A video with worship, teaching, and prayer to encourage us in fear of the Lord while ministering healing to any fearful heart, prepared by Sarah Colyn.
We pray that the Lord will anoint this video for you in a personal way. Before you press “play,” please get comfortable in a place where you feel free to stand, sing, and speak out in prayer. Invite God to minister to you, and be fully responsive as He accepts your invitation!
A friendly exhortation: this teaching and prayer is not a substitute for participation in your local church. Please don’t let this video or any of the other Christian media that’s currently on offer turn you into an isolated consumer. Active engagement with your local church body, even if from a physical distance, is essential now — you need your church, and your church needs you.
This is a brief teaching (the video with worship and prayer is just 24 minutes) — those of you who’ve been to an MPC event know that is a big victory for me! There is much more to this topic, so if you’d like to dig deeper, consider these resources:
Leanne Payne, Restoring the Christian Soul Through Healing Prayer, chapter 1 on self-acceptance.
An MPC lecture and prayer on sense of being and well-being can be downloaded here
Josef Pieper: On Hope, chapter 5, “The Gift of Fear;” the section on fortitude in The Four Cardinal Virtues.
An MPC lecture on seeing God rightly, and prayer for healing of fears can be downloaded here
This Godly Play Parable of the Good Shepherd sneaks past the watchful dragons of the rational mind and impresses the heart with the reality of our Lord’s faithfulness in places of danger.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,
that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Romans 12:2 NKJV
When we hear educators or politicians pleading for the restoration of Christian values in the universities or in government, we know their calls are nearly useless because there can be no counteracting trend until the populace itself is converted… Therefore, our hope is not in calling for our systems to be Christian, but in becoming truly Christian ourselves. 
A pro-Christ trend in our nations can never be imposed top-down — it will only come from the inside-out, one believer, one household at a time. Our societies will only remain free by having citizens who are inwardly governed by the loving will of God. We serve society when we withdraw into our gardens of solitude, where we are being steadily transformed into the likeness of Christ. We bring help to this world when we let Him send us out to winsomely appeal to those around us to be converted too. We are members of the most potent grassroots movement this world will ever know: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Lord Jesus, we praise You as the King of history and confess that you are King of our time and of our nations. Forgive us for following the lead of any worldly influence; bring the perfect clarity of Your truth into any confusion. Forgive us for any way we’ve been looking to the government or our civic institutions to rescue us rather than courageously following You. Cleanse our hearts of anxiety, hopelessness, and unbelief, for we do believe You are faithful. Pour out Your Spirit upon us. Unleash Your Kingdom within us and among us. Renew our minds, make our wills one with Yours, and empower us to invite others into this blessed life of transformation in You.
 Leanne Payne, Real Presence (Grand Rapids, Hamewith Books, 1995), 53 Illustration: Limbourg brothers, 1416, The Apostles Going Forth to Preach from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Meditation prepared by Sarah Colyn, drawing on the writings and ministry of Leanne Payne.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering,
for he who promised is faithful.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,
not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some,
but encouraging one another,
and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
After our Lord’s death and resurrection, the early Christians came together knowing that He would meet with them in a special way once again. Rather than going *to* church (their minds were not clouded with the notion that buildings or organizational structures were the Church), they came together *as* the Church to fellowship in His Presence.
And we might say they “practiced the Presence” in a number of ways or modes. “Christ has died, Christ is risen,” part of the earliest liturgy, was in some of their hearts an incredible *remembered* experience. Memories of lives shared together in the breaking of bread, in long journeys, and in the teaching of multitudes must have been vivid ones for many. Beyond memories of Christ’s presence, however, they knew by virtue of His Spirit descending on them at Pentecost that He was always present, indwelling them. In yet a third way, pertinent to what we are here considering, these early disciples knew that when they invoked Him, Christ would “come again” by His Spirit as they gathered to worship, hear the Word, and break bread (make Eucharist) together. 
Sharing in worship and the sacraments and journeying together as prayer partners are acts of faith in which we, like the early Christians, know our Lord will meet us. Pursuing fellowship with one another in Christ, we reject the consumer mindset and religious counterfeits for the sake of being encountered by the Risen One, the Objective Real. Persevering in His body is our joy and privilege, a blessed act of will by which we cultivate the virtue of hope.
