Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Gift of Not Being Needed

It's been ages since I last posted here. Much has changed. I'm now halfway through my final semester of PhD coursework at Princeton Theological Seminary. My wife and I now daily step back in awe that we are parents of a beautiful, vibrant baby girl. I'm twenty-eight years old.

Image from Greg High:
Somehow, in those twenty-eight years, I had not yet come to the fundamental insight that my "worth is not the same as [my] usefulness." I found this quote this morning during daily devotion. I've been reading Henri Nouwen's lenten collection Show Me the Way. Nouwen has always been one of those writers whose words cut through all my defensive barriers. Yet his is a gentle sword. His words are so simple, his thoughts so concrete and clear. He writes without pretension and, in doing so, plumbs the profound depths of our relationship to God and our relationships with others.

I can't help quoting most of this morning's reading:

When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to measure our worth. And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many gradegivers. That means we are not only in the world, but also of the world. Then we become what the world makes us. We are intelligent because someone gives us a high grade. We are helpful because someone says thanks. We are likable because someone likes us. And we are important because someone considers us indispensable.... (52)

Until reading those words, I hadn't realized how much I live this way. I think I have known for a while that I have a deep need to be needed. But I hadn't comprehended just how deeply within my bones this need resides.

Last semester, while journaling about spiritual practices, I grew frustrated with my inability to connect to God. I confessed that I struggled in my relationship with God because I wasn't sure that God needed me. If God is sufficient in God's self, if God doesn't need me, then how could God want me? I had transferred my need to be needed by others onto my relationship with God.

Now, several months later, I read Nouwen.

In solitude we can slowly unmask the illusion of our possessiveness and discover in the center of our own self that we are not what we can conquer, but what is given to us. In solitude we can listen to the voice of him who spoke to us before we could speak a word, who healed us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could free others, and who loved us long before we could give love to anyone. It is in this solitude that we discover that being is more important than having, and that we are worth more than the result of our efforts. In solitude we discover that our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared. It's there we recognize that the healing words we speak are not just our own, but are given to us; that the love we can express is part of a greater love; and that the new life we bring forth is not a property to cling to, but a gift to be received. (53)

Since college, I have considered myself a Christian existentialist. I cannot get beyond Simone Weil and Soren Kierkegaard. But not until this morning have I been able to truly grasp the fundamental insight that "being is more important than having," and "we are worth more than the result of our efforts." The gift of our being empowers our doing. But being and doing are not synonyms.

This is where secular existentialists, like Sartre, who coined the phrase "existence precedes essence," got things absolutely wrong. For Sartre, this three word phrase means our deeds define who we are. We create our life and its meaning.

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For Kierkegaard, I think, the opposite is true. Yes, Kierkegaard believed that we are responsible for our every action. He emphasized personal commitment and the actions of a "single individual." He wanted to deal with concrete reality more than idealistic abstraction. But this was in reaction to the German Idealism of Kant and Hegel. This was in reaction to a certain type of transmuted platonism, in which what is real is the eternal forms (essence) and not our concrete lives, in which the theoretical is considered higher than the practical. In this idealism, no matter what it purported to say, "humanity" was more important than each human person. Kierkegaard was reacting to this de-personalizing abstraction.

But, unlike Sartre, Kierkegaard believed in God. So we are responsible for our actions not because, as for Sartre, there's no other basis for ethics than our own selves, but rather because God lovingly creates and draws to himself each and every individual. My very life, all that I do is more real than any abstract notion of what "human beings" do. Thus, Kierkegaard can write in Works of Love, "The divine authority of the Gospel does not speak to one person about another, does not speak to you, my listener, about me, or to me about you—no, when the Gospel speaks, it speaks to the single individual. It does not speak about us human beings, you and me, but speaks to us human beings, to you and me, and what it speaks about is that love is to be known by its fruits." (14)

But, for Kierkegaard, as for Nouwen, all that I do is done in response to what God has done in Jesus Christ. Thus, I am free of the need to please others. I can act as a single individual. Therefore, Kierkegaard can pray, at the end of Practice in Christianity, "But you, Lord Jesus Christ, we pray that you will draw us and draw us wholly to yourself. Whether our lives will glide calmly along in a cottage by a quiet lake or we shall be tried in battle with the storms of life on rough seas, whether we shall ‘seek honor in living quietly’ (I Thessalonians 4:11) or, struggling, in abasement: draw us, and draw us wholly to yourself. If only you draw us, then all is indeed won, even if we, humanly speaking, won nothing and lost nothing, even if we, humanly speaking, lost everything...." (260) All is indeed won, even if we, humanly speaking, lose everything. 

That is, as Nouwen puts it, "In solitude we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness." (53) God has already drawn us. God has already spoken to us, healed us, loved us. God has already reconciled us and has therefore entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5). So, out of solitude, as single individuals, in gratitude we can respond with open hands instead of clenched fists, with generous love instead of guarded affection. 

And I can return to my relationship with God, not needing to God to need me, but loving that God loves me. O God, awaken me to a life so lived. 


Soren Kierkegaard. Practice in Christianity. Vol. 20, Kierkegaard’s Writings. Translated and edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. 
_____. Works of Love. Vol. 16, Kierkegaard’s Writings. Translated and edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Henri J.M. Nouwen. Show Me the Way: Readings for Each Day of Lent. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1996. 

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