September 21, 2020

Love in the Desert (1)

Menas jesus

All these problems together convince many modern Christians that they could only become real Christians if it were not for the other people in the world. For them to be Christian means to be a “spiritual” person, full of love and joy to share with all the human race, but they find it very hard to be in contact with the real flesh-and-blood problems of other human beings. In their minds, “spiritual” people “rejoice in the Lord always” and whatever hinders their rejoicing, including a lot of complexity and ambiguity in life, gets rejected. Often they can hardly tolerate other people’s real problems or even their personalities. Real people tug them away from the pure, spiritual love of God.

• Roberta C. Bondi

• • •

Yesterday’s case study highlighted something I have observed for a long time as a pastor, a chaplain, and as a Christian. At ground level, most trouble we experience in the church is about relationships between people. Followers of Jesus most often fall through a failure to love. As much as we might talk about our “relationship with God,” or faith, or sound teaching, or worship practices, etc., the bottom line for most of us is how we treat and are treated by the other human beings around us.

This is why Jesus pinpointed one thing that would identify people as his followers (John 13).

This is why the N.T. epistles spend so much time urging people in the congregations to practice genuine love by exhibiting mutual affection, honoring others above themselves, generously contributing to others’ needs, showing hospitality, being supportive to one another in times of rejoicing and in seasons of sorrow, not being haughty but willing to associate with the lowly, not returning evil for evil but being kind, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as Christ forgave, extending forbearance, showing compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (see Romans 12, Ephesians 4, Colossians 3).

And on and on it goes. The apostles knock themselves out, finding every way possible to urge their friends to love each other. Paul defines the Christian life itself in these terms: “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). The only thing that counts, he said. Did you get that? The only thing that counts.

Now we can learn another thing from this constant repetition of instruction and exhortation: Christians don’t do it very well. At least not consistently. Or with all people in mind. Or when it’s not easy. Often we fail to love in epic ways. If believers loved one another well, loved their neighbors as themselves, and if churches were model communities of love to the world around them, we would have a much different New Testament.

Roberta C. Bondi expands our understanding of early Christian teaching on this subject by showing us what the early Desert Fathers and Mothers said about Christian love, in her book, To Love as God Loves.

Before discussing aspects of their thoughts on loving as God loves, Bondi reminds us that these early saints taught largely through indirect methods: parables, stories, sayings. They avoided making propositional statements carefully defining the Christian way. “These early Christians had a dislike . . . for rigid answers about what it meant to be Christian.” What they give us is not rules to be followed, but words of wisdom for contemplation, encouraging those who hear to let the Holy Spirit help them make an appropriate response.

Furthermore, although these believers shared an overall common vision for Christian living, they did not speak with a single voice but respected the variety of people’s personalities, experiences, and the many paths on which believers may walk to become people of love.

Finally, Bondi warns us that these ancient sages, with whom we share a common humanity and common challenges, sometimes spoke in ways that seem foreign, even wrong to us. For example, the overall vision that drove them to the desert was the pursuit of “perfection.”

That’s a difficult word for us, and she urges us not to dismiss it merely as an ascetic’s rigorous pursuit of adherence to monastic rules or disciplines. Nor should we think of it as we use it today: attaining an absolute state of changeless faultlessness and completion (that’s more of a Greek philosophical idea), or in terms of a “perfectionist” who is obsessed with getting things right all the time (and needing therapeutic intervention). Rather, they thought of perfection as Jesus taught about it in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5:48 in context): loving our enemies as well as our friends. Perfect love. A “perfection” that is not changeless but which involves change and growth and development — moving forward on the way of perfection, with God, into God’s love. Trusting God as they did, and grieved over the loveless world in which they lived, they sought God in extraordinary ways that he might form them into people who loved God and their neighbors well. (Not that they always succeeded in keeping that vision and their practices pure, but that’s another story.)