Holy God, thank You for how You center Yourself in Your people. Thank you for Your dynamic, living Presence among us. Thank you for making Yourself known in the breaking of bread. Lord, I ask for an increase of faith that will empower me to live with joy and peaceful expectancy as a member of Your body. I invite You to illuminate any barriers, any unforgiveness or idolatry that is dulling my heart. Enable me to grow in maturity and freedom to celebrate Your risen Presence in Your Church.
 Leanne Payne, The Healing Presence (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1989), 48.
Painting: 3rdc., mural of agape feast from the Catacombe di Priscilla [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above,
where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Colossians 3:1-4 ESV
The way of the Cross stands always against the various ways man devises to earn his own salvation, his own ticket to the Utter East. And on that way we experience the ongoing efficacy of the Cross. We are being redeemed, and no static understanding of the reception of the Novitas or the Holy Spirit should bar us from continuing to receive. 
The Church celebrates Easter not just on one day, but with a seven-week season that calls us to rejoice in our risen Lord and His resurrection life. He is risen today, and we take our places in His resurrection right now, and again right now, and again right now. The newness of Christ’s life (novitas) is active here in His beloved world in this present moment, ours to appropriate and share. Confessing, “Christ is risen!” delivers us from the dual temptations of humanistic self-help on the one hand and cynical despair on the other. The stories of our redemption should be so much more than stale testimonies of some long-ago decision for Christ. Let us look in expectation and wonder as His Cross has its way in our lives today.
Lord Jesus Christ, Redeemer of the world, I lift my eyes to You. I praise You in Your glorified body, seated at the right hand of the Father. I thank You that Your divine energy, Your resurrection power, is at work in me and through me. I confess that I need Your ongoing redemptive work within me and that I long to see redemption in the world around me. Strengthen me in the virtue of hope all through this Easter season as I proclaim that You are risen. Alleluia!
 Leanne Payne, Real Presence (Grand Rapids, Hamewith Books, 1995), p. 94
Painting: Rembrandt,1638, Christ and St Mary Magdalene at the Tomb. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Meditation prepared by Sarah Colyn, drawing on the books and ministry of Leanne Payne
And I saw no temple in the city,
for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it,
for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
By its light will the nations walk,
and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it,
and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.
They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
But nothing unclean will ever enter it,
nor anyone who does what is detestable or false,
but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
There is a dangerous forgetfulness on our part that this world is not our true and final home. This has been greatly exacerbated by the fact that our education systems, drawing their theories from materialist philosophy, have claimed heaven to be off-limits and have taught us to look within ourselves and to this earth for the ultimate good…
I think this explains why we have such difficulty in understanding and celebrating Lent in beneficial ways. We are no longer sure deep down that we are exiles, that this is not the promised home. Therefore, we’ve accommodated ourselves to Babylon and then are overwhelmed at the sickness, fear, hatred, and violence we see here. It is a strange fact that we Christians continue to be unduly shocked and even overcome by the sight and the extent of evil we discover in the world – as if we didn’t know it to be a fallen one. 
Our Lenten disciplines impel us to kneel in sobriety, confessing hard and hopeful truths so that we might clear some solid ground on which to stand. This is reality: I am an exile. I was born into a created-good but sin-stained, demon-haunted world. I was carried off by my own rebellion and only the blood of the Son of God was able to purchase me back from my slavery to sin and death. I now belong to, and live in, Him. Every selfish and cruel deed committed, every horror at which we cry, “Why?!?” is a defiance of His holiness, and He is coming soon to judge it all. He is preparing a place for me and for all who will receive Him, and we will live with Him forever, finally then knowing what it is to be at home.
Glorious God, what a day that will be! Thank you for the victory of Your holiness on the Cross. I ask you now for Lenten grace. Sharpen my vision of heaven and strengthen my longing to reach my true home. Forgive me for yielding to the seduction of this world. Cleanse me of every accommodation I’ve made to meaningless and despair. Grant me power to rid my life of any action or posture that denies the hope of heaven. Holy God, You are worthy to receive all honor and glory and praise, now and always. Give me grace that I may join the worshippers who will rejoice forever before Your throne.
 Leanne Payne, Restoring the Christian Soul Through Healing Prayer (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1991), 226.
Painting: Theodorescu-Sion, 1915, Ovid in Exile [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Meditation prepared by Sarah Colyn, drawing on the writings and ministry of Leanne Payne
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead,
how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised.
