Jesus The Loving God by Henri Nouwen
Thefollowing passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Letters to Marc about Jesus,” published in 1987. In 1986, he wrote a series of letters to his eighteen year old nephew, Marc.
Wednesday, 2nd April
My dear Marc,
When I started writing to you Lent had just begun. I thought then that I’d be able to send you one letter a week. But I seem to have so much to do here in Trosly that I’ve not been able to live up to my good intentions. It took me five weeks in all to write my letter about the descending way of Jesus. In the mean time Easter has come again. It makes me realize how much I am influenced by the liturgical seasons!
During Lent I was so full of the descending way of Jesus which led him to his death that it would have been hard for me to write about anything else. But now that the daily Bible readings speak of Jesus’ victory over death, I notice that I too am thinking differently about Jesus and want to speak of him to you in another way. I now see Jesus more in his state of glory, and my thoughts are more concerned with the joy of being his disciple. Each part of the liturgical year makes us see Jesus in a different way.
What happened in the Philippines last month alerted me in a new way to the fact that Jesus has come to conquer death. When I was writing my second letter to you the papers were full of the elections in the Philippines, and I was convinced at the time that the massive electoral fraud designed to keep President Marcos in power would lead to a bloody civil war. Now, a few weeks later, Cory Aquino is president; and she has come to power without any resort to violence. For me, this is a hope-filled event, a clear sign that a nonviolent victory over a dictatorship is possible.
From various friends who’ve been following recent events in the Philippines at close quarters, I’ve heard that we really can speak of a spiritual victory. What happened there involved much more than a political strategy which chanced to be successful. For years Christian people, bishops, priests, and leading figures in the political life of the country familiarized themselves with the practice of nonviolence. Members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation organized retreats aimed at teaching people how to rely on the power of love, and with that power, to defeat the dictatorship. The words of Jesus that go right to the heart of nonviolence are well known. Let me write them down for you:
“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.”
These sayings express not only the essence of nonviolent resistance, but also the heart of Jesus’ preaching. 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.
Cory Aquinos struggle against the dictatorship in her country was rooted in love for one’s enemy. Before she presented herself as a candidate for the presidency she prayed the whole night for her opponent, Ferdinand Marcos. She knew that hatred would lead to violence. The Filipino bishops and priests supported her and summoned the whole nation to nonviolent resistance. When Marcos ordered his tanks to crush his opponents, the soldiers refused to drive over the people who were praying. Priests wearing their vestments approached the soldiers, embraced them, and invited them to drop their weapons and pray with the people for reconciliation and peace.
Now that Cory Aquino is herself president, the issue is whether she will he in a position to make love for one’s enemy the basis of her government. Many forces will make this extremely difficult for her. But whatever happens, we’ve seen something in the Philippines which a lot of people believed impossible: a resistance to the enemy which was full of love and through which a bloody civil war was prevented.
I’ve dwelt on the Philippine situation in some detail because it helps me to write concretely about love for one’s enemy. As you know, my hope is that through these letters you will get to know Jesus better. I’ve already described him as the one who descended to us to make God’s love visible to us. In this letter I want to say something about the nature of that love. We human beings use the word ‘love’ in so many ways that it’s hard to talk about God’s love without creating confusion. Still, the command of Jesus to love our enemies is, I think, a good starting point for entering more deeply into the mystery of God’s love.
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 he very inspiring; hut 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 are nice to them; that they will help 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. In our pragmatic and utilitarian times this conviction has become even stronger. We can scarcely conceive of getting something for nothing. Everything has to he worked for, even a kind word, an expression of gratitude, a sign of affection.