Our early monastic friends . . . believed too fervently that, working with the overwhelming gift of God’s grace, not only could an individual come to be fully loving in a way that significantly changes the world but also that, in the continuation of the work of God begun in Christ in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, the whole human race and the cosmos itself would one day be transformed in love.

We will continue looking at what these fourth century believers learned and shared about love in weeks to come. We conclude today with a story of how God has made us to need each other, so that we live in God’s love by giving and receiving from one another in love.

Desert-FathersThey said of an old man that he went on fasting for seventy weeks, eating a meal only once a week. He asked of God the meaning of a text of the holy Scriptures and God did not reveal it to him. So he said to himself: “Here I am: I have worked so hard and profited nothing. I will go to my brother and ask him.” Just as he had shut his door on the way out, an angel of the Lord was sent to him; and the angel said: “The seventy weeks of your fast have not brought you near to God: but now you are humbled and going to your brother, I have been sent to show you the meaning of the text.” And he explained to him what he had asked, and went away.

• “The Sayings of the Fathers,” in Western Asceticism (Chadwick)


  1. “All these problems together convince many modern Christians that they could only become real Christians if it were not for the other people in the world.”

    The first Desert Fathers and Mothers fled from the world for reasons similar to these. The world, even when it had become Christian, seemed to them terribly corrupt, full of greed and hatred and strife and lust. So, they first withdrew as solitaries and hermits to the edges of the towns and cities, and then into the desert, in an attempt to escape the sin of the world, which was also the sin in their own hearts. They hoped thereby, with much exertion, to “attain salvation.”

    The situation has not changed much, except that for many of us there is no “desert” to escape to. Monasteries are not the equivalent to the hermetic life in the desert that the very first Desert Fathers and Mothers fled to, since it was a solitary, not in community. Only later, when the world followed them into the desert in search of their legendary wisdom, did they form communities of hospitality and mutual support, including rules, to help them continue their quest despite the world on their doorstep.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And in their isolation, the Desert Fathers tended to get kind of… “eccentric”.

      • OldProphet says

        Funny thing about this topic, I actually live in aDESERT! It’s not all its cracked up to be. But, of course, its not the physical place you live but the spiritual place with Jesus

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I live in SoCal, where there are only four types of terrain: Beach, City, Scrub-covered Mountains, and DESERT. When I get out of this state, I’m retiring to a place where there’s NO desert.

          I’ve also had relatives who went a little “touched” in retirement, and not in a good way. Don’t ever retire to the desert, ESPECIALLY a Nevada border town.

          • OldProphet says

            I also live in So Cal. There are definitely strange individuals in the desert.

          • HUG,

            You don’t have to leave the state to get out of the desert. Just come up my way to the temperate rain forest of the Redwoods (and much cleaner air)…


  2. Being “spiritual”?

    A certain brother came to Abbot Silvanus at Mount Sinai, and seeing the hermits at work he exclaimed: Why do you work for the bread that perisheth? Mary has chosen the best part, namely to sit at the feet of the Lord without working. Then the Abbot said to his disciple Zachary: Give the brother a book and let him read, and put him in an empty cell. At the ninth hour the brother who was reading began to look out to see if the Abbot was not going to call him to dinner, and sometime after the ninth hour he went himself to the Abbot and said: Did the brethren not eat today, Father? Oh yes, certainly, said the Abbot, the just had dinner. Well, said the brother, why did you not call me? You are a spiritual man, said the elder, you don’t need this food that perisheth. We have to work, but you have chosen the best part. You read all day, and can get along without food. Hearing this the brother said: Forgive me, Father. And the elder said: Martha is necessary to Mary, for it was because Martha worked that Mary was able to be praised.

    (Wisdom of the Desert, translation by Thomas Merton)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I heard one about two desert hermits. One (named John) announced he was oging off into the desert “to live as an angel”. A couple days later, the remaining hermit monk heard a pounding on the door.

      “Let me in; it’s John.”

      And he responded:

      “John it cannot be, because John is now an angel and has no need of food or sleep.”

