Driven to the Desert

In his book, The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen shares the story of St. Anthony, one of the early church fathers, who withdrew from society to the desert for solitude. Nouwen describes solitude (withdrawing from society for a time – hours, days, etc) as necessary for spiritual transformation and says this about St. Anthony, “it is not so strange that Anthony and his fellow monks considered it a spiritual disaster to accept passively the tenets and values of their society. They had come to appreciate how hard it is not only for the individual Christian but also for the church itself to escape the seductive compulsions of the world.”

Anthony withdrew in order to embrace truth (in the 300s) and how much more necessary it is today. Solitude is something that we don’t have time for, right? The very reason we need to retreat (at least for a thirty minutes or an hour) blocks us from doing so. One of the tenets of society that we passively accept is that busyness is a mark of significance. We’ve got to do more and be more. Another tenet is that we must stay on top of things or our world will fall apart. The list could go on but these simple tenets become compulsions, things we seemingly can’t escape. So, we never retreat and the compulsions become stronger. Our identities become more and more enmeshed in things other than who we truly are because of the gospel of Jesus. We wonder why we struggle to know Him and walk with Him. Why do we not do what we want to do? How much solitude/retreat marks your life?

2 Corinthians 5:14-15 says this: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

For the love of Christ to compel us (or, control us) solitude is vital. It is in the furnace of solitude that our values and beliefs actually change. But it is only when we begin to feel the holy tension of desiring Christ and seeing that we desire other things more that we are driven to the desert. Feel the tension and let it drive you to the desert.

For churches, the seductive voices are just as strong. In the last week, I’ve heard it repeated from two church leaders that “numbers are an indication of God’s Spirit being at work.” This is perhaps one of the most Satanic statements I’ve heard in a long time. This idea is simply the “institutional” tenet of needing “to do more and be more” and it gets spiritualized by saying that it is a mark of God’s work, or blessing. What about Job? He lost it all and God was definitely at work in Him. What about Isaiah and Jeremiah (and other prophets) who preached and preached with little “success”? Growing numbers might be the result of God working and drawing people but it might also be simply a sociological phenomena in much the way that a restaurant becomes the place to be or another organization gains popularity. Numbers have become the goal and the measure of the modern church and therefore become the compulsion and controlling factor of how decisions are made.

The challenge is that we passively accept the tenets of society rather than actively listen to the voice and leading of God. The desert, for individuals and churches, are where we will learn to listen and therefore be lead by God’s Spirit and shaped by our true identities in Him. The result is a freedom and a love for others.


~ by Ted Wueste on August 5, 2011.

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