I am always moved and convicted when I read the sayings of the Desert Fathers. Those monastical, earthly saints inspire my spiritual life to greater heights. They lived in desert caves away from worldly wiles to know their Creator and Beloved Savior in His suffering of death and joy of resurrection. Their sacrifices allowed them to experience redemptive life more fully.
Most of their teachings and sayings appear to be extreme in our world where the pursuit of every pleasure is encouraged, even in the Church. Still, in all their austerity, soulish mutilation, and self-sacrifice, they have much to teach us. And sometimes the pendulum of Christian suffering must swing extremely far out to balance the whole that has become easy, lukewarm, and tasteless.
These hermits purposely deprived themselves of comfort on any level to understand the sufferings of Jesus, to gain a hold over human passions, to worship God in the purest light. Today the Church teaches grace. The kind of grace that declares such self deprivation and suffering unnecessary and wasted–a symptom of not fully realizing the complete work of the cross or entering into the kingdom. But I am not willing to dispose of the gems left behind of these stalwart men because of the roughness of the coffers that protect them in safekeeping.
They have so much to teach me! Honestly, I think I need a good dose of self-denial to find peace in God’s quiet center for the journey ahead. The fruit of their extremity is daily nourishment for me. It is so refreshing to meditate on the words they carved out of the destitution of hot desert sands and rock-hard, cold caves of secluded prayer, watching, fastings, and humility.
The man who follows Christ in solitary mourning is greater than he
who praises Christ amid the congregation of men. ~ St. Isaac the Syrian
At first this statement almost seems erroneous. What could be greater than praising God in the sanctuary with other believers. Indeed, He is worthy. And scripture has much to say about not neglecting this important gathering for it strengthens our faith, encourages our unity, and gives back to God what is due Him.
Today the Church has nothing to say about the importance of mourning. And this Desert Father saying has the nerve to state that mourning is greater than praise in the congregation! I know it does not carry the weight of biblical truth. But that some, who sought God more profoundly than I, found truth in it demands that I must take pause and meditate on the notion.
The main man of the Reformation, Martin Luther, said, “Mourning is a rare herb.” It is something we don’t see very often — a rare commodity. From Matthew 5, consider, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” and “Blessed are they that mourn.”
How often do you find a person truly “poor in spirit” and “mournful?” These ideas are not about poverty or bereavement. They speak of humility and grief over sin and the condition of humankind without God… the ability to hate your sin and keep hating it. Not just once and for all, but to live in the reality that I am cleansed from sin by the blood of Jesus and yet I can choose sin at any moment. That I have chosen sin over righteous… to live in the reality that there is no good thing in me without His grace and light shining on me… to recognize self-sufficiency, self-promotion, self-will, self-righteousness, self-reliance, self, self, self, and to mourn deeply over these things that raise themselves against the knowledge of God in my life.
This is opposite of worldly thinking — to be self-reliant is heroic… to be a self-started, a self-made man, and on and on is society’s thinking. As a believer, these attitudes crash over my soul in mighty waves of pride, but they will not destroy my spirit as I continue to mourn over my lowly state.
I was recently very moved by these examples of godly men: John Bradford, one of the four pillars of the Reformation, burned at the stake in 1555 for his Protestant faith. Filled with such humility in life, he said in viewing a thief in the gallows, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” This phrase has since that time been firmly established among English-speaking people. He refused opportunity to deny Christ and died asking forgiveness for the people of England that betrayed him. It is written of him that scarcely a day passed that he did not weep for his sins.
Our brand of Christianity weeps over sin, maybe once — at the time of salvation. Then we are done with that, washed our hands of that. We want the abundant life!
Great missionary to the American Indians in the 1500s, David Brainerd once walked into the forest to be alone and contemplated his sins. He felt his own depravity so profoundly that he thought the ground would open up and swallow him into hell. So deep was his sin that when he return to camp, he hid his face for fear those around would know how full of pride and unrighteousness he really was.
Charles Spurgeon said, “The best of men are men at best, and apart from the work of the Holy Spirit and the power of divine grace, hell itself does not contain greater monsters than you and I might become.”
Once Paul murdered Christians. I am sure that rattled his cage until the day he passed into glory. And Jesus… Man of Sorrows. His own rejected him. Nothing hurts worse than that. He took time to mourn and fully embrace rejection of His Father when he bore our sins.
I have been in a time of great weakness in my life. I feel spent after 15 years of service. And as I seek restoration and new strength to press on with the journey, my initial reaction is to pursue pleasure and enjoyment. This is the world’s understanding of recreation. But I know deep inside that what is really needed here is a good dose of mourning and humility.
I enter a room full of people with the desire to fill every inch of it with myself. I take the opportunity to talk about myself… how God is using me — how I am reaching out to others, how I am making a difference. How important I am to his plan. What I have done. My funny stories. My influence. My gift of sacrifice. My connections. The favor God is showing me.
How little I listen. How unwilling I am to move off center stage and let the conversation be about others. How unwilling I am to let others shine. To be poor in spirit. To mourn.
Oh I am willing to grieve when my health is broken or my finances are threatened or when I am not able to climb the ladder of success like my neighbor. Suddenly it is not so hard. But can I mourn my sinful state when life is good? Can I even see myself without God’s favor when things are going well?
I have come to end of my own strength. I have gutted-it-up for most of the journey. I must let go and let God do a deeper work. All of my service and work amount to nothing. I am in desperate need.
I am remembering the old hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” The words that are so poignant to me:
Prone to wander, Lord, I know it, prone to leave the God I love… bind my wandering heart to Thee…”
After so many years of living the high life of grace and forgiveness, service and congregational life, I am STILL prone to wander.
Tears fill my eyes. I close my eyes for the awful glimpse of me. I repent and embrace silence.
I just have to agree with the Desert Father who said mourning is better than praise in the congregation. The joy of congregational worship is precious, but there is a place for mourning. There is a place for holy laughter and unconventional behavior in times of revival, but there must be a place for mourning and embracing humility.
And I am asking myself today, am I willing to mourn?
I confess: I just can’t go on unless I am.