Introductory Note:

What freedom could we find if we let go of our efforts to be recognized, liked, and applauded? Nathan Foster experimented with practices that challenged him to notice and relinquish image-management habits—little patterns of thought and ways of engaging that come from wanting others to see us as important or respectable or ______ (fill in the blank for yourself!). Real “relevance” is essential for the Christ-follower, in the sense that Christ guides our attention and our efforts towards things of enduring significance, meaning, and value. But Kingdom-relevance rarely looks like social relevance. Nate delves into the “lifelong work” of embracing irrelevancy for the sake of a heart more fully focused on Jesus. This essay was first published in 2014, as part of a series of letters Nathan wrote to the Renovaré community.

Renovaré Team

In these letters I’ve been sharing some of my experiences with practicing a particular discipline each month. This month’s practice was birthed by a quote Henri Nouwen wrote about the experience of trading in his Harvard teaching post and booming speaking and literary career to live and work at L’Arche Daybreak community, a home for people with mental and physical disabilities. The quote has been messing with me for months.

I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her vulnerable self.
— Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus 

At L’Arche, Nouwen’s typical mechanisms to impress were stripped away. All of his worldly accomplishments were not only superfluous, but hindrances. This experience and others led Nouwen to begin to frame relevancy not as something to chase, but a temptation to avoid. 

In response to Nouwen’s quote, this last month I have worked on forsaking the temptation to be important, or popular, and to avoid pursuing strategic connections and relationships. I decided to quit policing my reputation and to embrace irrelevancy. 

Seeking after importance wasn’t necessarily something I thought I had much of a problem with, but practicing irrelevancy sounded interesting, countercultural, and fun. 

To review, the spiritual disciplines are not pious activities to earn me religious points, nor are they spiritual self-help to feed my obsession with having my own way. They are not about to-do lists or ways to relieve my guilt that I don’t measure up. It makes me so sad when people view the disciplines as obligations. Rather, they are invitations, invitations into a life with God, filled with all the grace, wonder, wildness, and pruning that in his love and goodness he chooses to give. The disciplines are ways of submitting our lives and will over to God as best we can, often in small and seemingly insignificant ways. But, the results from the disciplines far exceed what we put into them; this is an act of grace. This is the way and means of grace. Quite simply the disciplines are a means God uses to change us. The disciplines are how we grow spiritually. And, they are about love, not guilt.

As with other disciplines, a good place to start seems to simply become aware — to observe. To begin practicing irrelevancy, I started to look for opportunities to let go of any impulses to be important. Once I did so, chances to practice this discipline began to appear in the strangest of places. 

Why did I want to tell the bus driver about all the states and sites I had visited? Did he really want to know? No. I wanted to look cool. I wanted to boast about how well-traveled I was.

Why did I want to tell my class that I had heard the author of our textbook speak? Was it really helpful to their learning process? Or was it just to give me a little more credibility to be teaching the class? 

Why did I tell the music producer on the plane about my band? Why did I smoothly work in the fact that we had been playing shows every week for the previous thirteen weeks? Why am I telling you? 

Why did I become frustrated that I was stuck in a conversation with an uninteresting person when someone important” was trying to talk to me? What did I really hope to gain? 

Why did I feel jealous when someone else was invited to speak at an event and not me? Why did I start making a mental list of all the reasons that I was the better choice? Why did I suddenly become critical of the other people involved? I didn’t even want to go to the event. But, I wanted to be asked. The truth was clear; I wanted to be seen as having something relevant to say.

What was most disturbing to me was how sly I was at making sure others were aware of my awesomeness. Sometimes it was so subtle and even sounded humble. I was good. Really good. 

At first these realizations were sort of painful and embarrassing. But, my self-disgust was quickly replaced with a prayerful smile. I felt God laughing at me, in a good way. He gently took me to an awareness of how being relevant is about identity, worth, and value. And how I was looking for these things in some pretty ridiculous ways. 

It is important to remember that it is not bad to want to be special or have great worth and value. God purposefully placed a longing for love and significance in all humans. Our ache and desire to be valued is like a beacon echoing through all of our existence, calling us home, home to our true selves, home to where we can be loved well. 

The question is not of our significance and value, it’s what do we do with the longing? Do we puff up with pride and wait for the world to affirm us? Do we dip our desire in false humility and secretly hope others will see something good in us? My trying to be relevant is really just a cheap and extremely ineffective way to get a legitimate need met — all while God eagerly waits to speak the truth into me about who I am no matter how beautiful I am. 

Once I got over the embarrassment of realizing that I’m potentially looking to other people to define my significance, I found the discipline of irrelevancy to be immensely helpful. Taking a backseat created space for me to listen to others and be more present. The time and drudgery it took to show my relevancy” was time away from listening. Trying to look important turned the focus to me. Entering into a conversation, forsaking any agenda of personal reputational gain was freeing. Easy. Fun. 

When I’m at a social or work event, who do I spend my time with? And why? Am I just as content to spend the time listening to and engaging a person who seemingly has nothing to offer me? And just who am I to judge the significance of others? Jesus left us a really helpful example of spending time with those on the margins, those who couldn’t help advance his ministry from a worldly sense.

Grace is needed. God’s love is needed. Humor is needed. 

One week after looking for opportunities to denounce my relevance, a brief write up of my new book was printed in a magazine named Relevant. This did a number of things for me. First off, I laughed. I laughed a lot. It felt holy. Second, it brought up a new struggle. In practicing the disciplines I have become very aware of how conflicting my motives can be. A mix of motives resides in almost all situations. 

This was a perfect example. I wanted to tell people how funny it was, but in order to do so, I would have to reveal that my book was being reviewed in a cool magazine.

Yet, how could I do that and remain irrelevant?” So often our spiritual activities come with an opposing mix of good, honest, selfish, and self-serving motives. 

Once again, in facing my conflicted intentions, I find the best remedy is another good laugh. I smile as I lay before God the truth about who I am, the good and the bad. I feel him smile back. I feel his acceptance. I feel his care. I’m loved too much for my failures to detour his goodness. 

And so, when I talk to friends about how I’m working on being irrelevant, I sometimes mention how my book was mentioned in Relevant magazine and sometimes I don’t. But, each time I notice I pay attention to what I’m saying and why. I observe my heart and my desires. 

Having a newly released book is a wonderful time to practice unimportance. It has been a lot of fun avoiding getting caught in the exhausting dance of trying to convey my accomplishments and significance. There is great freedom in not feeling like I need to let people know about me. I never really thought I had the desire to feel important, but that is what practicing the disciplines does, we become aware of issues we don’t know we have. This is a good thing; it is an opportunity.

After a month of training in being irrelevant, I often found not much had actually changed in the words I said or the people I spend time with. What did change was my motivation and my heart. And, like with many of the disciplines, after a little bit of time practicing them, I’m left wanting to commit them to lifelong work.

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Art: Vincent van Gogh. Sunflowers, 1887. Original from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Text First Published October 2014 · Last Featured on January 2022