Drawn from Gerald Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well. Part one is here.
Sittser uses STRUGGLE as the key word to describe the spirituality of the desert saints but it was a struggle related to the battle between flesh and spirit. Paul had something to say about this in Galatians:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Galatians 5:16–17 ESV)
Following are reflections by Sittser on the desert saints with regards to their struggle against the temptations of the flesh:
It was the battle for the soul that mattered most to them. The desert saints believed that the Christian life requires struggle against the darkness that resides in the heart, epitomized by the egoism that runs in every human being. Only by facing that darkness will we find true life and freedom. 83
Evagrius describing the problem of egoism, “It is not in our power,” he wrote, “to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions.” 84
According to Evagrius, gluttony consists of obsession with food, whether or not we actually eat too much of it. Vainglory tempts us to angle for attention and honor, regardless of how it can be attained. Pride causes us to claim credit for our virtues and successes rather than acknowledge our indebtedness to others and to God. 84
With regard to temptations, Evagrius said that thoughts toward sin cannot be overcome by simply resisting them. They must be replaced by positive virtues—gratitude instead of gluttony, humility in the place of pride and especially love. 85
One monk even carried a stone in his mouth for three years to overcome the temptation of gossip and frivolous talk. 86
For Abba Abbas, spiritual leaders were not to impose their own will on disciples, as if they were the superior; instead they were to offer suggestions, provide encouragement, impart the wisdom of the desert and, above all, set an example. 87
Sittser concludes his chapter on the value of the desert experience for us today:
The desert will also enable us to see how unfriendly modern culture is to the spiritual life. It seduces us into being too busy, too ambitious and too self-indulgent. We never seem to be satisfied; we always want more. 94
Abba Antony once said, “The man who abides in solitude and is quiet, is delivered from fighting three battles—those of hearing, speech and sight. Then he will have but one battle to fight—the battle of the heart.” 94
The desert will force us to hold our appetites in check, to resist the temptations of the devil and to seek the face of God. 94
Sittser suggests the following exercise. After reading Luke 4:1-13, identify an appetite that seems to be dominating your life. Commit yourself to fasting from the appetite you have identified, for a period of time and in place of the appetite, memorize an appropriate passage and pray for areas of the world that lack what you so desperately crave. 95
This chapter stirs up all kinds of questions for me. But on the topic of the desert:
What (if anything) can replace the desert experience for us today? Beyond going to a literal desert (which I personally find attractive), what alternatives exist for us today? What has worked for you?
More from Gerald Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries. Today, from his chapter three which focuses on the saints who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries and lived in Egypt, Palestine and Syria.
Struggle is the key word that identifies these desert saints according to Sittser. A key Pauline passage on struggle is found in 1 Corinthians
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27 ESV)
Now from Sittser
They believed that struggle is normal, necessary and even healthy in the spiritual life. The fallenness of the world imposes it (e.g., physical sickness, mental anguish, death of a loved one), discipleship requires it (e.g., self-sacrifice) and believers must choose to face it. We therefore cannot escape struggle, nor should we try. Rather, we should embrace it as one aspect of our calling to discipleship, for the goal of life in this world is not ease, prosperity and success but intimacy with God, maturity of character, and influence in the world. Struggle proves that we are taking the Christian faith seriously. 74
Regarding the desert saints,
“However crazy, they deserve our admiration, for they dared to take a stand against the compromised Christianity of their day.” 79
They deeply respected the example of Jesus.
“‘The incarnation, in their minds was not intended to spare them from suffering but to inspire them to choose suffering because through the incarnation suffering had become redemptive. “The more profound our personal misery,” John Chryssavgis writes, “the more abundant God’s eternal mercy. The deeper the abyss of our human corruption, the greater the grace of heavenly compassion. The more involved our exposure to the way of the cross, the more intense our experience of the light of the resurrection.”’ 79
Why the desert?
The desert saints believed that the desert itself is a fitting place to engage in this struggle, for it forces us to face our weaknesses squarely, strips away illusion and pretension, and enables us to recognize our absolute need for God. 81
The desert is barren, stark and lonely, thus symbolizing a life that is stripped of distractions, possessions and pleasures. It is a place of extremes—frigid cold at night, unbearable heat during the day, endless sand and rock, dangerous animals, utter emptiness. There are no provisions to meet physical needs, no conveniences to make life run more smoothly, no friendships to dull the edge of loneliness, no settlements to welcome hungry, thirsty travelers. 82
The desert saints chose to live in the desert to reclaim a faith that had become too easy and convenient. 82
Part two tomorrow
Grace is one of the things we should pray for, says Yancey in his book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference. Enjoy these words from page 280.