And if Christ has not been raised,
your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
If in Christ we have hoped in this life only,
we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,
the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
For as by a man came death,
by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
I Corinthians 15:12, 16-22, ESV
Together with meditating on Christ’s resurrection and the great Christian hope of immortality, we could ask God to increase our desire for heaven and all it contains and for the anticipation of a future state in which we will have a new body patterned after Christ’s glorified body. Then, if we have substituted the favor of men and the things of this world for that which is only God’s and heaven’s to give, we have the great privilege of asking for the grace to deeply repent.
We can be turned around to once again face Him. We are no longer compelled to substitute the shadow for the real, our impressions about glory for the thing itself. 
Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Church celebrates Easter for several weeks for good reason – we need this time to contemplate His risen life and all it means. Paul points out the pitiable state of a believer who hopes in this life only, a critical caution for us today. We may not struggle with conscious unbelief in resurrection of the dead, but often we Christians live with too little joy at what awaits us. And when we lack a vision of heaven, we are too easily attracted to the lesser things of this world. Praise God for His myriad ways of moving us to look up! His Spirit stirs longings in our hearts that are undeniably larger than this life. The daily, often-painful evidence that our present bodies are corruptible moves us to thank God for our coming resurrection bodies. He reveals His splendor in creation, arresting us in moments of awe. His angels are with us, continually enticing our attention heavenward. All these promptings and more inspire us to affirm that a day is coming when we will be raised incorruptible – alleluia!
PRAYER: Gracious Father, we do ask you now to increase our desire for heaven. Whisper to our hearts about the glory that awaits us. Make us free as Your children to boldly delight in the joy of anticipation. Increase in us the supernatural gift of faith in Christ’s resurrection. Anoint us to proclaim His incorruptible life to all in need around us. We thank and praise You for imparting to us the hope of heaven.
 Leanne Payne, Restoring the Christian Soul Through Healing Prayer (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1991), 222.
Painting: Fra Angelico, 1440, Resurrection of Christ and Women at the Tomb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Meditation prepared by Sarah Colyn, drawing on the writings and ministry of Leanne Payne.
Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live.
(C. S. Lewis, Weight of Glory, p. 170)
In my meditations on perseverance I was stopped short by a phrase in The Imitation of Christ. A’Kempis describes the posture Christ desires from those who would follow Him: disciples are to await the bidding not only of Christ Himself, but also of “him whom God has placed as father over you” (Book III, chapter 32, italics mine). Similarly, in his Rule St. Benedict described our need to walk “by another’s judgment and command,” (Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 5, “On Obedience”). Spiritual fathering has been a fundamental of Christian formation in both Eastern and Western Christian tradition. Yet I suspect that for many Western Christians today this picture of Christ placing a father over us is foreign or perhaps even alarming. You may feel provoked by this suggestion — to have a father over you, to accept the authoritative care of a leader, a teacher, a man.
I believe we will do well to consider our need, if we are to progress in becoming, to seek out and do the bidding of the godly authority He would place over us. Let’s consider what it means to receive spiritual fathering, and why it might be especially valuable in our current climate of extreme autonomy to have fathers over us. The verb to father describes a profoundly creative action. Spiritual fathering is a begetting of new life, the guiding and directing of one’s becoming in Christ.
What is Spiritual Fathering?
The Judeo-Christian Scriptures are filled with symbols of fathering and of men and women becoming through obedience to God the Father’s will. Christ Himself is the ultimate exemplar of this begetting. The Scriptures declare that Christ’s personality was made full through His total yielding of self to do the bidding of His Father, even to death on the cross. In The Cruciality of the Cross Forsyth helps us understand the profound, identity-begetting process Christ experienced as He followed His Father’s guidance all the way to the cross: “In His death He Himself found Himself fully. And His expiring groan was also the relieved sigh of self-realisation [sic]” (Forsyth, Cruciality of the Cross, p. 141). Jesus personally testified to His continual following of His Father’s direction: “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38, NIV). He exercised continual obedience through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thomas Smail, the Scottish theologian who authored The Forgotten Father, describes this divine Father-Son relationship: “There operates in the life of Jesus a secret, commanding and continuous personal guidance that shapes his decisions at every point” (The Forgotten Father, p. 80). God the Father was over Christ, loving Him by providing this perfect guidance. He stands poised and eager to do the same for us.
