At the request of a young friend, Henri Nouwen wrote a book entitled, Life of the Beloved. In it, he shared what he considered the most essential truth for living loved in the world: the truth of what God says about you. In his own life, Nouwen struggled to find self-acceptance until a word from God changed his thinking and his heart. He found peace in a world that constantly distorts and contradicts the truth of who we really are through a scripture he claimed for himself: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16, NIV). Until he claimed these words, he ran himself ragged seeking someone or something that could convince him he was worthy of love.
Jesus’ life teaches us how to deal with what Nouwen calls a life-long spiritual battle--believing we are loved and chosen. Jesus lived listening to and working with his heavenly Father, so that when he was surrounded by rejection, he remained in touch with his true identity (John 14:10-11).
Here is how Nouwen described his life-changing insight:
“Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in our brief chronological existence, but by the One who has chosen us with an everlasting love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity.”1
Claiming the truth of who we really are is the first step in a journey of transformation overseen by the same Father Jesus knew and loved. The journey lasts a life time, because there are years of wrong thinking about God and ourselves that need to be changed. Seeing yourself for who you really are requires a constant returning to abide with God, to then go out and live life as his beloved son or daughter. Below are some of Nouwen’s suggestions along with some spiritual practices that can open you to the power of God’s Spirit who alone can transform the way you think and act in the world.
Nouwen suggests every time you feel hurt, offended, or rejected, you dare to say to yourself:
“These feelings are strong, but they are not telling me the truth about myself. Even though I can’t feel it right now, the truth is that I am a chosen child of God, precious in his eyes, and called the beloved from all eternity. If we allow these emotions, feelings, or passions to seduce us they will lead us into self-condemnation and self-rejection. The word of God, on the other hand, will unmask the world’s manipulative, controlling and power-hungry voices”.2
The word of God is powerful and penetrates deep within us, searching and confronting wrong thoughts and attitudes. Meditating on the scriptures and memorizing them renews our thinking (Eph. 1:3-21, Rom. 12-1-2). With time, as we go about our daily lives we can learn to recognize the voice of God similar to when a close friend calls us on the phone. Knowing Scripture provides the way for us to distinguish the sound of God’s voice from all others by its content, its tone and even its tenor.
Secondly, Nouwen suggests that we spend time with people and frequent places where our truth is spoken and where we are reminded of our deepest identity as God’s chosen one. Our companions in Bible study groups, at church, and in fellowship and support groups will remind us. Nevertheless, since their love is imperfect and limited, we must make a personal decision to receive their efforts.
Third, whenever we are reminded of our belovedness we should journal it. Think about it. Feel it deeply. This includes saying “thank you” to God for having chosen us, and “thank you” to all who remind us of our belovedness. Situations like someone’s kindness, an event that turns out well, a problem solved, a relationship restored, a wound healed are all reasons for thanksgiving. But we must be intentional about practicing gratitude. Otherwise, if we persist in looking at the negative, any of those same situations, will give us reasons to be critical, skeptical and cynical.
“When an event turns out well, it could have been better, when a problem is solved, there often emerges another in its place, when a relationship is restored there is always the question for how long, when a wound is healed, there may be left over pain”.3
Choosing to be bitter will make us miss all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy all around us (Phil. 4:4-8). The practice of gratitude is one of the most fruitful ways of deepening our awareness of God and his work in the world.
Embedded in Nouwen’s three suggestions is evidence that the disciplines of meditation, memorization of scripture, learning in community, journaling and gratitude make space for us to experience God’s powerfully transforming love. He is able to shape our identity and integrity, so that we can live loved and respond in obedience to him no matter what is going on in our lives.
1 Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, page 58
2 Ibid, page 59
3 Ibid, page 61
Carmen Fleming is an Odyssey in Christ spiritual director and along with her participation on the retreat and seminar staff, she serves on the OIC Board as secretary.