DISCUSS the Downward Mobility essay (below) using the questions below.
By Megan Koch, Adapted by Jake Thurston, (based off Henri Nouwen’s book, The Selfless Way of Christ)
“The great paradox which Scripture reveals to us is that real and total freedom is only found through downward mobility. The Word of God came down to us and lived among us as a slave. The divine way is indeed the downward way.” — Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ
When we come to know Jesus, we approach him with our questions, our expectations, and our needs. But we can’t begin to follow Jesus until we are ready to obey him. In fact, Jesus says our obedience to him is the fruit of our love for him (John 14:23). The obedience Jesus calls for has love at its root. Throughout Scripture, there is an expectation that those who love God do what he says out of devotion, not duty. We can’t walk with Jesus and go our own way. If we follow Jesus, we go where he leads.
On the surface, this can look very positive! After all, God is wise! He loves us! His ways are good for us! Obeying God can make us safer and healthier. Our relationships, finances, and even our bodies benefit from following what God says is good. We want that good stuff. But here is the problem: God achieves these good things in and through us with methods that are often entirely backwards from how the world works. When we give our lives to Jesus, it doesn’t take long before following him means going against the tide of the world, other people’s expectations, and especially our own natural desires.
Jesus says if we want to gain life, we’ll need to lose our life (see Matthew. 16:25). He says the path to freedom is to find the one thing in the world we hold most dear, and let it go (see Luke 18:18-29). The key to tapping in to eternity here and now is to align ourselves with selfless ambition; to lay down our own pursuits and desires and take up the things Jesus says matter most.
Jesus himself perfectly embodies that life. When Paul describes how we should relate to one another and the world, he tells us to think and act like Jesus, who lived out the life of a humble servant, obedient even to death (Phil. 2:5-8). If we are following Jesus closely, humility, sacrifice, and obedience will become a part of our nature, too. We will begin to do things, love things, and create things that will baffle the world, but will reveal the Kingdom of God right here and now. God is at work where you are, and we need to resist the pull of self, the enemy, and the world to join him.
Henri Nouwen often explained that in the world, we seek three things above all else: to be relevant, to be spectacular, and to be powerful. In other words, we want to be essential to the people and things around us. We want to be very relevant; to matter and be missed if we’re gone. We want to be needed and wanted. We want to be spectacular; we want to be incredibly good at many things, and enjoy the spotlight because of it. And we want to be powerful; we want to be the masters of our own universe, to call the shots, to hold things together in the way we want them to be. We want to be in control. None of these pursuits bring us peace, because all three attempt to stand us up in a place that only God can occupy. We strive and strive and cannot ever get enough relevance, ability, or power, because we are not God.
Nouwen calls the drive for these three things “upward mobility.” Look at the culture around you. Voices everywhere say, “Move yourself up, up, up.” Get another degree. Get a better car. Have a better job five years from now than you have today. Have the house you want now, not when you can afford it. Think about how our culture works: success means doing bigger and better things every year, getting more possessions, and securing the right relationships. Be relevant. Be spectacular. Be powerful. If we aren’t moving up in the world, we’re failing.
Jesus, on the other hand, says we’re truly successful when we pursue “downward mobility.” Instead of one-upping our enemies, we actively love our enemies. Instead of getting the bigger house, we share our homes with strangers. Instead of holding grudges, we forgive people who don’t deserve it. We aren’t selfish, but selfless. That’s the good life: a rooted, risky, unglamorous, sacrificial, yet insanely full life.
Life in the Kingdom of God operates downward; we lay down our lives, we surrender and drop our hold on achievement, performance, and control, and we choose to serve without getting credit. We give costly gifts, choose community growth over individual gain, place what others need above what we want right now, and follow God’s will no matter what. We become so secure in Jesus we begin to forget that anyone else’s opinion ever had power over us. In the Kingdom of God, we don’t compete. We rest in our identity in Christ, and out of that identity, we pursue costly obedience in love. The rewards are rich, but mysterious, and often entirely confusing to the world.
May we choose downward mobility over upward mobility.
JOURNAL some thoughts, and come ready to discuss this at your next meeting.
The best time of day for me to participate in focused prayer is:
The best space for me to participate in focused prayer is:
Write down your ideal daily prayer rhythm. What would you like to include in your prayer time?
Example 1: Starting in silence, reading a Scripture passage, and then praying through a list of prayer requests.
Example 2: Do a breathing prayer for 2 minutes in solitude, pray to God for personal requests, then pray for others’ requests. Will also commit to praying while driving in the car by myself.
It is best to have some way of focusing ourselves in prayer, so that we don’t get bored or our minds wander aimlessly. For example, you might use a prayer list each day. You might journal your prayers, or use the Lord’s prayer as a framework. Describe your strategy for focused prayer.