Grace descends as the gentle rain from heaven. It does not divide, does not rank. It floats like a cloud high in the sky, and the thirsty pray for it as desert nomads pray for rain.
Prayer for grace offers the chance for a deep healing, or at least a way to cope with what cannot be fixed.
NOTE: This is an updated post from a couple of years ago.
To be left alone or to be in community?
Hmmm, if I am honest, I too often prefer to be alone than in community. What does that say about my view of spirituality and of the character of God?
Here are some thoughts coming out of Psalm 133 in which the Psalmist clearly says that it is good and pleasant to be in community, to dwell together in unity! Jesus had a few things about this in John 13 and 17!
The kind of community described in Psalm 133 is something attractive, something that most of us (including myself) long for.
First of all, it is GOOD (tov). Think God said something about it not being good to be alone from the beginning! So, it should not surprsise me to think that he thinks it is good to be together.
But community/unity is also delightful or it is pleasant. A quick search on na’im which is the Hebrew word, gives the picture that the delight of community should be similar to the joy we have in our relationship with God when we praise Him, the delight that comes with compliments, the pleasure that wisdom and knowledge brings to our heart.
Two images–like oil and like the dew. Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction suggests that the oil communicates a “sense of warm priestly relationship. “
With this imagery, we see God’s anointing of one another–we recognize that God is (equally) at work in my brother or sister’s life. I recognize and value what God is doing in my brother and understand that this may mean speaking the truth in love to one another.
What extravagance to see oil flowing down—community as rich, sweet and fragrant. It is natural that we honor our brother/sister and rejoice when they rejoice!
Peterson suggests that dew brings an imagery of a “sense of freshness and expectant newness.” Should community not bring a thirst quenching for the soul? It is like water on hot day or rain after a drought or the hot season. This image of community provides the promise of better things to come, of blessings!
What creates community? Colossians seems to bring unity and community together well in Col 3:14 “love is what binds us all together in perfect harmony.” Yep, back to love and 1 Cor 13!
What prevents community from forming?
- Seeing others as competitors
- Seeing others as problems to fix
- Using others as a means to make me or the organization successful
What to do?
- Stop labeling others
- Stop presuming to know why people do what they do
- Take each person seriously
- Learn to trust one another other
- Depend on one other
- Be compassionate with and towards others
- Rejoice with others.
Peterson quotes Bonhoeffer,
“The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother . . . as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word . . . Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.” Cost of Discipleship
So, if I choose solitude over community, can I understand myself? how growth occurs? what is really important to God? learn how deceived I am about my own spirituality.
What can we do to build into community around us today?
NOTE: Following is an update on a previous post.
Does holiness provide refuge or bring condemnation? Gary Thomas in The Beautiful Fight says, “A holy man or woman is a spiritual force, a “God oasis,” in a world that needs spiritually strong people.”
The world needs holy men and women because it needs people transformed by God.
Isaiah 32:2 says, “Each man will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.” Thomas writes the following:
A holy man or woman is a spiritual force, a “God oasis,” in a world that needs spiritually strong people. When the winds of turmoil hit, such people become shelters; their faith provides a covering for all. By their words and actions, by the ways they listen and use their eyes to love instead of lust, to honor instead of hate, to build up instead of tear down, holy women and men are like streams of water in the desert, affirming what God values most. When the heat of temptation threatens to tear this world apart, godly men and women become like the shadow of a great rock. These God oases carry Christ to the hurting, to the ignorant, to those in need. They will be sought out–and they will have something to say. 48
NOTE: Following is an update on a previous post.
Double-mindedness says Kierkegaard is to will the good
for the sake of reward
out of fear of punishment. Purity of Heart
He reminds us that the reward may be present or may be absent when we seek the good. We are to walk with only the good before our eyes (as opposed to the reward drawing us along).
Reminds me of Hebrews 11:6, Those who approach God “must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
The God of the Bible is good. He loves to bless and give good gifts to his children. God is not my harsh earthly father who reluctantly rewarded. Who in the middle of a reward made you feel that your good was not good enough. Providing a drink but leaving you more thirsty than ever.
