This week we begin our reading of the fifth letter written by Henri Nouwen to his nephew, Marc, discussing his Christian faith. In the first letter, Nouwen talks about how Jesus is the very heart of his existence. In the second, he talks about how Jesus is the God who sets him free. In the third, Nouwen's focus is on the compassion of Jesus. In his fourth letter, Nouwen discusses the significance of Jesus "descending" to be with us. If you happened to miss any of the previous devotionals, they can be found in the previous posts here in the Pastor's Desk
Letter 5: Jesus: The Loving God (Pt. 1)
Nouwen fifth letter to Marc was written at Easter time. In the previous letter he spent considerable time discussing the impact of the cross on faith. Now he turns to the resurrection, Jesus in his glory, and the joy we can have in being Jesus' disciple. He begins by speaking of what he considers the heart of Jesus' preaching: love. Nouwen opens with these words of Jesus: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. To anyone who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek as well; to anyone who takes your cloak from you, do not refuse your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your property back from someone who takes it. Treat others as you would like people to treat you .. love your enemies and do good to them, and lend without any hope of return."
Nouwen writes: "If anyone should ask you what are the most radical words in the gospel, you need not hesitate to reply: "Love your enemies." It's these words that reveal to us most clearly the kind of love proclaimed by Jesus. In these words we have the clearest expression of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Love for one's enemy is the touchstone of being a Christian.
The most important thing you can say about God's love is that God loves us not because of anything we've done to earn that love, but because God, in total freedom, has decided to love us. At first sight, this doesn't seem to be very inspiring, but if you reflect on it more deeply this thought can affect and influence your life greatly. We're inclined to see our whole existence in terms of quid pro quo. We assume that people will be nice to us if we help them; that they will invite us if we invite them; that they will love us if we love them. And so the conviction is deeply rooted in us that being loved is something you have to earn .. We can scarcely conceive of getting something for nothing .. You could call it the "commercialization" of love. Nothing for nothing. Not even love.
The result is a state of mind that makes us live as though our worth as human beings depends on the way others react to us. We allow other people to determine who we are .. we submit the most intimate awareness of who we are to the fickle opinions of those around us. Thus we sell our souls to the world. Our friends and enemies decide who we are .. Love has not only come to be an emotional bargaining counter, it has also become coercive .. In a world in which so many people feel lonely, isolated, and deserted, the longing for love can often take on "inhuman" proportions. People come to expect more of each other than it is possible to give. When loneliness and low self-esteem become the main source of the longing to be loved, that longing can easily lead to a kind of desperation .. The tragic thing, though, is that we humans aren't capable of dispelling one another's loneliness and lack of self-respect .. time and time again we are in danger of disappointing one another. Despite all this, at times our longing can be so intense .. that we are led into the temptation of extorting love .. and that leads to violence. Whether we do violence to others or to ourselves, what we long for in our heart is a nonviolent, peaceful communion in which we know ourselves to be secure and loved. But how and where are we to find that noncoercive, nonviolent love?
Jesus is the revelation of God's unending, unconditional love for us human beings. Everything that Jesus has done, said, and undergone is meant to show us that the love we most long for is given to us by God - not because we've deserved it, but because God is a God of love. Jesus has come among us to
make that divine love visible and to offer it to us .. If we have a firm faith in God's unconditional love for us, it would no longer be necessary to be always on the lookout for ways and means of being admired by people; and we would need, even less, to obtain from people by force what God desires to give us freely and so abundantly.
Trusting in the unconditional love of God: that is the way to which God calls us. The more firmly you grasp this, the more readily you will be able to perceive why there is so much suspicion, jealousy, bitterness, vindictiveness, hatred, violence, and discord in our world. Jesus himself interprets this by comparing God's love to the light. He says: '. . .though the light has come into the world people have preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil. And indeed, everybody who does wrong hates the light and avoids it, to prevent his actions from being shown up; but whoever does the truth comes out into the light...." Jesus sees the evil in this world as a lack of trust in God's love. He makes us see that we persistently fall back on ourselves, rely more on ourselves than on God, and are inclined more to love of self than to love of God. So we remain in the darkness. If we walk in the light, then we are enabled to acknowledge in joy and gratitude that everything good, beautiful, and true comes from God and is offered to us in love."
If you have been writing your own letters, this week you begin your fifth letter in which you will write about your own experience of God's love. What would you write about Jesus' words to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us? How do you try to live into those words? How does God's love for you strengthen you and give you confidence to live fully as one who is loved unconditionally?