DISCUSS the Downward Mobility essay using the questions below.
1. When we come to know Jesus, we approach him with our questions, expectations, and needs. But we can’t begin to follow Jesus until we are ready to obey him. How did your life with Jesus begin? What part did obedience to Jesus play? How has that evolved over time?
2. God achieves these good things in and through us with methods that are often entirely backwards from how the world works. When we give our lives to Jesus, it doesn’t take long before following him means going against the tide of the world, other people’s expectations, and especially our own natural desires.
Have you observed this to be true in your own life? How?
3. How would you define “selfless ambition”? How does this compare to what’s “normal” in the world around you?
4. How would pursuing more selfless ambitions change your own life?
5. Henri Nouwen, a Christian author, explained that we seek three things above all else:
1. To be relevant: to matter and be missed if we’re gone.
2. To be spectacular: to be incredibly good at many things, and enjoy the spotlight because of it.
3. To be powerful: to be the masters of our universe; to call the shots and be in control.
Which of these things tend to creep up the most in your life?
6. In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen offers practices we can engage in with Jesus that essentially act as “antidotes” to the pull of “upward mobility.” Here they are:
1. Temptation to Be Relevant: To be really important to others and defined by what you do.
Practice: Contemplative Prayer (sitting with Jesus, being together, remembering who he is and who you are).
2. Temptation to Be Spectacular: To be really good and impressive at everything you do.
Practice: Confession and Forgiveness (admitting your faults and imperfections).
3. Temptation to Be Powerful: To be in control of things and others.
Practice: Theological Reflection (learn as much as you can about God through Scripture and study).
What do these disciplines do to refine you or help you grow, and how do they specifically combat these three temptations?
ASSIGNMENT: In preparation for your next meeting, considering the final paragraph of the essay, think about a creative way you can practice downward mobility in your life. Before the next meeting, do an act of service or give a gift to someone you know in secret.
Also, read The Spiritual Disciplines & Fasting essay by Megan Koch below.
The Spiritual Disciplines & Fasting
By Megan Koch, Adapted by Jake Thurston,
God is good. In fact, everything good comes not just from God, but out of God. God is where everything good begins. When God pours out good things to us, it’s a gift. We call that grace. God is doing good things all the time, whether we realize it or not. But there are actually ways we can arrange our lives around God that put us in a position to receive even more from him, if we want it.
That’s what spiritual disciplines are. Spiritual disciplines are practices we take up in the midst of daily life that make space for us to meet with God. John Wesley called these things a means of grace; things like prayer, reading scripture, taking communion, and practicing confession. These are ways we willfully align ourselves with God. We know he’ll be there with us, and we expect he’ll give us exactly what we need.
As you take up any spiritual discipline, always remember that the discipline is a way to be with God. The end goal is God, not practicing the discipline. When we meet face to face with God, we change. If we want to become disciples who look, act, and talk like Jesus, our one job is to spend time with him, and let him change us. That’s how we get cleaned out, set right, filled up, and sent. We become like Jesus. That’s the end goal. The disciplines don’t do the work; God does. The disciplines simply help us get into a position for God to do the work.
And we can’t control the work God does. He does whatever he wants. We often approach spiritual disciplines as a transaction: I do or give something, and God does something back. We can’t help but insert our own expectations into the deal. The truth is, disciplines aren’t a transaction; they’re an interaction between us and God. When we practice disciplines, we submit ourselves to God. We stop looking for
God to simply give us something we want, and instead get hungry for God to give us Himself.
For the remainder of this module, we’re going to look at 3 disciplines that particularly relate to self-denial: Fasting, Sabbath, and Gratitude.
Let’s talk about the first spiritual discipline: Fasting. Fasting, like all spiritual disciplines, is both very simple, and very mysterious. Fasting from anything is a subtractive discipline; that means we willfully remove or limit a source of comfort (traditionally, food) for a time in order to be more alert to the presence and sufficiency of God. In the absence of old, familiar security blankets, fasting wakes us up to our wounds, weaknesses, and unholy habits. Fasting makes it easy to see where we are tight-fisted, demanding, or afraid. Fasting reveals what holds us back, and makes Jesus brighter than ever. Remember: fasting is powerful, but mysterious. We don’t fast to manipulate or control God. We fast in order to know God more rightly. He will move. He has good gifts in store for you as you fast; you just can’t discover what they are until you participate. And finally, remember that all seasons of fasting prepare us for a time of feasting to follow. As we deny ourselves, we are made right and ready to enjoy life like we’re supposed to: life to the full, with nothing in the way.