I think it’s this mentality that lies behind a lot of anxiety unrest, and agitation. It’s as though were forever on the go, trying to prove to each other that we deserve to he loved. The doubt we harbor within us drives us on to ever-greater activity. In that way we try to keep our heads above water and not drown in our ever-increasing lack of self-respect. The enormous propensity to seek recognition, admiration, popularity, and renown is rooted in the fear that without all this we are worthless. 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 think we’re good if other people find us to be so; we think we’re intelligent if others consider us intelligent; we think we’re religious if others think so too. On the other hand, if we’re despised we think at once that we must be contemptible; if we’re laughed at we immediately think we must he ridiculous; if we’re ignored we jump to the conclusion that we’re not worth being noticed. And so 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. We’re no longer master in our own house. Our friends and enemies decide who we are. We’ve become the playthings of their good or had opinions.
We can go further and say that something else, something quite different even, is amiss. Love has not only come to be an emotional bargaining counter, it has also become coercive. One can speak nowadays of coercive love. I’ll elaborate on that a little, to show how revealing are Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies.” The more constricted our self-confidence, the greater our need to be reassured. A low opinion of ourselves reinforces our desire to receive signs and tokens of love. 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 he loved, that longing can easily lead to a kind of desperation. Then it’s as though one person says to another: “Love me so that I won’t feel lonely anymore. Love me so that I can believe in myself again, at least a little bit.”
The tragic thing, though, is that we humans aren’t capable of dispelling one another’s loneliness and lack of self-respect. We humans haven’t the wherewithal to relieve one another’s most radical predicament. Our ability to satisfy one another’s deepest longing is so limited that time and time again we are in danger of disappointing one another. Despite all this, at times our longing can he so intense that it blinds us to our mutual limitations and we are led into the temptation of extorting love, even when reason tells us that we can’t give one another any total, unlimited, unconditional love. It is then that love becomes violent. It is then that kisses become bites, caresses become blows, forgiving looks become suspicious glances, lending a sympathetic ear becomes eavesdropping, and heartfelt surrender becomes violation, The borderline between love and force is frequently transgressed, and in our anxiety-ridden times it doesn’t take very much to let our desire for love lead us to violent behavior.
When I look about me and see the many forms of coercion present in human relationships, I often have a sense of seeing here, there, and everywhere people who want nothing more or less than to be loved, but who have been unable to find any way to express that longing other than through violence, either to others or to themselves. I sometimes get the impression that our prisons are crammed full of people who couldn’t express their need to be loved except by flailing about furiously and hurting others. At the same time, many of our psychiatric institutions are filled with people who, full of shame and guilt, have given a form to the self-same need by inflicting damage on themselves. 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 non-coercive, non-violent love?
In what I’ve been describing as coercive love, you will, I hope, have detected something of yourself or of the people around you. If so, you will the more readily understand what Jesus means when he speaks of 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. In his conversation with Nicodemus he says, “For this is how God loved the world: He gave us his only Son … For God has sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, hut so that through him the world might be saved.” In these words the meaning of the Incarnation is summed up. God has become human, that is, God-with-us in order to show us that the anxious concern for recognition and the violence among us spring from a lack of faith in the love of God. If we had a firm faith in God’s unconditional love for us, it would no longer he necessary to he 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.
The descending way of Jesus, painful as it is, is God’s most radical attempt to convince us that everything we long for is indeed given us. What he asks of us is to have faith in that love. The word ‘faith’ is often understood as accepting something you can’t understand. People often say, “Such and such can’t be explained, you simply have to believe it.” However, when Jesus talks about faith, he means first of all to trust unreservedly that you are loved, so that you can abandon every false way of obtaining love. That’s why Jesus tells Nicodemus that, through faith in the descending love of God, we will be set free from anxiety and violence and will obtain eternal life. It’s a question of trusting in God’s love. The Greek word for faith is pistis, which literally means “trust.” Whenever Jesus says to the people he has healed, “Your faith has saved you,” he is saying that they have found new life because they have surrendered in complete trust to the love of God revealed in him.
Trusting in the unconditional love of God: that is the way to which Jesus calls us. The more firmly you grasp this, the more readily will you 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; hut whoever does the truth comes out into the light, so that what he is doing may plainly appear as done in God.”
