The Wounded Healer as a Spiritual Guide (Henri Nouwen)

Henri Nouwen in his book The Wounded Healer laments that most Christian leaders are not prepared to be spiritual leaders for hurting people.

“Our service will not be perceived as authentic,” Nouwen warns, “unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which we speak. Thus, nothing can be written about ministry without a deeper understanding of the ways in which ministers can make their own wounds available as a source of healing.” (The Wounded Healer, p. 4)

Nouwen challenges us in the way of Christ to accept that we are wounded healers. He insists that pastors, Bible teachers, small group leaders, counselors, spiritual directors, and all kinds of ministers and leaders are all needed as wounded healers for the people they serve.

Central to the ministry of Soul Shepherding is being a wounded healer who serves others in Jesus’ name. I’m praying that this study of Henri Nouwen’s teaching will draw you to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Wounded Healer, and encourage you as a compassionate wounded healer.

What is a Wounded Healer?

Maybe you’ve heard the concept that the way of Christ is to be a wounded healer for others. But how well do you understand what it actually means? What is a wounded healer? It’s not about being a needy or dysfunctional helper! Nor is it about counselors and caregivers switching roles to get their helpees to care for them!

Simply put, wounded healers offer their hurts to help others receive comfort and encouragement. They share in the sufferings of Christ and they share with other people the comfort of Christ (2 Corinthians 1:4). They become a gentle, strong, and compassionate presence for the people around them. They’re Christ’s Ambassadors who minister divine friendship of God to those who have disconnected from God (2 Corinthians 5:20).

Being a wounded healer starts with a deepening self-awareness of our own personal struggles and receiving empathy — tender-hearted understanding and compassionate support — from God and other people that we need. Being filled with love we can overflow with love to others (1 John 4:19) so they know they are not alone. Feeling our own sadness, anger, anxiety, and inadequacy we can deeply empathize with the emotions of other people so that they can articulate their experience and receive care.

As wounded healers in the way of Christ we are like the Psalmist in the Bible. We don’t deny or disdain our emotional struggles. Instead we accept our inner distress and receive the empathy and guidance that we need and then we can share the grace we’ve received with others who are hurting.

My Story as a Wounded Healer

Briefly, let me touch on my story as a wounded healer following the Lord Jesus.

I’m the oldest child in a family of seven and became a “parentified child.” I was super-responsible and found it difficult to relax, laugh, and play. I strained to be the hero: hit home runs, get A’s in school, be helpful around the house, serve as a model Christian. I became increasingly stressed and anxious.

As an adult I struggled with anxiety, inadequacy, and subsequent workaholism. Initially my work as a Christian psychologist overwhelmed me. I was constantly straining and burdened. My over-working in ministry and as an author hurt my wife and my young children. So I sought psychotherapy for myself. God lead me to cut back on my work and go on a hiatus from writing books and traveling as a public speaker until our children were grown.

Along the way I became drawn to the invitation of the Lord Jesus for me to live and work in his “easy yoke” or “rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV and MSG). This has re-defined my life. Today I work hard, but most of the time it’s with peace and joy. Slipping back into a stress mode of self-reliance or people-pleasing is a recurring temptation for me. My book Your Best Life in Jesus’ Easy Yoke tells my story as a wounded healer and how God’s strong hand of grace has met me.

Just yesterday I received an email from a reader named Rajarshi, an immigrant to America from India: “I have been amazed by the number of times I have thought as I have read your book — does this person know me even though I have never met him? How is it that he is speaking to me so directly and clearly?”

That’s an example of the blessing and fruitfulness of offering our wounds and healing process to others.

(The second half of this article features Bible verses on the ministry of being a wounded healer and excerpts from Henri Nouwen’s book The Wounded Healer.)

Henri Nouwen’s Story as a Wounded Healer

Henri Nouwen (1932 – 1996) was a Dutch Catholic priest, seminary professor of psychology and spiritual theology, writer, and, most of all, a great lover of God and people. After almost two decades of teaching at Yale and Harvard he spent the rest of his life serving as a pastor in a L’Aarche community of the mentally handicapped near Toronto, Canada.

“My decision to leave Harvard was a difficult one,” he recalled. “Finally, I realized that my increasing inner darkness, my feeling of being rejected by some of my students, colleagues, friends, and even God, my inordinate need for affirmation and affection, and my deep sense of not belonging were clear signs that I was not following the way of God’s spirit.” (The Road to Daybreak by Henri Nouwen, p. 22)

This is an example of Nouwen’s life-long personal struggle to accept his own emotional woundedness and feeling of desperate need to be loved unconditionally by people and God. According to his close friends, despite the powerful ways that God used him to help other people receive compassion for their hurts, Nouwen himself suffered with debilitating bouts of insecurity, loneliness, and self-contempt that left him inconsolable. Mixed in with this were his struggles with homosexuality, which he refrained from acting on and kept his priestly vow of celibacy with love for God and Jesus Christ. (Wikipedia)

Nouwen’s personal crisis and feeling of being rejected by a close male friend and by God became a Dark Night of the Soul in which he felt himself at a dead end. He took an extended Sabbatical, which included seeking support from two spiritual counselors. During this time he kept a secret journal which he didn’t release until shortly before his death. It was published as The Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen. (See our Soul Shepherding article on “Henri Nouwen’s Secret Journal.”)

When Nouwen felt the most rejected, depressed, and far from God he visited the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia and absorbed himself for weeks in meditating on Rembrandt’s painting of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son’s return to his father. In Rembrandt’s art, as in Vincent Van Goh’s, he found the wounded healer that he needed. (See his essay, “Van Goh and God.”) Rembrandt stirred Nouwen’s deep longings to come home to a loving Father. He tells this story of being inspired to make the transition from the intellectual world of a scholar to the childlike family of the developmentally disabled at L’Aarche in his book Return of the Prodigal Son. (See our Soul Shepherding article on “Trust God as Abba in ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son.‘”)

To understand Henri Nouwen as a wounded healer we need to go back to his childhood. He grew up with a profound sense of insecurity and shame, especially around his relationship with his father who was independent and busy at his work. He writes, “When I was a small child I kept asking my father and mother: Do you love me? I asked that question so often and so persistently that it became a source of irritation to my parents. Even though they assured me hundreds of times that they loved me I never seemed fully satisfied with their answers and kept asking the same question.” (The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen, 1994, pp. 77-78)

His little book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership elaborates on the story of why someone with a brilliant theological mind who was at the top of his career as a seminary professor would give it up to pastor mentally handicapped people who couldn’t understand his ideas? In this community of friends he says he learned about spiritual leadership in the way of Jesus.

It is out of his deep-seated inner pain that Henri Nouwen writes to us and puts words to our own inner pain. In this connection we no longer feel alone and emotionally repressed, but consoled in the grace of God. He becomes the wounded healer that we need.

Carl Jung’s Use of the Ancient Greek Myth of the Wounded Healer

Usually people who appreciate the wounded healer symbol associate it with Henri Nouwen. But the idea is not original to him. He got it from the famous psychiatrist Carl Jung’s application of an ancient Greek Myth about Chiron (Ky-ren), a Centaur (with the upper body of a human and lower body of a horse). Most Centaurs were savage, but Chiron was knowledgable about medicine, wise, and nurturing and became famous for his healing powers.

Paradoxically, Chiron suffered from a wound that never healed. Surprisingly, his wound gave him great knowledge, compassion, and power to heal. Many people came to him at his home at the foot of Mt. Pelion to learn from him and be healed of ailments. Chiron was a wounded healer.

Jung drew on this metaphor for his understanding of psychotherapy: “The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals… The pains and burdens one bears and eventually overcomes is the source of great wisdom and healing power for others.”

In The Wounded Healer Nouwen writes, “Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? In short: Who can take away suffering without entering it?”

Jung’s believed that wounds of counselors and soul physicians help them to discern and care for the wounds of the people who seek their help. But he also cautioned that this is a hazard for the wounded healers because the distress that is brought to them may re-open their old wounds or trigger repressed inner conflicts. If counselors and pastors don’t continue their own journey of self-awareness and receiving soul care from God and trusted counselors they are may fall into compassion fatigue and depression, and lose their capacity to help others.

Bible Verses For Wounded Healers

The Bible is full of examples and wisdom for people receiving healing from God. This is especially prominent in the Gospels in which we see Jesus ministering physical and spiritual healing to many people. The Lord Jesus commissioned his followers to continue his ministry of healing. (See our Soul Shepherding article, “Praying For Physical or Emotional Healing.”)

Here are a few Bible verses and examples that particularly speak to the ministry of being a wounded healer (all Bible verses are from the NIV):

Through Dark Valleys The Lord Anoints Us For Ministry and Fills Our Cup to Overflow to Others

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me… You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” (Psalm 23:4-5)

David Was a Wounded Healer

“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me… Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your way, so that sinners will turn back to you.” (Psalm 51:3, 12-13)

The Psalmist’s Experience of Unending Darkness and Pain Brings Comfort to the Suffering

“Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair… You have taken from me friend and neighbor — darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88:14-15, 18)

Jesus, the Wounded Healer, Saved the World on the Cross But Didn’t Save Himself

“Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads… In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.'” (Matthew 27:39, 41-42)

Jesus Christ Suffered and Died to Heal Us of Our Sins

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18)

When Stephen Was Stoned to Death His Love For Christ Ministered to Saul/Paul

“While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of their killing him.” (Acts 7:59-60, 8:1)

The Bible’s Wounded Healer Manifesto

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,  who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)

Through Our Painful Trials God Ministers the Life of Christ to Us and to Others

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-12)

The Apostle Paul Was a Wounded Healer

“I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

All of Us, Including Helpers, Need to Participate in Confession of Sin and Listening to One Another

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16)

Excerpts From Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer:

You may not have read Henri Nouwen’s book The Wounded Healer. There are many Christians who know about the metaphor of being a wounded healer but have never read the book. Here are some excerpts of Nouwen’s classic work.

Henri Nouwen: The Wounded Healer as Articulator of Inner Events

The greatest complaint of the Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, was that they lacked a spiritual guide to lead them along the right paths and enable them to distinguish between creative and destructive spirits.

We hardly need emphasize how dangerous the experimentation with the interior life can be… [Meditation] practices and withdrawal into the self often do more harm than good. On the other hand it also is becoming obvious that those who avoid the painful encounter with the unseen are doomed to live a [prideful], boring, and superficial life.

Therefore, the first and most basic task required of contemporary ministers is to clarify the immense confusion that can arise when people enter this internal world. It is a painful fact indeed to realize how poorly prepared most Christian leaders prove to be when they are invited to be spiritual leaders in the true sense. Most of them are used to thinking in terms of large-scale organization, getting people together in churches, schools, and hospitals, and running the show like circus directors. They have become unfamiliar with with, and even somewhat afraid of, the deep and significant movements of the spirit.

It is possible that the Church could be accused of having failed in its most basic task: to offer people creative ways to communicate with the source of human life.

But how can we avoid this danger? I think by no other means than to find the courage to enter into the core of our own existence and become familiar with the complexities of our own inner lives. As soon as we feel at home in our own house, discover the dark corners as well as the light spots, the closed doors as well as the drafty rooms, our confusion will evaporate, our anxiety will diminish, and we will become capable of creative work.

The key word here is “articulation.” Those who can articulate the movements of their inner lives, who can give names to their varied experiences, need no longer be victims of themselves… They are able to create space for the Spirit whose heart is greater than their own, whose eyes see more than their own, and whose hands can heal more than their own.

This articulation, I believe is the basis for a spiritual leadership of the future, because only those who are able to articulate their own experiences can offer themselves to others as sources of clarification. Christian leaders are, therefore, first of all, those who are willing to put their own articulated faith at the disposal of those who ask for help. In this sense they are servants of servants, because they are the first to enter the promised but dangerous land, the first to tell those who are afraid what they themselves have see, heard, and touched.

…[In] pastoral conversation, preaching, teaching, and liturgy, the minister tries to help people to recognize the work of God in themselves… to discover reality as the source of their existence. In this sense we can say that the Christian leader helps humans to confession, in the classic sense of the word: to the basic affirmation that humans are human and God is God, and that without God, humans cannot be called human.

In this context, pastoral conversation is not merely a skillful use of conversational techniques to manipulate people into the Kingdom of God, but a deep human encounter in which people are willing to put their own faith and doubt, their own home and despair, their own light and darkness at the disposal of others who want to find a way through their confusion and touch the solid core of life.

In this context, preaching means more than handing over a tradition; it is, rather, the careful and sensitive articulation of what is happening in the community so that those who listen can say: “You say what I only suspected, you clearly express what I vaguely felt, you bring to the fore what I fearfully kept in the back of my mind. Yes, yes — you say who we are, you recognize our condition.”

…The young especially do not have to run away from their fears and hopes but can see themselves in the face of the of the one who leads them; the minister will make them understand the words of salvation which in the past often sounded to them like words from a strange and unfamiliar world.

Teaching in this context, does not mean telling the old story over and over again, but the offering of channels through which people can discover themselves, clarify their own experiences, and find the niches in which the Word of God can take firm hold.

And finally, in this context, liturgy is more more than ritual. It can become a true celebration when the liturgical leader is able to name the space where joy and sorrow touch each other as the place in which it is possible to celebrate both life and death.

So the first and most basic task of contemporary Christian leaders is to lead people out of the land of confusion and into the land of hope. Therefore, they must first have the  courage to be explorers of the new territory with themselves and to articulate their discoveries as a service to the inward generations…

(The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, pp. 41-44)

Wounded Healers Are Not Limited by Professionalism

Compassion must become the core, and even the nature, of authority… which is visible in Jesus Christ…

…the desire for professionalism in the ministry is understandable. But the danger is that instead of becoming free to let the spirit grow, ministers may entangle themselves in the complications of their own assumed competence and use their specialism as an excuse to avoid the much more difficult task of being compassionate.

The task of Christian leaders is to bring out the best in everyone and to lead them forward to a more human community; the danger is that their skillful diagnostic eye will become more an eye for distant and detailed analysis than the eye of a compassionate partner…

But just as bread given without love can bring war instead of peace, professionalism without compassion will turn forgiveness into a gimmick, and the kingdom to come, into a blindfold.

(The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, pp. 46-47)

While doctors can still be good doctors even when their private lives are severely disrupted, ministers cannot offer service without a constant and vital acknowledgement of their own experience.

(The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, p. 94)

The Wounded Healer as a Minister of Personal Concern

If there is any posture that disturbs a suffering man or woman, it is aloofness. The tragedy of Christian ministry is that many who are in great need, many who seek an attentive ear, a word of support, a forgiving embrace, a firm hand, a tender smile, or even a stuttering confession of inability to do more, often find their ministers distant people who do not want to burn their fingers.

Such ministers are unwilling or unable to express their feelings of affection, anger, hostility, or sympathy. It is a paradox indeed that those who want to be for “everyone” often find themselves unable to be close to anyone. When everybody becomes my “neighbor,” it is worth wondering whether anybody can really become my “proximus,” that is the one who is most close to me.

After so much stress has been laid on the necessity of leaders preventing their own personal feelings and attitudes from interfering in a helping relationship, it seems necessary to re-establsih the basic principle that none of us can help anyone without become involved, without entering with our whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded, or even destroyed in the process…

Person concern means making Mr. Harrison [a 48-year old patient in the hospital who is about to have a life-threatening surgery and is afraid to die] the only one who counts, the one for whom I am willing to forget my many other obligations, my scheduled appointments and long-prepared meetings, not because they are not important but because they lose their urgency in the face of Mr. Harrison’s agony. Personal concern makes it possible to experience that going after the “lost sheep” is really a service to all those who are alone.

Many will put their trust in someone who went all the way out of concern for just one of them. The remark, “You really cared for us,” is often illustrated by stories demonstrating that forgetting the many for the sake of the one is a sign of true leadership.

…Those who have spent many hours trying to understand, feel, and clarify the alienation and confusion of one of their fellow human beings might very well be the best equipped to speak to the needs of the many, because all of us are one at the well-spring of pain and joy.

This is what [the famous psychologist] Carl Rogers pointed out when he wrote: “I have found that the very feeling which has seemed to me most private, most personal and hence most incomprehensible by others, has turned out to be an expression for which there is a resonance in many other people.”

(The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, pp. 77-79)

Jesus Christ and his Ministers as Wounded Healers

How does our Liberator come? I have found an old legend in the Talmud which may suggest to us the beginning of an answer:

Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet while he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron ben Yohai’s cave… He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?”

Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”

“Where is he?”

“Sitting at the gates of the city.”

“How shall I know him?”

“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.'”

The Messiah, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor, binding his wounds only one at a time, always prepared for the moment when he might be needed. So it is too, with ministers. Since it is their task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, they must bind their own wounds carefully, in anticipation of the moment when they will be needed.

They are each called to be the wounded healer, the ones who must not only look after their own wounds, but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others. They are both wounded ministers and healing ministers…

The Talmud story suggests that, because he binds his own wounds one at a time, the Messiah would not have to take time to prepare himself if asked to help someone else. He would be ready to help.

Jesus has given this story a new fullness by making his own broken body the way to health, to liberation and life. Thus, like Jesus, those who proclaim liberation are called not only to care for their own wounds and the wounds of other, but also to make their wounds into a major source of healing power.

(The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, pp. 87-88)

The Wounded Healer as a Minister of Divine Hospitality

Ministers who have come to terms with their own loneliness and are at home in their own houses are hosts who offer hospitality to their guests. They give them a friendly space, where they may feel free to come and go to be close and be distant, to rest and to play, to talk and to be silent, to eat and to fast. The paradox indeed is that hospitality asks for the creation of an empty space, where the guests can find their own souls.

Why is this a healing ministry? It is healing because it takes away the false illusion that wholeness can be given by one to another. It is healing because it does not take away the loneliness and the pain of others, but invites them to recognize their loneliness on a level where it can be shared. Many people in this life suffer because they are anxiously searching for the man or woman, the event or encounter which will take their loneliness away…

Ministers are not doctors whose primary task is to take away pain. Rather, they deepen the pain to a level where it can be shared… so that they no loner have to run away from it but can accept it as an expression of the basic human condition…

No minister can save anyone. We can only offer ourselves as guides to fearful people. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely in this guidance that the first signs of hope become visible. This is so because a shared pain is no longer paralyzing, but mobilizing…

Through this common search, hospitality becomes community… it creates a unity based upon the shared confession of our basic brokenness and upon a shared hope. This hope in turn leads us far beyond the boundaries of human togetherness to the One who calls all people away from the land of slavery to the land of freedom.

…Thus ministry can indeed be a witness to the living truth that the wound, which causes us to suffer now, will be revealed to us later as the place where God intimated a new creation.

…[In conclusion] hospitality is a central attitude of ministers who want to make their own wounded condition available to others as a source of healing.

(The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, pp. 98-100, 102, 105)


Excerpts in the second half of this article are from The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society by Henri J. M. Nouwen, 2009 edition, originally published in 1972.


Soul Talks Podcast: “Emotional Cut Offs Hurt.”

Bill and Kristi had an emotionally upsetting conversation. Each was tempted to “cut off” and avoid working through the mess, but they stayed with it. God helped them put into practice the Bible’s teaching to “be patient, bearing with one another in love.” It’s raw. It’s real. It’s grace. It works.

This is the last of 6 in the series “Repairing Torn Hearts and Relationships”


Further Reading

Related Products