Anthropology proceeds from theology, and clearly this dynamic of begetting through fathering is knit into us as image-bearers. Jesus teaches us to address God in prayer, “Our Father,” Abba, in His heart-language of Aramaic. He also teaches that it is through keeping His commandments that we become (John 15:10-11). Relating to God as Father means doing His will from a heart yielded in obedience. Smail writes, “Abba is the intimate word of a family circle where that obedient reverence was at the heart of the relationship” (The Forgotten Father, p. 39). How might we become such reverently obedient sons and daughters? I believe God has generous provisions by which He intends to draw us into true relationship with Himself as our Father. First, by giving His only Son for us, we can now celebrate, “Another lives in me.” Christ’s own indwelling presence is at work within, transforming our character into His likeness. But in addition, I am suggesting that He desires to place godly human spiritual fathers over us to facilitate this reverent relationship of obedience with our Father. We humans mature as both this inner (mystical) and outer (relational) fathering hold us in The Way.
For many of you, Leanne was one of the important authorities God put in place to guide your becoming. I will remind us that, while human fathers are male, I am speaking here of the spiritual function of fathering that is provided within the Church by both men andwomen. In his chapter “The Spiritual Guide,” Bishop Kallistos Ware notes that throughout Christian tradition we have had both abbas and ammas — “there are spiritual mothers as well as spiritual fathers” (The Inner Kingdom, p. 129). In this essay I deliberately use the word fathering because it evokes a deep and powerful symbol that our souls need. Indeed, relationship with the Father is the motive for and result of all true spiritual progress. Sometimes the church today uses demythologized words such as “mentoring” or “accountability” when our great need truly is for fathering. These other words may feel less threatening, but they settle for describing a sterilized function without acknowledging the generative relationship. And it is relationship that we are called to — relationship with God Himself that is fostered by relationship with spiritual fathers. Fathering is a word that evokes the creative reality of a seed planted, a begetting of new life. Thus I will continue to use the word fathering intentionally and deliberately and hope to see us through the resistance and anxieties this symbol provokes.
It is possible for both men and women to provide spiritual fathering because God has gifted men and women with the masculine and feminine virtues. In chapter 5 ofCrisis in Masculinity Leanne writes about God’s design of the polarity and complementarity of the sexes. In this year of her passing into glory we have heard magnificent testimonies of the way Leanne’s books and pastoral care schools have provided salvific direction to your becoming. In writing on remedial suffering, Leanne describes how she helped her dear friend Patsy stand in the cross and suffer rightly, thus turning her wounds into healing power (see chapter 13 of The Healing Presence). This is one small but powerful example of the fathering function in our process of becoming. Patsy allowed Leanne’s wisdom and compassion to guide her healing in a storm of overwhelming emotion. Surely in the process of becoming we encounter tricky and overwhelming passages that we won’t find our way through without spiritual fathering.
Perhaps you are warming to the possibility of having a spiritual father over you. Certainly monks and nuns have fathers and mothers appointed over them. But where is spiritual fathering extended and received outside the walls of monasteries? God’s intent is for every church to be a body in which spiritual fathering begets new life. Throughout Heaven‘s Calling Leanne wrote of her need and desire to be under godly authority: “My desire to work under godly, divinely appointed masculine authority stemmed from the fact that the church has always taught that regardless of the gifts and calling God has bestowed on someone, these should be exercised under the oversight of proper spiritual authority” (Heaven‘s Calling, p. 220). Many churches formally support spiritual fathering via pastoral care, cell groups and counseling. Wise believers also cultivate prayer partnerships as Leanne exhorts us to do in chapter 12 of Restoring the Christian Soul. Spiritual directors and Christian counselors offer fathering relationships for those seeking healing and spiritual formation. And 12-step fellowships follow a formal practice of sponsorship that serves as an essential form of fathering. Anyone seeking sobriety can have personal, daily guidance from a sponsor who provides oversight for the sternly magnificent work of recovery. We can see that the Church provides spiritual fathering in many ways, but we must also consider our resistance to engaging in this form of relationship.
Obstacles to Spiritual Fathering
Despite the opportunity for spiritual fathering in many formal and informal structures, my suspicion is that most Christians lack spiritual fathers who function in positions of authority to guide their becoming. I believe we receive little spiritual fathering because it is optional. The urge for autonomy exists in us all — theologians call it our sin nature. We reject God’s authority in a perverse wish to remove ourselves to a corner of the universe where we can be our own masters. As Father Reardon has penned, “More deeply than it is comfortable to think, we are all rebels against God” (Christ in the Psalms, p. 69). We don’t have spiritual fathers because we don’t want them. The tempter relentlessly attacks our understanding of authority and freedom. Under sin, we imitate Satan’s own rebellion, rejecting God’s desire to give us “secret, commanding, and continuous personal guidance” (Smail, p. 80). We exchange the truth for a lie as though structure, law, and authority are the enemies of freedom. In truth, freedom is the release from bondage — a release that is only granted through a repentant return to our Father’s authority.
