Once, three brothers caught a vision of God and dedicate their lives to serving Him. The first brother left for the city and dedicated his life to counsel people with broken relationships. He desired to take the words of Christ to be a peacemaker seriously. The second brother found many sick in the city and dedicated his life to caring for them. The third brother forsook everything and left for the desert to seek God in silence and solitude.
After some time had passed, the first brother found himself in despair. The need was too great and his ability found wanting. He was on the verge of burnout and decided to visit the second brother to see how he had fared. When he found the brother who was serving the sick, he was in a similar predicament. The second brother found the need so great, and his abilities lacking. Both felt as if they were a constant disappointment. Having commiserated together, they decided to find the third brother and hoping to find out what had happened to him. \
When they arrived at his solitary dwelling, they told him about their struggles. Their inability to help the people and the numerous trials they had faced in their work. Then they asked the man living alone before God to tell them how his life had gone. Rather than directly answering their question, he instead filled a container with water and placed it before them.
The two brothers watched the water slosh back and forth in agitation. As the bowl calmed, the third brother asked the first two look in the container again. With the calming of the water they were able to see the reflection of their faces. The solitary brother then said, “My brothers, such also is he who finds himself among men; from the agitation, he does not see his sins. However, when he removes himself far from the world and establishes himself in an isolated spot, and his senses are quieted, then he sees his shortcomings and corrects himself, if he so wishes, with the help of the Grace of God.”
The first two brothers missed something crucial when it came to the spiritual life. That of coming to grips with their heart.
Elijah, John the Baptist, David, Moses, Abraham, Joseph, Isaac, Jesus and many others shared one thing in common. It is a nearly incontrovertible fact of the spiritual life in the lives of these men. Nearly every significant biblical figure spent time being formed in the desert. John the Baptist spent the bulk of his ministry in the desert, Elijah most likely spent 3 years in his first bout in the desert, Moses spent 40 years wandering, David spent years in the desert fleeing from Saul, and Jesus spent 40 days being tempted in the wilderness. To each one, this period became a life altering experience. What was so special about the desert that it become so life giving to each of these figures (and more)?
Arsenios the Great would continually murmur to himself: “And so, Arsenios, you departed. You left for the desert for one purpose alone, distancing yourself from the world. And what was that purpose? To be entirely pleasing to God.”
“The road of cleansing goes through that desert. It shall be named the way of holiness.” Isaiah 35.8 (LXX)
All it takes is five minutes alone to realize you have little control over your inner life. Thoughts swirl, temptations form, and darkness threatens to overtake us in a matter of moments. The heart remains a mystery to even the most well-counselled and put together people alive.
To those who found God in the desert this profound realization hit them: your heart is the actual desert. The trek to the desert became the acknowledgement of inner barrenness apart from God. In the desert you spend time dry and thirsty, weary from the surrounding circumstances. There is little nourishment. What little you have is exposed, and the great needs of your heart are accentuated. Your heart is a wasteland that must be terraformed to accept the rain of the Holy Spirit.
The first significant cry of the one embarking on the spiritual life is, “God, I don’t know myself! Help me to know me!”
Isaiah 42:3 A bruised reed He will not break, And smoking flax He will not quench; He will bring forth justice for truth.
God will deal with us softly and gently, but our problem is that we have allowed certain areas of our lives to become overrun with complacency. This verse should make you ask, “How tender am I?” A bruised reed and smoking flax are both tender, supple, and require care and attention. How attentive are you your own brokenness, lack, self-worth, and need? And not from other people, but from God. When we recognize that we could be snuffed out in a moment, we are apt to take greater care in recognizing our condition and running to him. Unfortunately, we rarely do this.
One of the ways this plays its way out is our unwillingness to face pain. Pain presents us with a particular problem. To see what is in my heart I must see, feel, and move through painful situations in the past, but to do that I must see and feel the pain that I have worked so desperately to avoid.
Not understanding what has happened prevents us from going on to something better. Abba Poemen the Shepherd
Pain has the potential to open our heart up to the depths of God’s love. Without depth of pain we remain shallow, and the bottom of our heart remains empty and callous. But pain serves to break open something wthin us, and crack a facade that keeps our hearts cut off and limited in our capacity to move through every day life.
Pain opens a panorama of depth to our internal life. If I can feel pain, I can feel love. If I can feel suffering, I can feel faith. The moment I cut myself off of the process of suffering and pain I cut myself off of God’s heart. The moment I cut myself off of grief I remove my capacity for joy.
Psalm 30:5b Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
Though pain and joy appear to be polar opposites, they are uniquely intertwined. Without each other the depth of either are never discovered. The joy of my daughter leads to the grief of the thought of losing her.
Matthew 5:4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
When we are in mourning, we are confronted with the painful challenge of facing ourselves. In the place of mourning we may find the comfort of the tender heart of Christ. However, if we short circuit the process of mourning, of seeing, feeling, and moving through pain, we shall never find the comfort promised. Mourning and grief seem to highlight the vivacity of joy and comfort. We see our desperate need of them when they are taken from us.
When we move through our pain we have the potential to realize something remarkable in how God relates to us: we are upheld and sustained by Him. Without the sustaining presence of God we would just fall over or cease to be. God is life, and as such all beings derive their life from Him. There is no thing alive that does not derive life from God. In the most basic and general sense we are all upheld by God. But in a deeper sense, there is a place of submission and a laying down of that that sees all of our being as originating and sustained moment by moment from God.
Being alive and recognizing that your life is not your own are two very different things. Those who are merely alive think they have some level of autonomous control over their life and that they own themselves. A simple recounting of the facts will show you differently. Ask yourself the questions: Did you choose your hair type? Your body type? Your metabolism? Your nose, eyes, ears, and mouth? The efficiency of your hearing?
The answer to all those questions is, of course, no. And this becomes starkly real when we consider just how many people would change various aspects of their bodies (which they supposedly own) but are not happy with. If a man owns a business and wants to do business differently, he changes his practices. But if a man wants to change his nose, he has no intrinsic power within himself to do. Man does not own himself in the sense that he is autonomous in all things. He has derived his life from somewhere, and what that source is depends upon his belief (family line, evolution, God, etc…)
We must admit that the lives that we assume we possess are far less our own and far more a reflection of someone else’s. To clarify even further, ask yourself the questions: Did you choose the time you were born? The family you were born into? The natural and physical talents you would possess? The character traits you desire? Too many of us would have chosen a different lot in life, or at the very least would do away with anger, lust, jealousy, etc…and we fail in doing so.
There are many character traits we possess but do not desire. What we do have, and what we do possess are our choices. We choose who we are and who we become. Every choice we make adds to the sum composite of who we are. We can possess ourselves if we are willing to make choices that are not mere responses to emotional impulses to external stimuli. The choice to walk away from anger in the midst of a difficult moment is a choice that defines you. Each time you choose to respond to an external stimulus you add to the composite sketch of who you are.
The bible states that you were made in the image and likeness of God. You are His image because you are human by essence, but you become His likeness because His grace enables you to by faith to choose who you will become. The choice becomes to either adopt the likeness of God, or the likeness of another.
The deepest part of you that you can give to God is your trust. Trust requires that you let go of control, and that fear no longer dictates your life responses. Trust emanates from the deepest, most guttural part of your heart. It is your deep heart finally being released to cry out for His.