When we believe that we serve a God who rewards those who seek him we have the possibility of freedom and joy in life.
We do not serve in order to win God’s approval or love! May it never be!!
God’s fundamental character is that he loves to bless and reward those who seek him. Remember our own seeking of God is only possible because He took the initiative (1 Jn 4).
And yet . . . if I am serving (or seeking the good to use Kierkegaard’s words), for the sake of the reward, then something may be wrong.
Is God enough without any of his gifts?
What about the sheer joy of enjoying God while I run the race? Remember, “when I run, I experience his pleasure.”
Hebrews talks about the men and women of faith who kept living by faith and in obedience even though they did not receive any reward in this life–they were looking ahead to what would come (Heb 11:13-16, 35, 39, 40). Their heavenly rewards certainly exceeded any of the pleasures that sin or compromise might have brought to them.
I wonder if what kept them going was not the thought of the reward in and of itself but thoughts of the goodness, beauty and generosity of the rewarder.
Rewards do come for those who have been faithful. But, Lord, let me not become double-minded by willing good for the sake of the reward. You are enough!
After hearing a sermon about money this money, I decided to do a re-post from 2007.
I once made the mistake of calling friends frugal when they intentionally reducing the amount of food they served our group in order to save money. I think our friends did not understand the cultural value of celebration around a meal and how generosity would have communicated so much love.
Our friends were insulted and thought I was calling them stingy. Thanks to my wife, we managed to work it out. And, perhaps, providing them with a gift of a simple ride to the airport helped as well.
Mark Buchanan’s eloquent words in The Rest of God express my heart, “Generous people generate things.” He continues on pages 83-84:
And, consequently, their worlds are more varied, surprising, colorful, fruitful.They’re richer. More abounds with them, and yet they have a greater thirst and deeper capacity to take it all in. The world delights the generous but seldom overwhelms them.
Not so the stingy. Stinginess is parasitic, it chews life up and spits out bones. The stingy end up losing what they try so desperately to hold. . . Hoarding is only wasting. Keeping turns into losing. And so the world of the stingy shrinks. . . . Because they are convinced there isn’t enough, there never is.
This all relates to Sabbath-keeping. Generous people have more time. That’s the irony: those who sanctify time and who give time away–who treat time as gift and not possession–have time in abundance. Contrariwise, those who guard every minute, resent every interruption, ration every moment, never have enough. They’re always late, always behind, always scrambling, always driven. . . .
I don’t think my friends were stingy when I called them frugal. It was clearly a cultural misunderstanding. But, I guess in the matter we were discussing, I don’t think they were being generous either. My daughter, a server at a local restaurant, once picked up the bill for three friends who came in to eat a few weeks ago. She paid the full amount and received no discount or complimentary meal for them. She felt like being generous. Why? Well, according to my friend, she said that she had learned it from her dad. Wow, what a compliment! By the way, she did get the biggest tip of her young career from the friends!
Buchanan says, “The taproot of generosity is spiritual”, and cites the example of the Macedonians in 2 Corinthians 8:5. He makes the following suggestion:
Give yourself first to God. Stop, now, and give yourself–your breath, your health or sickness, your thoughts, your intents, all of who you are–to him. And your time, that too. Acknowledge that every moment you receive is God’s sheer gift. Resolve never to turn it into possession. What you receive as gift you must be willing to impart as gift. Invite God to direct your paths, to lead you in the way everlasting; be open to holy interruption, divine appointment, Spirit ambush (and ask God to know the difference). Many are the plans in a man’s heart,” Proverbs says, “but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Proverbs 19:21). Surrender to his purpose with gladness. Vow not to resist or resent it.
Give yourself first to God.
Now the hard thing: give yourself to others. Enter this day with a deep resolve to actually spend time, even at times seemingly to squander it, for the sake of purposes beyond your own–indeed that occasionally subvert your own (remember the good Samaritan?). That person you think is a such a bore but who always wants to talk with you: Why not really listen to him? Why not give him, not just your time, but yourself–your attention, your affection, the gift of your curiosity and inquisitiveness?
In God’s economy, to redeem time, you might just have to waste some.
Try this for a week, giving of yourself first to God and then to others. Be generous with time.
See if your world isn’t larger by this time next week.
May I practice generosity this week! I need to begin by letting go of . . . and giving . . .