When human rebellion builds its camp in the illusory realm of autonomy, we make ourselves easy prey to the wages of sin and death. Under the vice of acedia, the will serves the purpose of resistance (I won’t become who God made me to be). And thus we find that we are in a state of rebellion. Add to this universal sinful inclination the particular toxicity of our time. We live in an age that idolizes an absence of authoritative oversight, misconstruing a poverty of fathering as freedom. The individualism and prizing of autonomy of our day are dangerous to human becoming.
A man I knew was beginning to work with a sponsor in a 12-step program, and his sponsor told him that he wouldn’t be able to continue overseeing his recovery if he did not attend meetings, study his recovery materials, and check in with him daily. The man found these requirements difficult and complained, “I was hoping for a little more grace.” He was misconstruing grace as a freedom from authority. In accepting the fathering that his sponsor was offering, he had the opportunity to use his freedom for formation, healing, maturity, and obedience.I believe this is grace — this clear expectation based on what the sponsor believes will enable this man to stand in his battle with the demon of alcohol addiction. We need courage and humility to step into guiding relationships that offer spiritual fathering.
Unforgiveness fuels our resistance to spiritual fathering. When we have failed to forgive authority figures, we resist acknowledging godly authority. Unforgiveness will also cause us to resist submission and obedience to any human authority. Those carrying resentment from past sins of leaders often “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” joining the world’s cynicism toward authority figures. The vice of acedia plays a wicked role here, luring us to hunker down in resentful resistance to much-needed fathering from both God and the men and women He would place over us. It is a costly fault (spawned by unforgiveness) to reject the structures of authority that God provides for our help.
Perhaps you’ve heard an embittered Christian reject the direction of any pastor based on the sins of some spiritual authority in his past or present. As C. S. Lewis challenges us, “the misuse of authority may provoke resentment; in this sin both parties share” (italics mine, Christian Reflections, p. 119-120). Adding our own sins of unforgiveness and self-righteousness to the damage inflicted by leaders who have sinned is a grievous response indeed. Christ-followers bear responsibility to acknowledge sins and forgive sinners-in-authority who have wounded us. For some, such forgiveness will remove a key barrier to progressing in personal maturity. Those of us most deeply wounded by parents, pastors, or other key spiritual leaders are also most in need of spiritual fathering from fellow humans in order to forgive, receive resymbolization of fathering, and restore right relationship with authority. Repenting from unforgiveness can open new receptivity to spiritual fathering that will powerfully serve our becoming.
I think I’ve made clear by now that the Father calls His sons and daughters to receive some of His direction through human spiritual fathers. But we also have fears and resistance to such relationships, in part because we misunderstand what God is asking of us. Receiving spiritual fathering is not bentness. Leanne wrote about the many spiritual fathers — both authors and personal mentors — whom God used to guide her ministry. In fact she made it clear that this receptivity does not supplant our receptivity to Christ, but rather enhances it. As Leanne wrote, “To be a disciple of a disciple is to be pale indeed. I do not want to be a pale Christian” (Restoring the Christian Soul, p. 54). Like the fading we’d see if we made a copy of a copy of a copy of a photograph, bentness instead of fathering would quickly produce such paleness. While submission and obedience are channels through which we receive fathering, it’s not that we imitate our spiritual fathers and erase ourselves in the process. To the contrary, under the begetting influence of spiritual fathering, one’s true self actually becomes more vibrant. Leanne was no disciple of Lewis or Sanford, and their fathering caused her to become more fully the true Leanne. And you are no disciple of Leanne, your pastor, or any other saint through whom God fathers you.
We must not project a Godlike quality of being onto our spiritual fathers. We remember that they are men and women with feet of clay, small ones who have heard the call to serve us, and we trust God to work through both their inadequacy and ours. A practice that keeps one erect even as you accept a spiritual father’s authority is to add those “over” you to your intercessory prayer list. Pray for your pastor, counselor, spiritual director, sponsor, manager, trainer, landlord, husband, parents — all those God has appointed to bear authority in your life, through whom God works to guide you. By praying for them you take an active, mature position in the relationship that allows you to receive their judgment without bending into it.
