After the time of the Apostles some of the most faithful followers of the new faith were known as the “Desert Fathers”. Most lived in Egypt and sought the solitude of the desert to meditate and understand the teachings of Christ. In their desert isolation they would explore and define the post-apostolic theology of the Christian faith. This article explores their impact on both the ancient and modern world. More importantly it demonstrates a real and sincere commitment to understanding the teachings of Jesus, a commitment which may no longer be found in today’s communities of faith. I use my own personal observation and experience to illustrate how the faithfulness of early Christians can help us renew our own understanding of the scriptures and commitment to discipleship.
My mom’s favorite biblical quote is “God helps those who help themselves.” She brandished those words like a hammer pounding home to me and my two brothers the needs to take responsibility for ourselves and get things done. This was the core value of her life and she had little use for people who didn’t bear down and make things happen.
When I was in my thirties I worked with a regional sales manager named Jack who was a self-professed Christian. His two favorite’s quotes were; “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” and “The Lord helps those who help themselves”.
I once chided him and said, “Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets replaced.”
His broad smile dropped and he glared at me as though I had kicked his dog. It was several months before he seems to forget this affront and during a friendly lunch with co-workers he quoted his favorite bible verse. I good naturedly said that it wasn’t from the bible but from an Aesop Fable. Again his smile dropped and he glared at me for the rest of the day as though plotting to avenge his wounded faith against my heretical challenge.
My Mom’s faith in the church was always dubious even though she attended faithfully every Sunday. Still we allowed her some latitude. You don’t argue with your Mom! Jack, who openly professed and declared his faith, needed to be held to a higher standard. I had acquired my Mom’s doubtful attitude towards religion but I felt strongly that if a person is committed to a belief they should have a clear and accurate understanding of what that philosophy truly means. So misquoting the bible demonstrated a lack of perception and deliberation.
As a young man I committed myself to a full understanding of modern religion and after several years of analysis decided I was an agnostic/deistic. I knew I gave it more thought then either Jack or my Mom and I certainly knew the origins of biblical quotes better! Obviously things have changed and now I am fully committed to understanding my Christian faith and getting it right. Like the early post-Jesus Christians, I have re-engaged in a journey to more deeply understand God’s purpose and to experience His grace in my life.
The type and depth of our relationship with God is our choice. So is the effort we make to pursue it. As a pastor I deal with non-believers, casual followers, and born again Christians. The many are like Jack, genuinely committed to Christ but not inclined to profoundly explore their faith. I once held a bible study and made an effort to keep it uncomplicated and easy to learn. Four weeks into the class one of the participants called and asked if I could make it simpler and not be so complicated! The only way I could do that was to use third grade bible study curriculum! People enjoy their religion as long as it doesn’t challenge them, or as in the case of Jack and my Mom, they can use it to support their values. The founding Christians obviously weren’t afraid of a challenge and they demonstrated a willingness to be changed by their faith.
I had a mentor once asked me what was Jesus’ greatest teaching. I immediately said the Great Commission: “go therefore and make disciples of all nations”[i].
“No. Try something else.”
“John 21:15-19, feed my sheep.”
“No. Keep trying”
He allowed me to struggle for a good five minutes during which I threw out several scriptures which were meaningful to me, including Proverbs 3:5-6. Finally he had me open my bible to Matthew 22:37-40 “He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[ii]
This became the message I wanted to teach and share with others because it gave meaning to discipleship, social justice and trusting in God. And it was a message which validated my Christian faith and made me believe that the teachings of Christ needed to be shared. The desert dwellers were also compelled to follow this scripture and set out to discover and know God on a deeper level then they could have otherwise.
In Matthew 19:21 Jesus told the rich young ruler, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”[iii] Author Roberta Bondi asserts that early followers, “When they heard the commandment to “be perfect” they understood it to be another way of phrasing the one Great Commandment, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . [and] your neighbor as yourself.” To be a perfect human being, a human being the way God intends human beings to be, is to be a fully loving person, loving God, and every bit as important, loving God’s image, the other people who share the world with us.”[iv] These desert followers sought perfection as an expression of God’s love, not a sign of self-importance. For the modern church, perfection is measured against the community in which it exist and is a standard of form, function and style. For the early Christians, it was a reflection of how God’s love is shown to the world.
In John 11:54, it says, “… Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.”[v]
Often Jesus went into the wilderness to be tested, to rest or to teach his disciples. But he never remained there. Always he returned to teach and heal and ultimately to be crucified. There are many instances where he took some or all his disciple with him: to the seashore, the lake, the mountaintop and the wilderness so as to teach and prepare them for ministry. The desert fathers sought solitude for the same reason, to grow in their understanding of God’s love and prepare themselves and others for teaching Gods grace. They were not isolationist shunning society because they had no love or compassion for others. They made a choice to more fully live in God’s love so they could share it with others. To fulfill the Greatest Commandment was the reason they choose a monastic life, not to flee from the world, but to prepare to be instruments of enlightenment.
In today’s society love is an emotional response to something which has a physical presence. We can love football or love pizza. We can love our dog, our cat or our 1996 pickup truck. We can love our children, our spouses and each other. We love ideas as well: freedom, justice and liberty. But only if we can experience them and have them be part of our lives. That’s the difficult part of God’s love; it’s hard to experience especially if we choose not to make a serious effort to do so. Too many in today’s world cannot see how God can be part of their lives and will not make the effort to know God. And if you don’t know God you cannot love him.