      And gave the guy a hard time before he finally opened the door and let him in.

  3. CM, I will enjoy reading this series. Thanks.


  4. Many people in the Bible went into the desert for awhile, most of these are rather important. I wonder who comes to mind. Dealing with people is to me the hardest thing here I have to do. Most of the time I prefer to be alone. It isn’t that I don’t know the love of my Lord for them it is I have the hardest time practicing it. I fail so often at having patience. I can be around people all day and yet be in the desert. Everytime I fail I know I will get another opportunity to try again. This is certain as I have ask to be shown how and in asking this it always seems like yelling this at my Lord. WHY DO I ALWAYS DO THIS. I actually hate this about myself and have great want for it to change. I would imagine that even if it does change I will still enjoy the solitude. In Acts 16 I see disagreement with Paul and Barnabas and realize it is never so easy but we are going there. I guess I don’t see the wisdom of the Martha thing. It would seem we could do both.

  5. Desert motifs…Dune…the spice must flow…I don’t know, there’s a devotional series there somewhere, maybe a small group packet available for $29.99 or in bulk.

    Can I bring up a separate topic? Someone in the comments a few days or a week ago mentioned what happens when people lose baptism as the point of salvation. I’m from a fundy Baptist background with a far too long detour into charismaticism, so I’ve not really been exposed to lot of mainline or old school thinking about baptism.

    Could someone point me into the right direction or fill me in on what baptism as point of salvation is? Or baptism AS salvation?


    • Oh my! That’s a rather large can of worms you’ve just opened! 😉

    • Stuart, start with this post:

      Then email me with further questions using the link at the top of the page.

      And now back to our regularly scheduled program.

    • Stuart,

      For _very_ “old school” see this:

      In the Orthodox Church, “salvation” is understood not as any given “point,” but as all the points together on the trajectory of healing and deliverance God has worked and continues to work in each person and the whole of humanity. It has been said that EO “salvation” is justification, sanctification, etc. all taken together as one; however, I find that still falls short of understanding EO in this regard – one has to put Protestant (and Catholic, for that matter) categories on the shelf, at least temporarily, in order to approach that understanding. If those categories are all we know, it can be difficult to do this.

      The point of God’s relations with us is union with him, and the sacraments are given to us to help facilitate that union, as appropriate to us as created beings. It is not a “symbolic” or a psychological feeling of union; it is really, truly union that also allows for and celebrates the “otherness” of the united parties – hence our struggle, even with all the help we are given through the Church, to live the true life of love, in union with God. (See yesterday’s post…)


  6. “Yesterday’s case study highlighted something I have observed for a long time as a pastor, a chaplain, and as a Christian. At ground level, most trouble we experience in the church is about relationships between people. Followers of Jesus most often fall through a failure to love.”
    I don’t think it is coincidence that the lofty language of love in 1 Cor 13 is sandwiched between two chapters about organizing ministry, and who gets to do what, when.

  7. “At ground level, most trouble we experience in the church is about relationships between people.”

    Yes this. Irony of ironies is that fellow believers are sometimes the hardest to love. And I know for them the feeling is mutual towards me. The ability to communicate through Facebook and blogs has only added to bickering between us. And as for loving our “enemies”? God help us.

  8. I have long observed that churches are places where all kinds of folks from all parts of society mix, and are expected to love each other, get along, accomplish some things, and keep the enterprise going. It is the only place I’ve seen where people who have all kinds of different social and family lives, different kinds of jobs, different levels of education and experience, different strengths and weaknesses are asked to sit together on boards and committees, lead projects, make financial decisions, and so forth.

    I have seen this work spectacularly well, and when it has, it is the kind of thing that brings you to your knees in thanksgiving for the body of Christ.

    I have also seen this turn into disaster and wreck churches. It is enough to turn you off to the whole enterprise.

    In my experience, at least when it comes to putting people on boards and in leadership positions, the key seems to be finding people who are 1) fairly spiritually mature or at least growing, 2) willing to be held accountable, and 3) stable in their personal lives.

