Irrelevance and the Love of God: Part 1 of a reflection on Henri Nouwen’s “In the Name of Jesus”

One of the most incisive handlings I have ever encountered on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as recorded in Matthew 4:1-11 is Henri Nouwen‘s book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. While the book is specifically targeted at those in ministry, I believe it has broader application to all believers.

In this and two follow-up posts, I want to interact with that book a little as a follow-up to Will Branch’s sermon this past weekend at Eastbrook, “The Way of the Wilderness,” and my own recent reflections on the spiritual significance of the wilderness. Whether you’ve read the book or not, feel free to interact with what I write here.

Relevance vs. Irrelevance
In the first section of part one of the book, Nouwen connects the first temptation of Jesus with the temptation toward relevance. Nouwen contrasts the irrelevance of ministry with the push within our society for relevance. I struggle with Nouwen’s reflections here because, on the one hand, I do not want my life or ministry to be driven by relevance, but, on the other hand, I do want to communicate God’s truth in a way that connects with people and is not obtuse.

Here is my summary of what Nouwen means by these terms:

  • Relevance: an obsession with success, impact, and practicality that is closely linked with the things we do rather than who we are.
  • Irrelevance: walking the way of vulnerability and weakness in connection with the weakness and struggles of the world around us while living in the love of God

Nouwen writes: “The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation” (35).

So, I wonder, is it possible to desire to connect meaningfully with others while simultaneously living out of this sort vocational sense of irrelevance?

Knowing the Heart of God
In the second section of part one, Nouwen draws attention to Jesus’ question of Peter: ‘Do you love me?’ He emphasizes that our love of Jesus is the central issue in our ministry and service for God.

The Christian leader of the future is the one who truly knows the heart of God as it has become flesh, ‘a heart of flesh’, in Jesus. Knowing God’s heart means consistently, radically, and very concretely to announce and reveal that God is love and only love, and that every time fear, isolation, or despair begins to invade the human soul, that is not something that comes from God. The sounds very simple and maybe even trite, but very few people know that they are loved without any conditions or limits. (38)

These words cut to the core of who we are. I am reminded of an old statement a mentor shared with me once: “Have I become so in love with the work of the Lord that I have ceased to love the Lord of the work?” I wonder whether I live in such a way that my experience and knowledge of God’s love is so central that it overflows into proclaiming and embodying the unconditional love of God to others? Is that what motivates me?

Mystic Leaders
Nouwen brings the first part of the book to a close by calling believers to a life of contemplative prayer as mystic leaders. Sometimes the words “contemplative” and “mystic” throw people off. However, what he is really speaking about is our attentive pondering the love of God throughout our lives. The question here is not only do we love Jesus, but do we live a life of love with Him. Read these words:

A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love. . . Are the leaders of the future truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word, and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness? (42-43)

Again, Nouwen pierces to the heart. Who am I as a leader, minister, or servant of Christ? Am I devoted to Jesus? Am I loving Him fully?

2 thoughts on “Irrelevance and the Love of God: Part 1 of a reflection on Henri Nouwen’s “In the Name of Jesus”

  1. Matt,

    The struggle between relevance and irrelevance as identified by Henri Nouwen is an interesting thought – we are not seeking relevance for relevance sake, but are simply trying to make sense to the non-believing world around us. This is something to kick over in my mind. The second portion regarding knowing the heart of God is incredibly impactful. It is so hard to wrap my mind around this idea of truly unconditional love and to be able to do so in such a way that I could then reflect that to others is an incredible thought. What an auspicious yet difficult goal to meet – yet if we can do this then would not the all encompassing love of God do all the talking for us?

    • So, true, Geof. Nouwen’s approach to the idea of relevance is pretty specific and thought-provoking. I also agree that wrapping our minds around the Lord’s unconditional love is wonderful and challenging at the same time. May God grow us all!

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