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

Chapter 1  Downward Mobility as a Christian Vocation 

To live a spiritual life means to become living Christs …here and now, in time and history. P. 20 

This statement by Henri Nouwen is his way of reprising Paul’s testimony, “For me to live is Christ.” Nouwen points out that we can’t make this statement if we are only “a little bit for Christ.” The call of Christ is exclusive, shutting out allegiance to any other person or power, but it is equally inclusive. It is for all who consider themselves Christians, not just those with what we label as “special vocations.” In Christ’s economy, every vocation is a special vocation. One is not more special than another.

Nouwen probes the cultural standard for human achievement, an uncomfortable examination for most readers. He notes that the secular culture teaches us that life is a series of conflicts or challenges, battles we either win or lose. The culture is addicted to the image of living in constant competition, with the required outcome being victory. The culture says that “when we lose it is clearly because of our shortcomings.” P. 24 Like most conversations about achievement and success, this conversation requires that the terms be defined. Nouwen doesn’t say it clearly, but his later comments make it clear that a good deal of the problem with our perceptions of success and failure is our unrealistic attempt to use more than one definition for the word ambition simultaneously.

For example, on page 26, Nouwen says, “There is a profound difference between the false ambition for power and the true ambition to love and serve.” The difficulty for many people who try to examine the concept of ambition is that they do not distinguish between the two notions. In fact, the ambition for power easily translates into the familiar phrase “upward mobility” which in many people has become their true religion. One might define religion as the thing in your life for which you will sacrifice everything, and in contemporary secular culture, that thing is often “upward mobility.”

Think about the people you know who do not have even five minutes for prayer to God. They sacrifice time with family and friends, worship with their church, and all other activities in service of work which they hope will translate into a promotion, more pay, and a new house in a better neighborhood. Professional advancement, income, and a nice home are not evil things, and working for them is not intrinsically destructive. On the other hand, when achieving those objectives requires both God and family to be shut out, it is worthwhile to ask how this fits Christ’s call to each of us to love God and serve people. Nouwen goes so far as the call it the “idolatry of upward mobility.” P. 27

Readers may have trouble balancing Nouwen’s statements with the world in which they actually live. Some readers may even feel that in their world, a person who is not moving upward will inevitably slide down, then out. Doesn’t a Christian have an obligation to provide for family, and doesn’t it make sense that any threat to success in that obligation would be suppressed in favor of meeting the responsibility? Nouwen speaks of the way Jesus moved “from power to powerlessness,” (p. 31) but what happens when the family provider does that? Nouwen says that “the whole life of Jesus of Nazareth was a life in which all upward mobility was resisted.” (p. 31) How do the parents of two young children relinquish the “upward mobility” which is the hallmark of prosperity in secular philosophy? Would it even be responsible to sit down and be content? Readers may not answer the questions the way Nouwen answers them, but they won’t be able to avoid asking them.

Nouwen does not discount the difficulty of dealing with these questions. In fact, he asks one more: “Is it possible to take Jesus totally seriously?” (p. 36) He also reminds us that our inherent need to compete for pre-eminence, just like the disciples arguing over who was the greatest, undercuts every attempt we make to humble ourselves. We really cannot humble ourselves, because “the moment we think we are humble, we find ourselves wondering if we are humbler than our neighbor, and looking around to claim our reward.” (p. 39) That observation hits uncomfortably close to home.

The remainder of this chapter leads the reader to understand that nobody can decide to become downwardly mobile. The people who were gathered on Pentecost did not decide to invite and welcome the Holy Spirit into their midst. They did not have a pep rally after which they went out and took Jerusalem for Christ. Instead, the Spirit chose the moment, filled the people and led them in the work. They became Christ to the city of Jerusalem.

That is the key, and that is the challenge. Each believer must become Christ to the world. Whoever becomes Christ embodies the Christ who came down from heaven to live among people and accept the limits, the pain, and struggle of being human. As Nouwen says, “We are transformed into living Christs by our relationship with his Spirit. The spiritual life is the life of the Spirit of Christ in us.” (p. 44) We don’t decide to be downwardly mobile. We decide to be open to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit leads us to a very different life than we would ever choose on our own. We don’t even know how to choose such a life.

It’s not an easy life, but led by the Spirit, we readily distinguish the upward pull of the secular world from the downward pull of Christ. It is the downward pull that the Spirit exerts, drawing us ever deeper into the image of Christ at work in the world.


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All the quotations in this post are taken from The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life by Henri Nowen. © 2007 by the estate of Henri J. M. Nouwen, publised in 2007 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 10545-0308.

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