    Too often churches don’t take these things into account when giving people authority. Sometimes the small size of the church or the lack of willing people precludes it. What I have observed is it is almost always those who don’t fit one of the criteria 1, 2 or 3 who end up causing the problems. And yes, sometimes it is the pastor who has one of these issues.

    It is indeed difficult to love people, even, and sometimes especially within the context of the church.

  9. God has made us to need each other, so that we live in God’s love by giving and receiving from one another in love.

    To love as God’ loves I am reminded that the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life . . . and thus we also should be willing to give our lives as well. (I suspect that all too often people desire leadership positions without the love motivation of a servant heart.)

    Whatever we are called to do in the Kingdom of God, as a giver or a receiver – both are necessary for our mutual edification. To love as Jesus loves flows from humility. From my own experience, I find it easier to be a giver than a good receiver . . .

    • Christiane says

      beautifully said, TRISH, thank you
      You might like this lenten reflection on ‘love’ from Jean Vanier:

      ” ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’
      Love your enemies. Love those who hate and persecute you.
      Love ?those who have become outcast and those who are excluded from the group because they are ‘useless’, non?productive:
      the blind, the lame, the sick, the poor and the lepers.

      Love not just those of your own tribe, your own class, family or people,
      but those who are different, those who are strangers, who are strange to your ways,
      who come from different cultural and religious traditions, who seem odd,
      those you do not understand.

      Love as the Samaritan loved the man he found
      beaten up by robbers,
      somewhere on the road
      between Jerusalem and Jericho.”

  10. In the church there are Grace Givers and Truth Tellers. Grace without Truth is like kissing your sister. There is no payoff. Truth without Grace, on the other hand, is downright irritating …and alienating. The key is a proper balance. First Grace, then Truth. We have now far too many truth tellers in the evangelical church, methinks. The result is broken relationships.

    Jesus, time and again, demonstrates Grace before Truth. With four simple words he utterly humbled himself with the woman at the well in John 4. “Give me a drink”. Contextually, that was an astounding way for Him to begin a conversation with a woman. Every leper, every cripple, every sinner He met encountered Grace before hearing Truth from Him. Seems we should learn something from that.

    • I’m coming to believe that Grace and Truth are inseparable. I think Grace IS Truth, and Truth IS Grace.

      • I’ts almost a truism to say “truth and grace,” as if these are competing principles that have to be harmonized.

        But to be honest, whenever someone drops the two terms into some smooth phrase that attempts to manage or “balance” them, all I hear is someone who won’t acknowledge or can’t see that the contradictions between their ideas and their humanity are a problem.

      • “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:15-16

  11. My understanding is that the first Desert Fathers and Mothers were not connected with local ecclesiastical structures, and most of them were not clergy. Consequently, their withdrawal in the first decades was a withdrawal from the world, and also a withdrawal from participating in official Church liturgies; that is, there life in the desert did not not center around the Eucharist, and was not typified by frequent Eucharistic worship. Included in their rejection of living in the world was a rejection of participating in official Church life, and in a sense a rejection of what the Church had become.

  12. God’s true love, the sainted say,
    Is the mark of maturity.
    It gladly gives itself away
    With no thought of gratuity.

    In constant graciousness it flows
    With but one intent — to bless.
    Into all the world it goes,
    Bearing no return address.

    I’ll never make their ranks,
    I fear. Maturity I lack.
    My human heart reserves one part
    For a love that will love me back.

    –Author Unknown


    Inside and outside church, things go better when I am of a mind that stops mulling over whether I myself am finding satisfaction but rather asks, “Lord, how can I be a blessing here today?” When I anticipate that every encounter will be an opportunity to bless, grace comes more easily, and I have more to contribute.

  13. As you know Michael I am writing a book on love and Roberta Bondi’s book has provided as much fire for me as almost anything I’ve found among modern authors. Great book and this is a wonderful post.