LIVING AS APPRENTICES
In his column Heart to Heart on the Renovare website, Nathan Foster has written a delightful essay on the importance of being irrelevant. He bases it on a quote by Henri Nouwen in his book In the Name of Jesus. I, too, have puzzled over this quote: “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her vulnerable self.”
“At L’Arche, [a home for disabled adults] Nouwen’s typical mechanisms to impress were stripped away. All of his worldly accomplishments were not only superfluous, but hindrances. This experience and others led Nouwen to begin to frame relevancy not as something to chase, but a temptation to avoid.
In response to Nouwen’s quote, this last month I have worked on forsaking the temptation to be important, or popular, and to avoid pursuing strategic connections and relationships. I decided to quit policing my reputation and to embrace irrelevancy.”
This quote is about the ancient “deadly sin” of vainglory. Vainglory involves seeking and enjoying attention drawn to ourselves. We want to be relevant; we need to be recognized. If we struggle with vainglory, it reveals that our identity needs shoring up by gaining the approval and applause of others. It is truly a life-thwarting occupation! As we work at the job of being “relevant” or creating a “wow” factor, we lose the recognition of the identity that God bestowed on us delightful children with whom God desires an intimate relationship. We choose not to look to God to see who we are, but to a culture that says whatever lie it likes to make us feel “better.” The current fad of “selfies” (and more importantly the “likes” or “tweets about the selfie) shows us how much our brothers and sisters need to know about our good and beautiful God.
As I read Nathan Foster’s essay, it dawned on me that seeking to draw attention to ourselves and reveling in the external praise or approval that feeds our vainglory prove that we have still another layer of surrender to God to work on. The recognition that we are powerless and that our lives are unmanageable without God often requires several “turning overs” throughout our spiritual journey.
Perhaps you have heard or read the story of Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace was a boy who became a dragon because of his bad behavior. One day Eustace met a lion who took him to the top of a mountain and showed him a large well with bubbling clear water. He wanted to go in the water to heal his sore leg, but the lion told him must undress first. Eustace peeled off two layers of his dragon skin (the only clothes he had) relatively painlessly. But each layer revealed a new layer.
Finally the lion (Aslan) told him, “You will have to let me undress you.” The lion tore his skin “so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart,” Eustace says. As the lion pulled the remainder of his “dragon skin” off, Eustace felt pain that “hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was the pleasure of feeling the stuff pull off.” Once all the dragon skin was gone, the lion threw him into the water. And Eustace became a boy again.
If you, like me, are struggling with approval-seeking, Foster has important words for us:
“It is important to remember that it is not bad to want to be special or have great worth and value. God purposefully placed a longing for love and significance in all humans. Our ache and desire to be valued is like a beacon echoing through all of our existence, calling us home, home to our true selves, home to where we can be loved well.
The question is not of our significance and value, it’s what do we do with the longing? Do we puff up with pride and wait for the world to affirm us? Do we dip our desire in false humility and secretly hope others will see something good in us? My trying to be relevant is really just a cheap and extremely ineffective way to get a legitimate need met—all while God eagerly waits to speak the truth into me about who I am no matter how beautiful I am.”
Eustace was so desperate to have his leathery, tough skin removed that he lay flat on his back to let the lion do it; that was the ultimate surrender, lying helpless on his back ready for the lion to do as he willed. Like Eustace, we all have a lot of “dragon skin” that God needs to remove, even if it hurts. We need to allow God to undress us, lead us to the water, and cleanse us. If we do this, we will no longer need others to create our identity for us. We will rest in the identity of one in whom Christ dwells and delights.