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 come to see this, you’ll also understand why Jesus’ words “Love your enemies” ate among the most important in the gospel. These words bring us to the heart and center of love. As long as love is a matter of quid pro quo, we can’t love our enemies. Our enemies are those who withhold love from us and make life difficult for us. We are inclined spontaneously to hate them and to love only those who love us.
Jesus, however, will have no part in such bartering. He says,
“If you love those who love you, what credit can you expect? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit can you expect? For even sinners do that much, And if you lend to those from whom you hope to get money back, what credit can you expect: Even sinners lend to sinners to get back the same amount.”
Jesus shows us that true love, the love that comes from God, makes no distinction between friends and foes, between people who are for us and people who are against us, people who do us a favor and people who do us ill. God makes no such distinction. He loves all human beings, good or bad, with the same unconditional love. This all-embracing love Jesus offers to us, and he invites us to make this love visible in our lives.
If our love, like God’s, embraces friend as well as foe, we have become children of God and are no longer children of suspicion, jealousy, violence, war, and death. Our love for our enemies shows to whom we really belong. It shows our true home. Jesus states it so clearly: “. . . love your enemies, and do good to them, and lend without any hope of return. You will have a great reward, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
There you have it: the love of God is an unconditional love, and only that love can empower us to live together without violence. When we know that God loves us deeply and will always go on loving us, whoever we are and whatever we do, it becomes possible to expect no more of our fellow men and women than they are able to give, to forgive them generously when they have offended us, and to respond to their hostility with love. By doing so we make visible a new way of being human and a new way of responding to our world problems.
Cory Aquino realized that hatred for President Marcos could not lead to peace in the Philippines; Martin Luther King under stood that hating whites could not lead to true equality among Americans. Mohandas Gandhi knew that hating the British could not bring about genuine independence in India. A new world without slaughter and massacre can never he the fruit of hatred. It is the fruit of the love of “your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on the had as well as the good, and sends down rain to fail on the upright and the wicked alike.” It is the fruit of Gods love, which we limited humans are to make visible in our lives in accordance with the words of Jesus: “You must therefore set no hounds to ‘our love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his.”
Whenever, contrary to the world’s vindictiveness, we love our enemy, we exhibit something of the perfect love of God, whose will is to bring all human beings together as children of one Father. Whenever we forgive instead of letting fly at one another, bless instead of cursing one another, tend one another’s wounds instead of rubbing salt into them, hearten instead of discouraging one another, give hope instead of driving one another to despair, hug instead of harassing one another, welcome instead of cold-shouldering one another, thank instead of criticizing one another, praise instead of maligning one another … in short, when ever we opt for and not against one another, we make God’s unconditional love visible; we are diminishing violence and giving birth to a new community.
I hope you feel that we are touching here the heart of the gospel. Jesus challenges us to move into a totally new direction. He asks for conversion—–that is to say, a complete interior turn around, a transformation. Not an easy thing, as is certainly evident from his words: “But it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Everything within us seems set against this way. And yet . . . every time we take a few steps along it, we become aware that something new is happening within us and experience a desire to try yet another step forward. And so, step by step, we come closer to the heart of God, which is the heart of an undiscriminating, always-forgiving, inexhaustible love. This might look like a very tall order, especially when you’re facing it alone. You’ve often told me about your classmates’ cynical reactions whenever you talk about Jesus. It is, indeed, very difficult to look for the way to the heart of God without the support of your friends. That’s why it’s important to ask yourself with whom you intend to look. You need a community, even if it’s a fairly small one. For myself, I’ve enjoyed a lot of support from one or two friends with whom I was able to share my spiritual adventure. Its practically impossible to lay yourself open to other people who are ill-disposed or indifferent toward you. Real vulnerability can only be fruitful in a community of people who are searching for God together. So one of your most important tasks is to find friends who want to walk with you on the long road of conversion.
Still, there are a number of concrete steps which you yourself can take here and now in order to arrive at this conversion.
