

I was still blind, however, to the problems that were within me. My success, my salary, my career—all moved upward. I was caught in a golden cage. Although many wonderful things were happening outside me, inside I was losing everything.

4. The Tragic Tale of a Successful Loser

The fact may be that they are pushed toward the hope of gaining the acceptance and approval of just one significant person in their past. And if they cannot gain that, then they develop an insatiable appetite for applause, wealth, or power from other sources, attempting to compensate for the loss. Rarely, however, is satisfaction reached. This is because their pursuit is in the public world; the private world is left empty and wanting. And that is where the real ache lies.

Can the driven person be changed? Most certainly. It begins when such a person faces up to the fact that he or she is operating according to drives and not calls. That discovery is usually made in the blinding, searching light of an encounter with Christ. As the twelve disciples discovered, an audience with Jesus over a period of time exposes all the roots and expressions of drivenness.

5. Living as a Called Person

John’s view of stewardship presents us with an important contemporary principle. For his crowds may be our careers, our assets, our natural and spiritual gifts, our health. So—and think before answering!—are these things owned, or merely managed in the name of the One who gave them? Driven people consider them owned; called people do not. When driven people lose those things, it is a major crisis. When called people lose them, nothing of substance changes. The private world remains the same, perhaps even stronger.

Have Saul, John, and my friend the “successful loser” taught us anything? I think their message is plain. Look inside, they say. What makes you tick? Why are you doing all of that? What do you hope to gain as a result? And what would be your reaction if it were all taken away? I look inside my private world and discover that almost every day I have to wrestle with whether I will be a Saul or a John.

6. Has Anyone Seen My Time? I’ve Misplaced It!

If I am disorganized, I tend to invest my energies in unproductive tasks. I find myself doing small and boring things just to get something accomplished. There is a tendency toward daydreaming, avoidance of decisions that have to be made, and procrastination. Disorganization begins to affect every part of my will to work steadily and excellently.

7. Recapturing My Time

A famous “spiritual law” states that “God loves you and has a plan for your life.” Men and women who do not have control of their time discover that the same can be said about dominating people. Because they have not set up their own time budgets, people succumbing to this law find that others enter their worlds and press agendas and priorities on them.

Remember a long life of steady, consistent, holy labor will produce twice as much fruit as one shortened and destroyed by spasmodic and extravagant exertions; be careful and sparing of your strength when and where exertion is unnecessary.

“Your challenge,” he told me, “will not be in separating out the good from the bad, but in grabbing the best out of all the possible good.” He was absolutely correct. I did indeed have to learn, sometimes the hard way, that I had to say no to things I really wanted to do in order to say yes to the very best things. Heeding that counsel often meant saying no to dinner parties and sporting events on Saturday night so I could be fresh mentally and physically on Sunday morning.

One needs to ask, what are my non-negotiables? I have discovered that most of us who complain that we are disorganized simply do not know the answer to this question. As a result, the important functions that will make the supreme difference in our effectiveness miss getting into the calendar until it is too late. The consequence? Disorganization and frustration; the nonessentials crowd into the date book before the necessities do. And that is painful over the long run.

8. The Better Man Lost

In our pressurized society, people who are out of shape mentally usually fall victim to ideas and systems that are destructive to the human spirit and to human relationships. They are victimized because they have not taught themselves how to think, nor have they set themselves to the lifelong pursuit of the growth of the mind. Not having the facility of a strong mind, they grow dependent on the thoughts and opinions of others. Rather than deal with ideas and issues, they reduce themselves to lives full of rules, regulations, and programs.

The person who does not know how to think will be relentlessly shaped and influenced by the dominant culture around him or her. But the transformed person (presumably transformed by the Spirit of Christ) will be busy thinking, reflecting, and making independent conclusions about the meaning of life and reality.

I didn’t want to be a better man in the first turn and a loser at the finish line because I had talent but no endurance.

9. The Sadness of a Book Never Read

My father was a strong and dominating thinker. It was as if he did the family’s thinking for us. To express a thought contrary to his when I was a boy was no simple matter, and I often lost the courage to do so. My problem! So when I “graduated” from my family of origin, I had some catching up to do in the area of original thinking. And I often wonder if I have ever caught up.

But if a person is not a listener, he denies his mind a major source of information by which to grow. Perhaps the first step in becoming a listener is to learn to ask questions. I have rarely met a person or been in a situation where there was not something valuable worth learning. On many occasions, I have had to generate listening by first asking questions. That has meant learning how to be a good question asker.

There is something to learn from all people if we are only willing to sit at their feet and humble ourselves enough to ask the right questions.

We grow when we pursue the discipline of offensive study. This is done through reading, taking occasional courses that stretch our minds, taking on challenges that force us to learn new things, and exploring various disciplines for the sheer joy of learning more about God’s world.

13. Seeing Through Heaven’s Eyes

The answer may lie in the fact that men have been taught in our culture never to reveal weakness or engage in any activity that may show it. Prayer in its most authentic form acknowledges that we are weak and dependent on our God. Something in the male knows this and unconsciously fights having to identify with the fact of dependence.

Many times I have gone to prayer with results in mind. I wanted to gain control over the people and events I was praying about by dictating to the Father my views on how things should come out. When I do this, I am looking at people and events through an earthly lens, not a heavenly one. I am praying as though I know better than God what the best outcome is. Thomas Kelly suggests that a more proper kind of prayer is, “Lord, be Thou my will.” Perhaps among the purest prayers we can pray is simply to ask, “Father, may I see earth through heaven’s eyes.”

Our private lives are much like that field was. When I first began to follow Christ seriously, He pointed out many major behavior and attitude patterns that, like boulders, had to be removed. And as the years went by, many of those great big boulders did indeed get removed. But when they began to disappear, I discovered a whole new layer of action and attitude in my life that I had not previously seen. But Christ saw them and rebuked them one by one. The removal process began again. Then I reached that point in my Christian life at which Christ and I were dealing with stones and pebbles. They are too numerous to imagine, and as far as I can see, for the rest of my days on earth I will be working with the many stones and pebbles in my life.

I smile at young believers who tell me that they are discouraged because of all the sin they see in their lives. The fact that they can at least see and feel repelled by that sin shows they are actually growing.

The gardens within our private worlds cannot remain uncultivated for long before they become infested with the sort of growth that makes them uninviting, both to the indwelling Lord and to us. When neglected for long, they become more like dumps than gardens. And then we have to rely upon external sources of strength and direction to keep moving ahead.

15. Rest Beyond Leisure (Sabbathing)

Since we have not understood that rest is a necessity, we have perverted its meaning, substituting for the rest that God first demonstrated things called leisure or amusement. These do not bring any order at all to the private world. Leisure and amusement may be enjoyable, but they are to the private world of the individual like cotton candy to the digestive system. They provide a momentary lift, but they will not last.

This rest then is, first of all, a time of looking backward, of loop-closing. We gaze on our work and ask questions like: What does my work mean? For whom did I do this work? How well was the work done? Why did I do this? What results did I expect, and what did I receive?

But let me be quick to underscore that this rest, which is sabbathlike, ought to be a fixed allocation in the budgeting of our time. We do not rest because our work is done; we rest because God commanded it and created us to have a need for it.

If we assume that this rest comes only after work is complete, many of us are in trouble, for we have jobs where the work is never finished.


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