A friend of mine shared some profound life advice with me yesterday. “You cannot hate yourself into change,” she said. 

“Wow – that’s deep. The idea that maybe you could love yourself into the changes you want to see. I don’t think I’ve ever tried that. I want to think about what that might look like,” I said. “Where did you read that, or hear that, or learn that?” I asked.

“My Peloton instructor,” she replied with a smile.

 *      *      *

I think her instructor is onto something. Something adjacent to the thoughts of renowned Catholic priest and theologian, Henri Nouwen. I’ve recently found my way to his work.

Nouwen retreated from the world from December of 1987 through June of 1988. “That was a time of extreme anguish, during which I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to my life,” he writes. “Everything came crashing down – my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God… everything. Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loves God and gives hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness.”

His great sorrow had been triggered by the “sudden interruption of a friendship… that forced me to enter the basement of my soul and look directly at what was hidden there.” He wrote extensively in a private journal during this time, often in the form of “spiritual imperatives.” 

Eight years later, a close friend of Nouwen encouraged him to publish the journal. When he considered it, “I was able to look back at that period of my life and see it as a time of intense purification that had led me gradually to a new inner freedom, a new hope, and a new creativity. The ‘spiritual imperatives’ I had put down now seemed less private and even possibly of some value to others.” 

“Do not read too many of these spiritual imperatives at once!” Nouwen suggests. “They were written over a long period of time and need to be read that way too… [they] are meant to be like salt for the Meal of your life. Too much salt might spoil it, but a little at a time can make it tasty!”

I did read the whole collection in a couple of settings, but am now re-reading them, one a day, for the next few months.

Here’s a passage I found particularly compelling…

Keep Living Where God Is

When you experience a great need for human affection, you have to ask yourself whether the circumstances surrounding you and the people you are with are truly where God wants you to be. Whatever you are doing – watching a movie, writing a book, giving a presentation, eating, or sleeping – you have to stay in God’s presence. If you feel a great loneliness and a deep longing for human contact, you have to be extremely discerning. Ask yourself whether this situation is truly God-given. Because where God wants you to be, God holds you safe and gives you peace, even when there is pain.

To live a disciplined life is to live in such a way that you want only to be where God is with you. The more deeply you live your spiritual life, the easier it will be to discern the difference between living with God and living without God, and the easier it will be to move away from the places where God is no longer with you.

The great challenge here is faithfulness, which must be lived in the choices of every moment. When your eating, drinking, working, playing, speaking, or writing is no longer for the glory of God, you should stop it immediately, because when you no longer live for the glory of God, you begin living for your own glory. Then you separate yourself from God and do yourself harm.

Your main question should always be whether something is lived with or without God. You have your own inner knowledge to answer that question. Every time you do something that comes from your needs for acceptance, affirmation, or affection, and every time you do something that makes these needs grow, you know that you are not with God. These needs will never be satisfied; they will only increase when you yield to them. But every time you do something for the glory of God, you will know God’s peace in your heart and find rest there.


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