In this letter I want to limit myself to just two of these and to give you a few thoughts about prayer and the Eucharist. If you wish to learn the love of God, you have to begin by praying for your enemies. That’s not as easy as it may sound. Prayers for people entail wanting the best for them; and that’s far from easy if it has to do with a fellow student who speaks ill of you, a girl who finds someone else more attractive than you, a “friend” who gets you to do all those awkward little chores for him, or a colleague who’s trying his best to get your job. But each time you pray, really pray, for your enemies, you’ll notice that your heart is being made new. Within your prayer, you quickly discover that your enemies are in fact your fellow human beings loved by God just as much as yourself. The result is that the walls you’ve thrown up between “him and me,” “us and them,” “ours and theirs” disappear. Your heart grows deeper and broader and opens up more and more to all the human beings with whom God has peopled the earth.
I find it difficult to conceive of a more concrete way to love than by praying for one’s enemies. It makes you conscious of the hard fact that, in God’s eyes, you’re no more and no less worthy of being loved than any other person and it creates an awareness of profound solidarity with all other human beings. It creates in you a world-embracing compassion and provides you in increasing measure with a heart free of the compulsive urge to coercion and violence. And you’ll be delighted to discover that you can no longer remain angry with people for whom you’ve really and truly prayed. You will find that you start speaking differently to them or about them, and that you’re actually willing to do well to those who’ve offended you in some way.
To end, I want to return to the subject of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist God’s love is most concretely made present. Jesus has not only become human, he has also become bread and wine in order that, through our eating and our drinking, God’s love might become our own. The great mystery of the Eucharist is that God’s love is offered to us not in the abstract, but in a wholly concrete form; not as an example or a theory, but as food for our daily life. The Eucharist opens the way for us to make God’s love our own. Jesus himself makes that clear to us when he says,
“. . .my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person. As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me.”
Whenever you receive the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist his love is given to you—the same love that he showed on the cross. It is the love of God for all people of all times and places, all religions and creeds, all races and classes, all tribes and nations, all sinners and saints.
On the cross Jesus has shown us how far God’s love goes. It’s a love which embraces even those who crucified him. When Jesus is hanging nailed to the cross, totally broken and stripped of everything, he still prays for his executioners: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus’ love for his enemies knows no bounds. He prays even for those who are putting him to death. It is this, the enemy-loving love of God, that is offered to us in the Eucharist. To forgive our enemies doesn’t lie within our power. That is a divine gift. That’s why it’s so important to make the Eucharist the heart and center of your life. It’s there that you receive the love which empowers you to take the way that Jesus has taken before you: a narrow way a painful way, but the way that gives you true joy and peace and enables you to make the nonviolent love of God visible in this world.
I began this letter by discussing events in the Philippines. The nonviolent resistance to President Marcos’s dictatorship made a big impression on me and prompted me to write to you about love for one’s enemy as the core of Jesus’ preaching. That the events in the Philippines were exceptional is evident from the fact that, as I conclude this letter, the papers are full of the American attack on Libya. Muammar Qaddafi’s terrorism has resulted in the use of force by the United States. Violence on the one side has provoked it on the other. Now everyone is afraid that the violence may spread like an oil slick on the water. It’s the endless chain of hatred and retaliation. Despite the fact that those who wield power in our world persist in thinking that they can counter force with force, the opposite proves to he the case over and over again. Violence invariably breeds violence. Mrs. Aquino’s example of nonviolent resistance is not emulated. It is still an exception, but, nevertheless, it is a sign of hope.
I earnestly pray and hope that you will cling to those small signs of hope and not let yourself he led astray by the noise and clamor of those who persist in relying on violence. The way of Jesus is not self-evident, but it is the only way that leads to life and can save our world from total destruction. Let us hope and pray with all our hearts that we may have the courage and the confidence to follow the way of Jesus to the end.
My warmest greetings to your father and mother, and to Fréderique and Reinier.
With much affection, till next time,