November 26, 2020

Nouwen on Waiting

By Chaplain Mike

For your contemplation today during this season of Advent, here are some words of profound insight from Henri Nouwen.

Advent is the time when we practice the discipline of waiting. We focus our attention on the hope to come. We set our hearts on God’s not-yet-seen promises rather than our unfulfilling circumstances in the present. We join the saints who even now are crying “How long?” before God’s throne (Rev 6:10), longing for the world to be put to rights. We take the long view, keep our eyes on the big picture, and walk on.

Nouwen points out that waiting is not doing nothing, twiddling our thumbs, taking the “couch potato” position, opting out of the game. Waiting is a vital, engaged, active stance we take in the life of faith. It’s a matter of responding to God in the present—right here and now, in the wilderness—hearing and obeying the Word that is spoken so often throughout Scripture—“Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (Ps 27:14)

In fact, one of the key passages in the Bible on faith tells us that waiting on the Lord is very close to the heart of what trusting God involves:

For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith. (Habakkuk 2:3-4)

Henri Nouwen’s words drive this home. He describes waiting as “nurturing the moment.”

A waiting person is a patient person. The word “patience” means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere. The moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there. Waiting, then, is not passive. It involves nurturing the moment, as a mother nurtures the child that is growing in her womb.

• Henri Nouwen, Eternal Seasons, p. 38


  1. “It involves nurturing the moment…” A beautiful ‘dutchism’ (het moment koesteren) from this international dutchman.

  2. That paragraph is an advent feast (I hope it’s OK to feast a little early…) Thanks Chap Mike for the rich reminder that RIGHT NOW is the time and day of salvation. I need to go have a little talk with all my bad attitudes. This was a great advent message.


  3. Good word. Waiting can so easily lead us to distraction, restlessness and boredom. We need the Spirit to help us actively cultivate our memory and vision for what we are waiting for. We wait with longing, anticipation and hope. Waiting on the Lord is prayer. Sometimes this is on only activity, but often it is what we stay mindful of while we still go about our daily living.

    • Matthew Peak says

      I remember reading in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline how prayer also included just sitting quietly. This, to me, is a good way to wait on the Lord.

  4. Thank you so much for posting this. Just last night I reread the first half of Nouwen’s book The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life. This particular book of his has ministered to me greatly. We share in a God Who leans low in order to lift us up and calls on us to do the same.

  5. David Cornwell says

    The lack of patience is one of the reasons that the church in America has not done Advent very well (with exceptions of course). We are impatient for Christmas, the big day. In the churches I pastored, I always had the question “when do we get to sing Christmas music?”

    We want to jump to the day of tree and the gift and excitement. We want to jump to the birth narrative, the story, but we have little patience in doing the waiting for the birthing moment.

    Maybe (I’m not sure) it is the reason we have been tempted to set dates for the return of Christ.

    • Maybe (I’m not sure) it is the reason we have been tempted to set dates for the return of Christ.

      Reading my mind here….I’ve been studying the end times lately and you’ve pegged this one. Whereas, as Daniel Lewis says in “3 Essential Questions” : “ALL of christianity is eschatology”….that is, looking forward and waiting, the ev. version wants the goodies (or a certain knowledge of future goodies) NOW. And acts as if anything less is not a real gift at all (so much for livng in the moment).

      One sure way to miss the moment entirely: fascinate yourself with unseeable and unknowable varieties of end game scenarios.

      The “day of waiting” just isn’t good enough for many.

      • David Cornwell says

        Yes, and the idea that seems to be prevalent in certain circles that we can speed up the return of Christ by creating apocalyptic circumstances seems manipulative and just plain wrong.

  6. As I’m waiting for quite a few things right now, this was good. A good reminder to make every moment count.

  7. I’ve heard criticism of Mr Nouwen because of statements like these:

    “Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God’s house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God.”

    —From Sabbatical Journey, Henri Nouwen’s last book
    page 51, 1998 Hardcover Edition

    How are we supposed to square statements like these with so many in the Bible that state that “Jesus is our only hope?”

    • I don’t affirm statements like that, Chris. But neither do I hesitate to learn from Nouwen’s vast wisdom about spiritual formation.

      • I will admit that I don’t know much about Mr. Nouwen, but I’m glad that you can’t affirm statements like that either, Chaplain Mike.

        I wouldn’t hesitate to admit that I could gain knowledge from a man like Mr. Nouwen.

        If the quote I ran into is accurate, however, I would question his wisdom.

    • It’s at least possible that this is Nouwen fleshing out Romans 2 a little. I know that those whose interpretation of Romans 2 allows for a more ‘generous orthodoxy” have sometimes been pegged “universalist”. All of what I’ve read of Nouwen points to Jesus as the only source of hope; he might be referring to those who had never heard the good news, and never would. Just a possibility.