Spiritual fathering is also not coercion or punishment. The abbas of our wealthy Christian heritage never arrived on a believer’s doorstep saying, “Christ has placed me over you — come now and do my bidding.” Those who were spiritually fathered in the Egyptian desert or in St. Benedict’s monastery chose to place themselves in these fathering relationships. To seek out those whom Christ would appoint as father over us is an act of the will that connotes great dignity. Those who choose to follow the command of spiritual fathers demonstrate an awareness of the infinite riches God desires for His children.
Accepting spiritual fathering also does not permit us to displace responsibility for our becoming onto others. It is a temptation of immaturity to passively depend on human authority. It is also a temptation, at least in America, to adopt a consumer mentality that projects responsibility for our spiritual progress onto the programs the church offers or the charisma of those in leadership. When I stand before Christ on that great day, I very much doubt that He will allow me to speak about the actions of my spiritual fathers as an excuse for my failures in discipleship. We need to eat in order to remain alive, but we do not make the crops and weather responsible for our survival. It is possible to accept our genuine need for spiritual fathering, seek it out, and receive from those He appoints over us while yet remaining fully responsible before God.
The Good Fruit of Spiritual Fathering
God desires to provide us with good spiritual fathering to beget more of His life in us. One hugely transforming fruit of spiritual fathering is that it answers our fallen condition: what Leanne calls our crisis in separation. God never intended us to make this steep ascent alone. He does not agree with the inner voice that is disappointed when one is too weak to keep on track without help. He does not agree with the sense of self-loathing when one discovers that he or she is genuinely dependent on the encouragement and correction of spiritual fathers. Many of us are plagued with a wrong soul-symbol of a “strong” human who cleans up his or her inner mess alone with the Lord. Often we try to engage in healing and transformation in isolation because shame tells us we are not worthy of the attention and care of another who would be over us. We dread exposing our needs, our feelings, and our smallness to another. But these “by myself” attempts at wholeness are untrue and unbiblical, and usually yield disastrous results.
The entire arc of Scripture tells the story of God’s commands, hope, and guidance coming to us through men and women He appoints to minister to His people. God offers each one of us a unique place in this story and desires to set us into the body of Christ. Yet pride and shame seduce us into isolation and lock us in a vicious cycle. “By myself” attempts at becoming inevitably fail, inciting further shame and self-hatred and filling the soul with evil words: “I am pathetic; I should have more faith; I should just be able to do it.” Godly spiritual fathering stands with us against these lies and gives us the truth in their place. Perhaps a loving spiritual father has given you such a drink of living water: “Of course you can’t do this alone. Let me help you.”
Rescue from Subjectivism
I learned from the opening of Dallas Willard’s wonderful book The Divine Conspiracy that a pilot can be flying a plane upside down while her own senses tell her that she is right-side up. We see the same danger when an individual tries to pilot her own soul — she is likely to be self-abusive where she needs gentle mercy, and self-pitying where she needs stern truth. If we reject fathering in favor of the illusion of autonomy, we are left defenseless against our worst inclinations and caught in the subjectivism the world preaches: “Listen to your heart,” “Find your own path,” as though the fallen self can serve as its own guide.
In wonderful contrast, spiritual fathering offers us a guide who is other-yet-with-us. A spiritual father or mother stands outside the cloud of the soul’s emotions, perceptions and habits and brings divine objectivity to the process of becoming. Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into temptation,” or as Eugene Peterson has paraphrased, “Keep us safe from ourselves” (Matt. 5:13a, NIV and MSG). I am convinced that spiritual fathering is God’s answer to this prayer as He offers us relational, human help with the inner temptations of the wounded human soul. St. Teresa of Avila addresses this vulnerability to temptation in her masterpiece, Interior Castle, and expresses her own wish that all Christ-followers would be spiritually fathered: “Even though they be not in a religious Order, it would be a great thing for them to have someone to whom they could go, as many people do, so that they might not be following their own will in anything, for it is in this way that we usually do ourselves harm” (Interior Castle, p. 44, italics mine).
It’s interesting to me that American culture, the champion of personal autonomy, does grasp the need for fathering when it comes to physical fitness. Americans spend $10 billion annually for personal fitness training. Many of these dollars are paid by people who will only reach their fitness goals with the assistance of a trainer. Imagine what might happen if Christians would make this level of investment in seeking out spiritual fathering for the fitness of their souls. For those alone in subjectivism, “I don’t feel like it,” soon becomes our boss. It can be painful to face our sin and weakness, and persevering with daily spiritual practices isn’t constantly gratifying. But fleeing discomfort will not bring consolation, and we will not find life by seeking our own way. Loving spiritual fathering urges us to obey even when it hurts, and we will receive our Father’s blessings and affirmations to sustain us. By doing another’s bidding over time, we are able to internalize the firm, clear, and wise guidance of a spiritual father. Good spiritual fathering not only holds us in the place where God is at work, but over time also begets wholesome structures within our souls. We come to know the goodness of the extravagant Father: “all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31b, ESV).