Churches can be a microcosm of society. Hopefully they represent more of the good than the bad, but a church contains humility and pride, love and hate, compassion and indifference, tolerance and intolerance. People search for truth and find a mixture of these things. It’s assumed that churches would have these answers neatly categorized, sorted and readily available. In truth centers of worship, be they temple, synagogues, shrines or churches, are true wilderness. Answers are not found in the wilderness as they are in a library. But they are a place to find the answer. Like the monastic who sought a quiet place of refuge, like Jesus who led his disciple to the wilderness, the modern world should seek the wilderness of God’s love which can be found in the quiet deserts of our churches.
Those who see faith as a viable source for knowledge and truth are dwindling. And those who seek answers through Christ are fewer still. What has been lost by many is the core essence of God; Love. It is difficult in today’s world when we demand instant satisfaction and high expectations of achievement to understand that humility is the pathway to understanding the truth of God’s love. Bondi says that “…not only is it commanded: God in Christ has been set before us as our very model of it in Philippians 2.” Humility, though admired, is seen as passive and submissive. In today’s cultures, whether Christians, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or non-believers, it’s about getting things done; filling the pews, paying the bills, visiting the members, having the soup and pie supper. Humility is about getting things done but not bragging about it. Paul’s words in Philippians 2: 3-8, tells us the type of humility we need to do the work of Christ. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”[vi] Again Bondi state; “Humility as they understood it was not really a virtue as we tend to think of virtues, It was an attitude of heart without which the virtue had no Christian context.”[vii]
My daughter and I have an ongoing discussion: Do you infuse people with the Holy Spirit so they will do good works? Or do you engage them in good works in hope that will be filled with the Holy Spirit? What compelled these early Christians to forsake their secular lives and seek a spiritual one? Did they have a passion to follow Christ or in seeking truth through Christ was their passion ignited? Was humility required to gain love, or did love instill humility in them? How does a modern church instill passion, humility and love in the modern world if the modern world doesn’t understand the essence of God?
Thousands (OK maybe only hundreds.) of books and article have been written on how to reinvigorate Christian churches. Ideas are articulated and detailed actions are laid out for clergy and church leaders to follow. They are a “paint by numbers” process which would give you a revitalized church filled with active members and sending people forth into its mission field. There is validity in these techniques, and they can produce results. But are we sending out shallow rooted Christians who misquote the bible or use third grade Sunday school curriculum in our teachings? There is a lukewarm passion that merely sustains the institution but does not give it renewed life. Those who have this passion seek to revive the commandment to love by humbling themselves as Jesus did for the sake of those who don’t know God’s love
Pontius Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?”[viii] He received no answer and, anxious to resolve the trouble, went to the crowd and gave them a choice: Jesus or Barabbas. My co-worker Jack was so certain of his faith that he chooses not to challenge or verify its truthfulness. My Mom was obstinate in her values that she simple chooses what fit into her thinking and ignored what didn’t. Pilate’s question “what is truth” was rhetorical and he didn’t expect nor would he have accepted an answer. Like Pilate, the desert fathers/mothers sought the truth. Unlike Pilate they went searching for the answer.
Pilate wasn’t the first person to ask that question. Doubtless every human who ever lived has posed it in one form or another. It may be that we have just gotten tired of asking because we no longer expect an answer. Pilate chooses a mechanized answer to his dilemma, a “paint by number” solution. There was no profound truth, no great knowledge, and no life affirming revelations, just a quick and simple solution to an annoying problem, a solution which fits in well with modern society and the present day church. “Pastor could you make bible study simpler and not be so complicated!”
Ironically Pilate had asked the one person in the history of the world who could have given him the answer! Did Jesus know Pilate wouldn’t accept his answer and so said nothing? The desert fathers/mothers did wait for the answers and sacrificed to receive them. Given the living conditions of the day, desert living may have been better then dwelling in the overcrowded cities of the time. Yet giving up their families and their income to seek the truth demonstrated what was found in Jacob; a persistent commitment to follow God.
Jacob had a passion for Rachel and was willing to humble himself for fourteen years to receive her love. The monastic’s had a passion to be like Christ and humbled themselves to achieve perfection. Perhaps the passion to know the truth has weakened since the days of the fathers and mothers. And humility is not seen as a way to achieve the things we want. It is possible we no longer realize what the gift of God’s love can do for us or that God even offer the gift of love. Yet churches need to find those individuals who wish to know “what is truth” and then sacrifice to find the answers. The Body of Christ, laity and clergy, need to seek out and give these seekers of truth a wilderness in which to grow.
[i] Harper Bibles (2011-11-22). NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Location 59364). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Harper Bibles (2011-11-22). NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 59030-59033). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition
[iii] Harper Bibles (2011-11-22). NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 58880-58882). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Bondi, Roberta C. To Love as God Loves, Pg 17, Fortress Press 1987
[v] Harper Bibles (2011-11-22). NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 62792-62793). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[vi] Harper Bibles (2011-11-22). NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 67088-67091). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[vii] Bondi, Roberta C. To Love as God Loves, Pg 18, Fortress Press 1987
[viii] Harper Bibles (2011-11-22). NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 63075-63076). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.