Henri Nouwen’s book “The Selfless Way 0f Christ” is a Call to Faithful Testimony

Blogging Through the Book — The Selfless Way of Christ by Henri Nouwen

Every Christian at least occasionally thinks about what it means to give testimony to the work of Christ in his life. In The Selfless Way of Christ the author puts it this way: “We can only call ourselves witnesses of Jesus when we have heard him with our own ears, seen him with our own eyes, and touched him with our own hands.” (p. 14) He further says that the basis for the work of the apostles was not knowledge but rather their “having lived with Jesus.” (p. 14)

The testimony of a Christian is, therefore, crafted by living with Jesus. In prayer, in Bible study, in worship, in conversation, in quiet moments when truth bursts into evidence like a pyrotechnic extravaganza – these are the moments in our life with Christ that shape our testimony. Testimony does not emerge only inside worship buildings during the activity of worship. Our testimony is our life. Washing dishes. Making beds. Navigating rush hour traffic. We are living with Jesus every moment, and every moment testifies to him.

We may have trouble saying it clearly, but our lives are our testimonies. This is why people of faith live in constant tension with people who only acknowledge time and space as reality. The indwelling Holy Spirit places us at the intersection of time and eternity. Secular thinkers protest that this time/space reality is all there is. Some secular thinkers kindly tolerate our testimony as a gentle aberration, but others take offense at the idea that there is something beyond the universe we keep trying to measure. Their offended feelings are beginning to be expressed more commonly in our culture.

In the US, our culture predominantly self-identifies with Christianity, but the percentage is trending downward in recent years. Immigrants affiliated with a variety of different religions are part of that changing trend. However, over the past twenty years one statistic has increased noticeably, and in 2011, one poll reported that 19% of Americans self-identify as completely secular. Even that number is deceptive, because many religious people adopt secular standards in public. Many religious people agree with pure secularists that religion is a private matter and religion should not be discussed or even mentioned in the public forum. There may be a poll that records this category, but lacking that, personal experience suggests that 20% of the population, if asked, would agree that religion ought not to be mentioned in public. Christians who hold that view believe that all testimony and all evangelism must be confined inside the walls of a building dedicated to religious activity.

Henri Nouwen would find this observation appalling, because he says, “To be a Christian is to witness to this Word,” the “Word” being Christ, the Living Word of God. Most Christians would agree that this is a good definition of the life of faith, but in our culture, most secular thinkers and most religious people who prefer the secular standard in public life, reject this definition. Many simply think it is good etiquette to avoid the subject of religion in public, but some are adamant that freedom of religion is not enough; the nation needs freedom from religion. This latter concept challenges adherents of any faith who believe that their faith is the basis for their moral and ethical choices.

As the acceptance of secular thinking increases in the culture, it is natural that it will increase in the government. Students of the judicial system report many cases in which long-standing cultural practices growing out of respect for the Christian faith have been ended or dramatically modified in recent years. Interestingly, the secular standard has also been embedded in administrative regulations during the past year. The employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act does not authorize an exemption for all individuals or employers to opt out of the mandates of the law based on their ethical and moral convictions that grow out of their faith. There is a conscience exemption for some employers, but it is exceedingly narrow. The wording of the rule for this exemption is clearly consonant with the ideas expressed by secular thinkers on numerous websites:

American Humanist Association

Council for Secular Humanism

Freedom From Religion Foundation

There are many more that you can find by searching the web. 


a religious employer is one that—(1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a non-profit organization described in section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii) of the Code.   

We who live with Jesus do not confine our exercise of our religion to the limits of this definition. Every moment of our lives is shaped by the presence of Christ. When we are hiring employees, building a house, planting a garden or changing a baby’s diaper we are always living our faith. We do not leave our faith in the church building when we depart. We exercise our faith when we buy insurance or set up a break room for employees.

The First Amendment guarantees citizens of the USA the freedom to exercise their faith. It sets no limits on the place where they can do that. Even though many Christians hate politics (with good reason), all Christians need to stand firm for our freedom to live our faith. Christians around the world suffer under governments where speaking the name of Christ is grounds for arrest or where a Christian who prays in public may have his home burned down while the police watch it happen. Those persecuted Christians only dream of a day when they have protected freedom to exercise their faith.

The regulation implementing the Affordable Care Act for which the conscience exemption is written may not even compromise every Christian’s personal standards. That issue is something every individual must decide for himself. First Amendment protection for the free exercise of faith, however, is every Christian’s concern. When Jesus ascended into heaven, his last words to his followers were not, “Go into buildings and pray there and do it often.” The last words of Christ as Eugene Peterson translates them are, “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life.” (Matthew 28:19) The phrase “everyone you meet” means the people we encounter in daily life, not just the people we see at church.  The training is not to be how to get to a church building; it is how to live “this way of life.”

If the federal government’s definition of religious activity is allowed to stand, then the First Amendment is a lot of empty words. We must be free to testify to our faith. In order to do that we may need to choke back our desire not to be sullied by politics and at least write to our representatives and senators, asking as free citizens in a free nation, for the government to enforce the freedom embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Henri Nouwen has given us a powerful explanation of Christ’s call to make disciples by testifying to our faith at every opportunity. We cannot permit the government to act on a secular definition of religion that prevents us from living our testimony as Christ calls us to do.

4 thoughts on “Henri Nouwen’s book “The Selfless Way 0f Christ” is a Call to Faithful Testimony”

  1. Love your turn of phrase “…secular definition of religion…” – its dripping with irony. It seems the government wants to reinterpret the establishment clause away from NOT establishing one religion over another for a preference of NO religion.


    1. You are absolutely correct. The First Amendment operates in a respectful neutrality toward all religions. Cultural trends and increasingly judicial and administrative actions are moving in a direction of hostitlity to religion. Thanks for your comment.


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