Mortifying the Flesh and Healing the Will
“Walking by another’s judgment” also offers the vital, albeit painful benefit of mortifying the old man. As C. S. Lewis describes our fallen state, “human nature . . . wants to keep well away from anything better or stronger or higher than itself” (from Mere Christianity, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, p. 97). I have shared at MPC schools about my transforming experience of mortification when I sought out a 12-step fellowship. In taking my seat in the circle, I added my voice to the profession of faith: “we came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; and made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God” (from the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous). But perhaps even more important than this declaration was the admission that I needed authoritative fellowship in order to abide in that decision. In joining their circle I crucified the old man who refused to need, to depend, to receive. Week after week I drew on Christ’s own strength and put to death my wish to keep well away from anything higher than my self. The fathering of that group guided me into fellowship with that which is better and stronger and higher than my rebellious aloneness.
Healing of the will is one of those wonderful Christian paradoxes: by finally using the will to submit to fathering, our sacred power to choose can become healthy and strong. “It is when we try to make our will conform with God’s that we begin to use it rightly. To all of us, this was a most wonderful revelation” (AA Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 40). As a good friend recently wrote to me about those of us who have trespassed into addiction and codependency, “The real truth is that we have always possessed plenty of willpower; we just mis-used our will so long that we crossed over some spiritual boundary into slavery.” Through the act of confessing our need, of asking for help, and of setting ourselves to follow direction, we are choosing this day whom we will serve. Refusing to serve the old man, we reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Through this turn from death to life the human will is strengthened and healed, thanks be unto God!
Setting Us into the Body: Return to Inequality
The final benefit of spiritual fathering that I will call attention to is what C. S. Lewis calls the “return to inequality.” His essay “Membership” considers our call, “not to individualism but to membership in the mystical body” of Christ (Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, p. 163). In this wonderful sermon (which I highly encourage you to read), Lewis reminds us that even the word membership has lost its Christian roots and meaning. Always the consummate apologist, Lewis contrasts life in the body of Christ with the harsh conditions of this sin-ruined world. Lewis clarifies that, although equality is needed medicine for sin-sick humankind, it is not food. Equality then is a protective concept, needed in this fallen world. Because sin has mis-created the possibility of exploitation and oppression, “equality under the law” is a principle that serves the virtue of justice, giving each person his or her due. But while assertion of equality is needed in the world of sin and death, it has no power to usher us into the kingdom of God.
God created humanity for something more dynamic and brilliant than a monotonous sameness. We catch a hint of the richness God has in mind by looking at the human family. The various members are different kinds of persons, not at all interchangeable, who together form a rich unity. The life of the family would be in no way enlivened by an insistence that the family’s members are symmetrical, interchangeable, the same. To properly understand the body of Christ and find our place in it, we need a return to inequality. Like members of a family, members of the body of Christ are “essentially different from, and complementary to, one another . . . differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity” (p. 163-164). In this essay we are focusing on one aspect of this complementarity, which is the blessed inequality of spiritual fathering.
“In the Church [when]we strip off [the disguise of artificial equality], we recover our real inequalities, and are thereby refreshed and quickened” (Weight of Glory, p. 168). The inequality within the body of Christ is a haven from the strife of the world that is continually bogged down in the muck of sin and grievous responses to sin. Christian inequality creates a haven where we can lay down the defenses that relentlessly strive to assert, “I am as good as you. ” “It is like turning from a march to a dance. It is like taking off our clothes. We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct. It delights me that there should be moments in the services of my own Church when the priest stands and I kneel” (p. 171). By putting ourselves in the care of spiritual fathers, we choose to accept their offer of service as priest, mentor, pastor, counselor, or sponsor and open ourselves to the immeasurable benefits of obedience to our Father.
