Tag Archives: Henri Nouwen

Blogging through the Book The Selfless Way of Christ by Henri Nouwen


English: Chanting the Gospel lesson during Div...
English: Chanting the Gospel lesson during Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox church Русский: Литургия в русском храме Покрова Пресвятой Богородицы, Дюссельдорф, Германия, 21 сентября 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter 3, A Self-Emptied Heart

The discipline of the Christian disciple is not to master anything, but rather to be mastered by the Spirit.

 It is completely counter-intuitive to “work” toward discipline and achievement by submitting. We think we must work hard, and then harder. We think we must do certain things over and over until we get them right. The truth is that our most important lesson is to learn that we never will get it right. We can only get the Spirit. If we are where the Spirit leads, if we are doing what the Spirit asks, our weakness, our failure, our inability to do anything but fail becomes immaterial. We do the obedience; the Spirit does the accomplishment.

Nouwen speaks of three disciplines that lead us to empty our hearts in order that Christ may fill them. 

The Discipline of the Church is so much more than the phrase “go to church” ever implies. When I was a little girl, “go to church” was a very important weekly event. I had special “church” clothes. We had special Sunday dinner on that day. I vividly remember my red patent leather purse in which Mother put my special church handkerchief with a nickel tied up in the corner for my Sunday School offering. To a six-year-old, those were the important things about “going to church,” but that is not what the discipline of the church is.

The discipline of the church, says Nouwen, “is the discipline by which we as a people represent the living Christ in time and space.” This is what the liturgy is all about. I did not grow up with the liturgy. In the churches of my childhood, worship services had little that would remind anyone of the liturgy I enjoy so much today. Nouwen writes of liturgical worship as “the celebration by the people of God of the Christ-event.” That certainly fits my experience. As we progress through the seasons, certain elements are changeless, timeless, while others morph from season to season telling the story of the Christ event, reliving the Christ event, bringing the Christ event to life for us each week. As Nouwen points out, “Christ is God acting in human history” and in the liturgy, we celebrate and live that work every week. We empty our lives of self and fill our selves up with Christ. 

In the secular world, such discipline is not respected. In fact, churches are seen as hierarchies and rule-makers, not focal points for personal transformation. Nouwen does not try to deal with that issue, his focus being those who are faithful and trying to grow in faith. Nevertheless, those who are faithful must live in the midst of people who either dismiss or actually attack the idea of church or the liturgy. To those who do not know Christ and who do not enter into the liturgy as the discipline Nouwen describes, the liturgy becomes an empty ritual of repetitive phrases whose only redeeming feature is an occasional poetic or musical mountaintop. 

The discipline of the book is the way the Word of God continues to become flesh in us. That idea is overwhelming. Yet, anyone who reads the Word of God with heart and soul fully engaged has this experience. By means of meditation, which Henri Nouwen defines as, “the discipline of inner attentiveness to the Word,” we take in the Spirit and the power of the Word, and we are “formed into living Christs.” It is a sacramental experience, and it is world-changing. When we engage in this discipline, it is easy to be distracted by Satan’s whispers that we should be relevant, spectacular and powerful. Instead of learning from what we read, we must allow the reading of the Book shape our lives. Our temptation to learn draws us back to the temptation to upward mobility. The discipline of being shaped takes us downward with Christ to lives of service. We empty ourselves of accomplishments and fill ourselves up with Christ. 

Even within the church, however, the discipline of the book is falling into disrepute. Some Christian scholars treat the Bible as the expression of human beings at a specific stage in the evolution of human beings. They interpret ancient texts as if the words and situations must be reframed by contemporary ideas. The revelation of absolute truth is melted down in a crucible of human reason in order to arrive at a new thing on the earth, a human telling God what truth is. These scholars say things like, “The Bible does not address things that we know today, so we must act on our new knowledge without being limited by the Bible’s old ideas.” It is hard for faithful Christians to share the faith with secular thinkers, but it is even harder when church leaders keep changing the message. Nouwen would undoubtedly find that situation to be yet another example of Satan’s temptation to be relevant. 

Who among us can go empty-handed into the place of solitude? Yet this is the deepest discipline, the discipline of the heart, the discipline that leads us away from a heart that “ought” and “must” be busy about church work to the very heart of God. This is the sort of prayer that leads us to take up burdens we would prefer not to bear. In the heart of God, those burdens are lightened. If we cannot escape our own needs, then the burdens of others will be too heavy. 

This discipline puts people of faith in the most stark contrast to secular thinkers. Secular thinking requires that each person recognize that this world is all there is. Secular thinkers cannot empty themselves. Secular thinkers dare not empty themselves. There is nothing else. They must do it all themselves. They must choose and work and advance entirely on their own. Secular thinks believe that if we fail, we fail on our own. Unlike secular thinker, people of faith need only be faithful, not successful. Obedience is our part; success is the work of the Spirit. 

Nouwen recommends something many people will find troubling. He recommends a spiritual director. This person will have the obligation to inquire about, and we would have the obligation to report, the status of our prayer life. Who wants that? Does anyone voluntarily give someone else the right to ask, “So, why didn’t you take time to pray this morning?” Yet without some external force, someone to monitor our days, it may not be possible for us to let go of self and let go of our own needs enough to empty self and be filled with Christ. 

How do we go downward with Christ into complete servitude? We empty our selves and let self be filled up with Christ. The three disciplines – the church, the book and the heart – it sounds quite simple. Yet anyone who is honest will not find it so simple. To empty self and be mastered by the Spirit is to descend from the heights of self-fulfillment to the depths of service and self-effacement. It is an essential path, but few find it.

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.

To meet other bloggers who are blogging through other books, go to www.datapittman.com and check the linky at the bottom of today’s post. It is a great way to taste a number of good books that you may want to read.

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.