Read Part 1 of this two-part series on how evangelicals can respond to the coming out of Jennifer Knapp.Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son is a gut-honest book based on the Parable of the Lost Son as told by Jesus in Luke 15. He offers a biblical and unbiased portrait of what it looks like for Younger and Older Sons to “let go” of their power and control. For Nouwen, the temptation to grab for power and control was not a theoretical matter. It was a painful part of his daily life. After his death, his memoirs revealed a quiet, lifelong struggle with same-sex attraction.
Like Jennifer Knapp, Nouwen knew the pain of unmet same-sex desires. Unlike Knapp, he never found freedom in Christ to act upon such desires. Some suggest that he repressed his sexuality to the point of great personal misery. By reading The Return, we see a deeper truth: that he found joy in Christ amid personal suffering.
Nouwen found a costly joy. He tasted the fruit of whole-life surrender which is intimacy with Jesus, yet the pathway to such intimacy – and staying in that place – cost him dearly. At times, the cost became too great and he – like many of us – moved from joyful surrender into cold obedience.
While Knapp grew up in a gay-friendly generation, Nouwen lived across a wider spectrum of societal response to homosexuality. He was old enough to witness extreme intolerance and lived long enough to see the front edge of Knapp’s generation. The cost of his obedience likely grew as acceptance of homosexuality progressed over his life.
Nouwen describes in painstaking detail how at times obedience robbed him of joy. We can only guess that this was connected to the pain he experienced around same-sex desires. Nouwen saw more and more people freely enter same-sex relationships over the years. Without referring to his struggle, he vulnerably reveals his bitterness, jealousy and a longing for the freedom others so easily possess. Nouwen’s jealousy produced a cold obedience that lacked the life God intends. The powerlessness of not being satisfied by his own “goodness” sterilized his joy. He turned cold and bitter. Finally, he substituted real relationship with God for performance. This competitive spirit caused him – as it does us – to exert power and control over others. If we cannot have joy, at least we can rob someone of theirs. The power of Nouwen is that he sees this tale of two sons from God’s perspective who is Lord of both. He reveals the Younger Son’s tendency to think that “letting go” is the natural high of coming out (for each of us no matter what we come out to). Over time, however, Nouwen says we discover that this “letting go” is instead our rejection of God as He is (the “I am that I am”). We cling to a different God; one made in our own image.
While the Younger Son’s path doesn’t work, the path of the Older Son also fails. Both paths lead away from the Cross. Nouwen teaches that both sons must surrender their ways and return to the Cross where we lose our life. Here and only here, jealousy and bitterness as well as power (judgments) and control (justifications) melt away. One thing remains: Christ, Lord of all.
This place of “letting go” is a continual journey; not a one time decision. Nouwen says that both sons share a common need for the Cross, and a common tendency to retreat away from the Cross. The Younger Son gravitates toward control in his desire for pleasure. The Older Son reaches for power in his attempts at goodness. They both struggle to keep letting go.
The problem with the evangelical community’s response to Knapp’s coming out is that we want all these lessons to be for LGBT+ people. Nouwen claims that these lessons are equally for Older Sons like you and me. God simply will not be mocked.
We can no longer use power and control to force others into our past “letting go” experiences. We must instead discover a new and deeper “letting go” for ourselves today. We must focus on our own sins, while allowing Knapp to walk out her journey before God. Our quick fixes, demands and expectations only create a public distraction to her private attempts to hear God. Knapp says as much in her Christianity Today interview: “It’s a challenge to break free of that (expectations of others) and to own who you really are.”
How do we allow Knapp to own her identity? We must first believe that God is as faithful to her as he is to us in our fledgling attempts to follow Him. Nouwen suggests we can express such a belief by losing our shock at others’ sins. In The Return of the Prodigal Son, this is the one thing that sticks out: the Father is never shocked by either son’s sins. This provides the potential for both sons to return home. In scripture we see God gently “letting go” of many people who seek their own way. He knows that when our reliance on power and control fail us, we return empty and broken to the Cross where – once again – we lose our life. I am convinced that this lesson is for all of us, and that The Return is available to all of us. Nouwen helps the evangelical and the LGBT+ person discover an unbiased, biblical version of letting go.
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