Nouwen: Answers from above

In his book, Spiritual Direction, Henry Nouwen tells the story of a brief interaction with Mother Teresa. Nouwen recounts how he was in the midst of a difficult time, and carefully planned the occasion of meeting Mother Teresa so that he might use the time to ask her advice. After laying out his concerns for 10 minutes, however, her response was totally unexpected. Mother Teresa said, “Well, when you spend one hour a day adoring your Lord and never do anything which you know is wrong…you will be fine!”

Nouwen wrote, “Reflecting on this brief but decisive encounter,  I realized that I had raised a question from below and that she had given an answer from above…I began to see that her answer came from God’s place and not from the place of my complaints. Most of the time we respond to questions from below with answers from below. The result is often more confusion. Mother Teresa’s answer was like a flash of lightning in my darkness.”

Big idea: “Most of the time we respond to questions from below with answers from below.” Ouch. Nouwen is right.

There is this verse that comes to mind in the book of Isaiah. It says, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9) The best answers to our situations really do come from above.

I also think this is universal: those people we admire in life are the ones who give us the answers from above. We appreciate those whose answers call us to be more, think differently, and live at another level.

Problem is, while we appreciate these people, we don’t always seek them out. Their “answers from above” may be just what we need to hear, but the answers are rarely what we want to hear in the moment.  Sometimes the best answers to our questions can be hard to handle.

So, we look for an answer from below, because misery loves company. Answers from below don’t help us to move forward in a positive way. Instead, they often lead to confusion, as Nouwen points out.

I’d like to have more of the personal courage Nouwen showed when he dissected an answer that he didn’t really want to hear, and ultimately ascertained that it was the best answer of all. That’s the stuff that great people are made of, the ability to hear something hard and use it to become better. I’m wondering what sort of answers you’ve sought out recently, and also what sort of answers you’ve given to others in the last few days. Are you finding the courage to hear answers from above?

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