He admits his personal struggle as he faced the reality that as he grew older, he was not growing closer to Jesus. The success of his life was putting his very soul in danger. In response to God’s call to “go and live among the poor in spirit,” he found healing.
In this book, the first I have read of Nouwen, he offers images from his experiences with people who have a mental handicap. His purpose is to impact Christian leaders and urge them to remember that “God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life” (17).
He frames his thoughts on Christian leadership with two stories from the Gospels: the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert (Matt 4: 1-11) and the story of Peter’s call to be a shepherd (John 21:15-19). He argues that Christian leaders are called to be completely irrelevant and vulnerable.
The book is laid out in three sections which each reflect a temptation, insight from Jesus, and a discipline to practice.
From Relevance to Prayer (pp 15—32)
To be Relevant
The Question: “Do you love Me?”
From Popularity to Ministry (pp 35—51)
To be Popular
The Task: “Feed My sheep.”
Confession & Forgiveness
From Leading to Being Led (pp 55—73)
To be Powerful
The Challenge: “Somebody else will take you.”
Nouwen is appealing to read because he presents life in its nakedness. He authentically describes his own struggles which forced him to rediscover his identity. “These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of y relevant self—the self that can do all things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments” (16).
While I had never considered that Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant, Nouwen’s thoughts resonated with me personally and my own desires to make a difference in someone’s life. However, Jesus resisted this temptation and “he clung to his mission to proclaim the word” (18).
What meaning that gives to the reality that “human beings live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Nouwen warns readers to avoid becoming busy with fruitless efforts. He aptly urges leaders to dare to claim their irrelevance in this contemporary world. This is required for any leader to truly know the heart of God.
Certainly every Christian needs the “discipline of dwelling in the presence of the One who keeps asking us, ‘Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?’” Contemplative prayer will keep leaders from being “pulled from one urgent issue to another and from becoming strangers to our own and God’s heart” (28-29).
To deal with issues and fail to be rooted in a deep personal relationship with God leads to being caught up in one’s own opinions about a subject. Yet when “securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life” (37)—spiritual leaders are flexible, gentle and forgiving, and true witnesses of Jesus.
Nouwen so connected with my own struggles in ministry that it is difficult for me to identify limitations in this book. If only I could daily abandon my own feelings that I should be able to do it all and do it successfully (39).
If only I truly knew how to live the truth of the Incarnation (48).
Strategic Application: As I work to develop and empower leaders for ministry, it is important that they understand this personal issue of relevance, To be truly used by God, each pastor or church planter must grasp that he is “called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self” (17).
As a missionary/strategist I want to help leaders discover that “every word spoken, every advice given, and every strategy developed can come from a heart that knows God intimately” (30).
I encourage you to read this book. Remember, it is not about you. Focus your life on knowing Jesus intimately.
Personal Application: On a personal level, it is so easy for me to get wrapped up in a desire to serve God and a desire to be relevant and significant. In fact, often my desire has been to serve God by and love God through a significant and relevant ministry. As I reflect on my years of church planting and pastoring in Castaic, I sense regret that I did not make a more significant impact.
When I read books by Mark Driscoll and Andy Stanley, I feel that my ministry is less significant and that I should have had a national impact. I have felt jealous because I was not more relevant.
And that misses the entire point. It is really not about me or my contribution or relevance. It really comes back to Jesus question to Peter, “Do you love Me?”
I do. I love Jesus! I can be irrelevant because I totally love Jesus!