Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts, which are the leadings of God.
– Britain Yearly Meeting,
Quaker Faith and Practice, 1995
Early Friends found that the Light opened their lives to the painful knowledge of their own inadequacy. Margaret Fell urged Friends to “let the Eternal Light search you ... for this will deal plainly with you; it will rip you up, and lay you open ... naked and bare before the Lord God, from whom you cannot hide yourselves” (Barbour, Quakers in Puritan England, p.98). But at the end of this painful experience of the Light, at the end of human resources and evasions, the same Light showed Friends the presence and warmth of God’s love. This testing process opened Friends to the shared experience of the life and guidance of the Spirit, which became a constant source of inspiration and energy in their lives. So it can be for us today.
We may find that the guidance of the Spirit leads us toward specific actions; such leadings should be cherished. Our first leading may simply be to rise to speak in meeting for worship despite our diffidence. We may feel a leading toward some service, perhaps involving a social problem or a meeting or community need. A real concern is a gift of grace and demands our obedience, but we should also consider how early Friends sought to distinguish true leadings from false ones: We question our motives to find whether any selfish desire or unanswered personal need lies at the bottom of our impulse. We wait in patience to test our leading over time. We seek to find out if our leading is consistent with other revelations of the Spirit. We seek the counsel of other Friends, either individually in conversation or by asking for a clearness committee, where members meet in worship over a concern to test its validity and weight and to clarify its implications for action.
The true “concern” [emerges as] a gift from God, a leading of the Spirit which may not be denied. Its sanction is not that on investigation it proves an intelligent thing to do—though it usually is; it is that the individual (and if the concern is shared and adopted by the meeting, then the meeting) knows, as a matter of inward experience, that here is something which the Lord would have done, however obscure the way, however uncertain the means to human observation. Often proposals for action are made which have every appearance of good sense, but as the meeting waits before God, it becomes clear that the proposition falls short of “concern.”
– Roger C. Wilson,
Authority, Leadership, and Concern, 1949
A personal concern, meant for us individually, might become a concern involving our meeting. Individual concerns can become the means by which the community can bring the power of the Spirit into social action; the method Friends have developed to do this involves the progression and deepening of concerns from monthly to quarterly to yearly meetings. This process is another part of our gospel order, by which we wait with a concern and test it individually, then with a friend or family member, then with a group of Friends and the monthly meeting itself, and finally with quarterly and yearly meetings. Friends are thus available at each step to “test the concern in the Light,” to consider the concern in relation to all they know about the situation and the persons involved and, most important, to hold the concern up to the light of the Inward Teacher, although we do not need to share, agree with, or endorse each other’s concerns in order to support them. Each group may support the concern; possibly it may commend the concern as a call to action for the greater group of Friends.
In this way Friends have developed (sometimes slowly and painfully) the social witness that we have traditionally called our testimonies. Even such seemingly self-evident truths as the peace testimony or the testimony against slavery did not spring up fully articulated; rather, Friends worked each out over time and in social circumstances that resulted finally in its acceptance as part of our understanding of the will of God.