Henri Nouwen: Motives, Wounds & Needs

When I took the class Spirituality and Peacemaking, one of our assignments was to read Nouwen’s Peacework: Prayer, Resistance, Community (2005). A few years on, I now return to its pages and find it speaking to me in new ways. Here is an excerpt about motives for service:

It can indeed come as a great shock to realize that what we consider works of service in the name of God may be motivated to such a degree by our wounds and needs that not peace, but resentment, anger, and even violence become their fruits…. If we cannot see the dark works of conflict and war in our own daily lives, we will never fully understand the cruelty, torture, and mass murder that fill the pages of our newspapers day after day. The name of God is used for many demonic actions. It is the safest mask of Satan and we have to continually tear it off if we want to be peacemakers. Though it might be easy to recognize the forces of darkness around us, it is very hard to recognize these same forces in our “good works.” Self-doubt, inner restlessness, fear of being left alone, need for recognition, and desire for fame and popularity are often stronger motives in our actions for peace than true passion for service. These are the motives that bring elements of war into the midst of our action for peace.

Only when we are willing repeatedly to confess that we too have dirty hands, even when we work for peace, can we fully understand the hard task of peacemaking.

The great spiritual tragedy is that many cruel and inhuman acts are committed in the name of serving God…. (p. 30)

The wounds and needs that lie behind the wars we condemn are the wounds and needs we share with the whole human race. We too are deeply marked by the dark forces that make one war emerge after another. We too are part of the evil we protest. (p. 31)

Questions for reflection:

  • When have I seen someone (myself or someone else) do a “good” act of service that seemed to proceed from “bad” motives? What were the results?
  • Am I willing to admit that some of my motivations are not right, or do I insist that I am pure?
  • How can I learn to be aware of my own motives?
  • What spiritual resources are available for purifying my motives?
  • Further meditation for those battling pride in service: “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret” (Matt. 6:3-4a). “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
  • Further meditation for those engaged in speaking truth to power (i.e. telling others how they should change): “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:3-5).
  • Further meditation on desire and conflict: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight” (James 4:1-2d).
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