The late Henri Nouwen begins his book, ‘The Road To Daybreak’ by describing a visit he received from a member of Jean Vanier’s L’Arche community. Because he had to go to work (he was on the faculty of Yale Divinity School at the time), he had to leave his guest alone in his apartment. When he returned later in the day, this is what greeted him:
“When I returned that evening, I found my table set with a beautiful linen cloth, nice plates and silverware, flowers, a burning candle and a bottle of wine. I asked, ‘What is this?’ Jan laughed. ‘Oh, I thought I’d make you a nice meal.’ ‘But where did you find all these things?’ I asked. She looked at me with a funny expression and said, ‘In your own kitchens and cupboards…you obviously don’t use them often!’ It then dawned on me that something unique was happening. A stranger had walked into my home and without asking for anything, was showing me my own house.”
A stranger had walked into Henri Nouwen’s house and was showing him what good things he had, things which he had either forgotten or was not aware of.
Nouwen’s experience is a good metaphor for many of us. We are often unaware of the treasures that God has entrusted to us. And by default we become bad stewards of these gifts because we do not know that they are there in our lives.
As to why this is so, well, I can think of a number of reasons. Many of us, like Nouwen, are just too busy to take time to take stock of our lives. We do not have the time and the spiritual energy to do an “accurate assessment” (Romans 12:3) of who we are and what we can do.
It doesn’t help that many of us in Asia operate under a cultural belief that it is rude and overly arrogant to talk about your strengths. So we have a certain resistance to finding our strengths. What we should do of course is to acknowledge that whatever abilities we have are gifts from God and to be used for his purposes rather than to avoid thinking about them.
Some of us find it so hard to believe that we actually have treasures in our lives to offer others because our self-image has taken a horrendous beating. Maybe parents or other significant others have put us down. Maybe we have gone through some significant failures in our lives. Whatever the reason, the mirrors with which we see ourselves have been distorted, and so our view of ourselves has also been distorted.
And then there are the self-worth vultures. These are people who give themselves to a life of detecting what is bad in others. They fly around looking for failures and lapses in others, and then feed themselves on those failures and lapses.
Because the spots where they are pecking are painful, our attention is focused on those places in our lives. As a result we define our lives by our failures, and forget, or refuse to believe, that we also have good things to offer to others.
I am not saying that we should be in denial about our failures and weaknesses. Every Christian should be committed to a journey of growth. We should allow the Holy Spirit to work on our lives, trimming away what is bad and nurturing all that is of Him. All I am saying is that we should not be so focused on our lapses that we neglect the gifts that God has given us (1Timothy 4:14).
Because so many of us are unaware of the treasures that we have, we should all be treasure hunters. No, I am not advocating that we all head into the jungle with our pith helmets and spades to look for lost Inca gold.
Rather, like Nouwen’s new friend in the account above, we should be looking out for the treasures in the lives of the people we know. People have so much more to give than they realize. But many need others to point out their treasures. And encouragement to use their treasures to bless others.
Empowering others by helping them to see their strengths and potential for good, is a large part of parenting. And marriage. And management. And mentoring. And discipling. And friendship.
Just imagine what a richer world we would have if we were all committed to helping others be their best. How much more human potential will be brought to light, to light the darkness of our present world if we were all people committed to uncovering the riches in others.
Paul tells us that “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'” But he also warns that “If, however, (we) bite and devour one another,” we run the danger of being “consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5: 14-15 NRSV) We have too much biting, devouring and consuming already, both in the world, and sadly, all too often in the church as well.
Instead, Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:11 to “encourage one another and build up each other”. I can think of few better ways to “encourage and build” others then to help them discover their resources and encouraging them to unleash those resources for a needy world. Talk about your win-win situations.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan