Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. This may come as shocking to some people, but rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.
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Read the previous articles in this series here:
Chapters 8 and 78 of the Tao te Ching give us one of the most powerful and well-known metaphors from the whole book: water. The Tao is like water: it settles in the lowest places, it nourishes all things, it fills but doesn’t control, and it is the most powerful force in the world because its slow calm strength can wear down even the hardest rocks.
In the same way, the wise person is to emulate these characteristics. Just like the apostle Paul describes the mind of Christ and then exhorts his listeners to share that mind, Lao Tzu explains the essence of Tao and calls his audience to be likewise, which is what we call the Te.
Chapter 8: Just like water
The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.
The supreme good is like water,
which benefits all of creation
without trying to compete with it.
It gathers in unpopular places.
Thus it is like the Tao.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
Water. It is content in the low and unpopular places, and it brings life in the places rejected by any “good” or “normal” people. To me, this might be the most beautiful image in the entire TTC, and it challenges me to grow in love for others. It’s so tempting to think we are too “good” for the low places and low people in this world, too important to do menial tasks and mundane work, too distinguished to hang out with the outcasts and nobodies. And yet, if we are looking for Jesus, in the Bible or in the world today, these are the places we are most likely to find him.
Think about it: God lowered himself and totally “emptied himself” (Philippians 2) to become human. Not just human, though. He chose to be a man from a poor family in a backwater town of a backwater part of an occupied territory of the Roman Empire. He likely had no formal education. He wasn’t prim and proper, and he spent a lot of his time walking dusty roads. He hung out with the ones the religious people wouldn’t even eat at the same table with. And on one occasion, he did the job of a household slave by washing his own students’ feet.
If you were out doing a survey in the first century to choose the most likely candidates for a prophet who would change the world you wouldn’t pick Jesus of Nazareth. He was too much like “water,” as Lao Tzu might say, to really be taken seriously by an Empire that admired only the strength of stone, the value of gold, and the power of iron. Yet it is not by coincidence that when God chooses to show us his heart, he starts in a place of poverty and obscurity and chooses the path of humility and inclusive love.
The stone, gold, and iron of the Roman Empire were about gaining the competitive edge to control the world and make it as they saw fit. In contrast, by flowing in the low places, water brings life to them (and through them, to the whole world) by offering itself without trying to compete, control, or struggle.
This is totally paradoxical, but that shouldn’t surprise us. By now we know that Lao Tzu loves paradox; and we should know, although we often need to be reminded, that so does God.
The middle of this chapter offers a laundry list of imperatives for what this looks like in the day-to-day life of the wise person. I explore these a bit in the podcast, but you can read the chapter in one of the translations I use if you want to learn more. Right now, though, I want to focus on what happens at the end of the chapter.
Only when there is no competition
will we all live in peace.
When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.
In the last few lines, Lao Tzu makes his last point: we are not to compare ourselves with others, nor are we to compete with them, because water does neither of these things. When we start comparing ourselves with others — in looks, popularity, “success,” wealth, fame, skill, intelligence, etc. — we are walking into a psychological minefield. We make our self-worth conditional on our perceived perception of ourselves on a gigantic social and economic ladder. And the problem with the ladder is that there are always people higher than us.
For the TTC, comparing yourself to others is actually a form of competition and, therefore, aggression. It’s not good for you, for them, or for the world. When we compare ourselves to others, we reinforce the toxic narrative of our culture (and most of human history) that says only some people can reach the top, and the rest of us should be trying to get there.
The answer to all of this is contentment. By choosing to be content with who we really are, our self-worth becomes less volatile. We can be a better source of presence, patience, and peace in the world. We can see the image of God in others as intimately connected to our own humanity. We can even see the whole world not as a place for human domination, but the habitat for creative energy that expresses the heart of God’s love.
Let me make clear that contentment, as I am defining it, doesn’t necessarily mean satisfaction with the way things are. I think that we can find/practice contentment (and it takes a lot of practice!) without simply accepting that everything is “the way it should be.” We can acknowledge brokenness, point out places where growth needs to happen, and call darkness and evil out for what they are. In other words, we need not be “satisfied” all the time in order to choose contentment.
I think Jesus is the model of this contentment without satisfaction. He was content to be exactly who he was while staying present to the current moment, accepting interruptions and distractions as opportunities to live in love and the power of God. Yet because the Creation he willingly entered was/is broken, he was certainly not satisfied with it all to stay the same. He gave his life (and by that I mean not just he died, but that he literally gave his entire life) to the cause of God’s renewal. And we can be encouraged that even when contentment escaped him, for example in the Garden of Gethsemane where he sweat blood and wept at the prospect of his torture and death, he was able to pursue contentment by praying, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Like water, live grounded.
Think in simple ways,
take shape in situations as needed,
but do not become the container.
Though storms may rage
be still and calm,
one with the sea,
the deeper you go,
the calmer you will become.
—David Jones, The Way and the Word: The Tao of Jesus
Chapter 78: The weak overcomes the strong
Chapter 78 has two parts. Chapter 8 pretty much worked totally from analogy: water settles low, flows freely, benefits and nourishes all things. But chapter 78 goes a step deeper: it talks about the ways in which water is paradoxical or unexpected.
First, we have the example that water, though it is soft, yielding, and weak, has the power to wear down even the hardest things. This is a step beyond the obvious or the sensible. One translator puts it bluntly, “Sometimes the truth makes no sense.” Second, Lao Tzu, inspired by the idea of water seeking the lowest places, says that in order to be the greatest leader, you must be willing to be the lowest servant. (Sound familiar?)
Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.
Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff.
Under heaven everyone knows this,
Yet no one puts it into practice.
For the first half of this chapter, most of the translations come out pretty similar. I sat down and made a comparison of all the words used, because there is definitely some nuance brought out with each one:
• The quality of water is translated as soft, yielding, or weak.
• There are more options to choose for what water actually does: It attacks or dissolves or wears down or overcomes or erodes the hard or the resistant or the solid or the strong or the hard rock and stone.
Certainly, these are all very similar in meaning, but there is nuance, and when I read different translations I often find different things or images standing out to me. No matter which translation I use, though, this idea of water’s great and paradoxical power to overcome the hardest things in life is one that deserves meditation.
I don’t believe it is fair to say that there is never a time to take direct action to call out evil in the world, but at the very bare minimum this chapter can remind us that our action should not be reaction. And if we read and ponder it enough, we may find our eyes and minds opened to see new creative ways of defining “action” that we had never considered previously. As someone who tends to be bull-headed, strong-willed, and stubbornly committed to his opinions by nature, I’ve found myself called to continue my journey of growth and maturity through chapters like this.
This might be the most important paragraph in this whole article:
When we look at the cross, the heart of Christian faith, we see the heart of God. We see a God who allows evil to swallow him whole by submitting himself to the aggressive, murderous hearts of humans bent on protecting their self-interests from his prophetic challenge to the status quo. And unlike Jonah, who was simply spit out on the beach, the slow, calm, unrelenting strength of the water of life eroded that evil right out of existence and set off the chain reaction that we call the Kingdom of God breaking in.
(For the theologically minded out there, I am not a classical postmillennialist who believes that the steady growth of humanity will simply consummate the renewal of all brokenness. I do believe that God will need to act again, in a way just as radical as the first incarnation, to finalize the redemption plan. However, I am firmly convinced of one thing: just like those who had only mysterious prophecies to guide their interpretations of what the coming of the Messiah would look like, most of our ideas of the specifics of the second coming are almost certainly completely wrong.)
Chapter 78: The paradox of the leader needing to be the lowest
He who takes upon himself the humiliation of the people is fit to rule them.
He who takes upon himself the country’s disasters deserves to be king of the universe.
The truth often sounds paradoxical.
“Only he who is the lowest servant of the kingdom,
is worthy to become its ruler.
He who is willing to tackle the most unpleasant tasks,
is the best ruler in the world.”
True sayings seem contradictory.
Accept a country’s filth
And become master of its sacred soil.
Accept a country’s ill fortune
And become king under heaven.
True words resemble their opposites.
—Addiss and Stanley
Sometimes the truth makes no sense.
In the last half of chapter 78, we have the paradox that the greatest leader must be the greatest servant. This idea in particular is so directly paralleled in the teachings of Jesus that in this case the TTC almost seems superfluous. But I think the gritty language Lao Tzu uses helps put some real meat on just what it means to be the servant: take on the humiliation, accept the filth, tackle the most unpleasant tasks. It adds a whole new, completely graphic element for us to keep in mind when we read Jesus’ words when he says, “You know that the rulers of the people lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”
Just like the first part of the chapter said: everyone understands this (or at least those who profess to follow Jesus should), but no one practices it. Or at least, very few do. It’s been a long journey for me to learn how this works, and I’m still learning more every day as I work in a totally new environment and culture, teaching and caring for some of the most difficult children whose families are refugees from a war-torn country. In Lebanon, where I live, Syrians are often viewed as the lowest of the low, and sometimes, when I start feeling that destructive prejudice start creeping up in my own heart, I have to be reminded of these words.
The TTC says here that the goal of all this is to become the ruler or “king under heaven.” I don’t think this is the plan for any Jesus-follower. But it is the plan for Jesus. The one who was the ultimate servant and the ultimate example of “taking on the filth” of the world is now the one who has been “exalted to the right hand of the Father.” And whatever that metaphorical language means (since the Father doesn’t have a physical body, as far as we know), it certainly means that there is now one King, and we are invited into his Kingdom.
In this invitation, though, comes the opportunity to become part of his “Body.” We will never be “kings under heaven” in this broken world if we are taking Jesus’ words about the systems of hierarchy and oppression seriously, but who knows what the next chapter will look like? The story, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, is only just beginning.
Listen to episode six of the podcast below or on the author’s website:
Corey Farr is a graduate of Northern Seminary. He is currently located in the Middle East in Lebanon, a tiny country next to war-torn Syria, where he lives and works onsite at a residential facility and elementary school for both Syrian and Lebanese orphans and children at risk. A singer-songwriter and wannabe author, Corey blogs about faith, spirituality, poetry, and (of course) the Tao te Ching at www.coreyfarr.com, where this article originally appeared. It is reprinted here with permission.
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