Giving Up the Self
In his 1989 book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen recounts a time of grave spiritual atrophy. Nouwen was a highly regarded Ivy League professor as well as an in-demand speaker and author. He was the toast of any town. And most impressive of all (to me), he was personal friends with Fred Rogers.
Nouwen was also growing increasingly empty inside. When an opportunity arose to work with Daybreak in Toronto, Henri bravely walked away from his old life and jumped into service for the intellectually disabled. He had gone from the pinnacle of renown in Christian circles to serving a marginalized group where there was sure to be little thanks and even less fame. And yet, he was revitalized during this time.
Once Henri had to go to a speaking engagement but did not want to go alone. He ended up taking “Bill” with him, one of the permanent residents at Daybreak, and the two had a great time. During breakfast the next day, Bill asked Henri if he had liked the trip. Henri said that, yes, he had enjoyed the trip very much. Bill responded with, “And we did it together, didn’t we?”
Henri writes: “Then I realized the full truth of Jesus’ words, ‘Where two or three meet in my Name, I am among them’ (Matthew 18:20). In the past, I had always given lectures, sermons, addresses, and speeches by myself. Often I had wondered how much of what I had said would be remembered. Now it dawned on me that most likely much of what I said would not be long remembered, but that Bill and I doing it together would not easily be forgotten. I hoped and prayed that Jesus, who had sent us out together and had been with us all during the journey, would have become really present to those who had gathered in the Clarendon Hotel in Crystal City.”(1)
I saw this up close and personal when a Lutheran pastor I worked for (whose name really is Bill) answered the call to lead a diminished and declining flock in a smaller town. No one wanted to lose this talented teacher and preacher. And this was not the best career decision to make; in the metrics of worldly success, this was a demotion. That was the point, though. He told me that we must truly go where God leads us and anything else is simply career advancement. We need be people who proclaim with Isaiah, “Here am I. Send me!”
These counterintuitive stories are reflections of Christ’s example. In the Lenten origin story, Jesus goes without food for 40 days, and so Lent is typically a time of “fasting” from certain foods, although now someone may choose to fast from social media, watching Netflix, etc. If we look deeper into the narrative, though, we are introduced to some of the most grand paradoxes. There is something fascinating taking place behind the fast.
Jesus in the wilderness is the story about how the omnipotent God of eternal aseity paradoxically felt weakness from not eating food and from a fallen angel that He has dominion over. He was not receiving needed nutrition from food that was created through him. In the kenosis of his incarnation, the limitless God paradoxically humbled himself to the form of a limited human. Now, if Christ had truly been the pagan copycat that some have accused him of being, then he should have been quite comfortable with this arrangement. He would have demanded the comforts of the world befitting a king. Christ, however, called on nothing but the word of God. The God who needed no food became a man dependent on food, and then went without the food that he needed in order to become the food that we need.
Christ is our manna. This Lenten season, I hope to lose myself in imitation of Christ’s humility. I hope to stop serving for gain. I hope to stop ruminating over the existential dread of being forgotten and irrelevant. Can I? Can I truly serve for the sake of others alone? Can I be less concerned with my performance and more concerned with my brother’s pain? Can I lend a hand to my sister without receiving praise and recognition? Can I give my all for the sake of the other and not to move up a ladder? Can I happily move down the ladder in order to pull others up? As the Puritan poem “The Valley of Vision” beautifully says: “Let me learn by paradox / that the way down is the way up, / that to be low is to be high.”(2)
Lent, I am finding, is not just about temporarily depriving myself of certain delicacies, though that clearly has its sanctifying place. It is about the giving of myself to others for their benefit and setting aside, permanently, the devilish notion that I need anything for my self-worth other than being God’s beloved.
Derek Caldwell is a writer for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Henri Nouwen. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2002), 101.
(2) Arthur Bennett, ed., “The Valley of Vision” in The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), xv.
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