In current parlance, to say that someone “put me in my place” has a shaming connotation. But in the context of our life in Christ, we hear this differently. It is Good News that there is a place for each one. As Lewis makes clear, being put in our place by God Himself is the only real deliverance from shame and into healthy identity: “We shall then first be true persons when we have suffered ourselves to be fitted into our places” (p. 173). God has made a way for every man and woman to belong in the body of Christ, and His begetting aims to fit each into his or her particular place. I would suggest that we experience the blessing of this return to inequality when we take our place in relation to those God has appointed over us. No matter who you are, what your talents or station in life are, you were made for some relationships with spiritual fathers God appoints over you. Receiving the ministration of a spiritual father is a most beautiful choice made by a free man or woman, restoring us to an inequality our souls need and long for. The soul that chooses to be fathered has won a battle against its own fleshly fear and resistance, gaining a sanctified will in the bargain. Our Father calls His sons and daughters to return to inequality for the sake of becoming, for there is more begetting He yet desires in and through each one.
We latch onto egalitarian models because we are trying to stop bad leaders from hurting people. We say, “I am as good as you” and “every person has equal value” as a way to draw ourselves up, “stand up for ourselves.” This is necessary at times, to say, “I don’t have to take that from you.” In these moments we are asserting the concept of equality as a way to push out wrong uses of authority that try to name us destructively or control us for purposes that serve the ego of the leader. The concept of equality then serves a needed remedial purpose in our sin-torn world. But we must not stop there.
My concern is that, even in popular Christian thinking, we have embraced the concept of equality as an absolute good and made it our model for relationships, which is a costly mistake. When we make equality an absolute good, we end up with an assertion of sameness that then goes on to erase differences. This leads to bizarre assertions such as the fruit we are now seeing of the sexual revolution — feminism asserting that there are no real differences between men and women but only damaging cultural inventions about gender, or the growing movement to promote all sexual “orientations” as equally valid that has even begun to legitimize pedophilia. Equality has remedial value in this fallen world but makes for a perverse religion. Equality is no guide to eternal life and does not usher us in as living members of a body with Christ as its head.
God gives us much richer symbols for relationship: a family, a body, a vine. God’s symbols of His people allow for the startling variety, the infinite uniqueness He is capable of, and delights in, as Creator. An important aspect of finding our wholeness in Christ is to confess the refreshing truth that I am not just the same as you or even just as good as you. The body of Christ offers us relationships that affirm a holy inequality. You may serve me as confessor, for I am the penitent. You may serve me as celebrant, for I need the Bread of Heaven. You may serve me as father, for I am a child of God. One of the mysteries of the body is that even our fathers are not only fathers — they too are sons and brothers. All of us need relationships in which we kneel while another stands, in which we trust another to be taller, to see further, to extend wisdom to us, because God has appointed and anointed them to do so. Jesus did not consider equality something to be grasped. Christ is formed in our midst as His members take their places. Somehow, as I assent to be just one member — the unique and particular member I am — the body of Christ becomes, and I take my place in it. I am not all things but just one thing, one small and priceless member of the perfect, eternal, infinite body of Christ. May God grant us this refreshing return to inequality, this receptivity to fathering, for the health of His body and bride.
A’Kempis, T. The Imitation of Christ. Edited by P. M. Bechtel. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980.
Avila, St. Teresa of. Interior Castle. Edited by E. Allison Peers. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1946. Print.
Forsyth, P. The Cruciality of the Cross (American ed.). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965.
Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: HarperOne, 1949.
_____. The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. San Francisco: Harper, 2002. Print.
Lewis, C. S., and Walter Hooper. Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967. Print.
Payne, Leanne. Crisis in Masculinity. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1985. Print.
_____. Heaven’s Calling: A Memoir of One Soul’s Steep Ascent. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2008. Print.
_____. Restoring the Christian Soul Through Healing Prayer: Overcoming the Three Great Barriers to Personal and Spiritual Completion in Christ. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1991. Print.
_____. The Healing Presence: Curing the Soul Through Union with Christ. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1995. Print.
Reardon, Patrick Henry. Christ in the Psalms. Ben Lomond, Calif.: Conciliar, 2000. Print.
Rule of St. Benedict. Retrieved January 11, 2016, from http://www.osb.org/rb/text/rbejms3.html#5
Smail, Thomas Allan. The Forgotten Father. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1981. Print.
The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. San Francisco: Harper/Hazelden, 1987. Print.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1981. Print.
Ware, K. The Inner Kingdom. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998. Print.
Marco Alvise Pitteri (Italy, Venice, 1702-1786), Pietro Longhi (Italy, Venice, 1702-1785),Ordination [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1668 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Comments Off on Stabilitas: victory over the noonday demon
by Sarah Colyn
I have been writing recently on the power of perseverance, what the Desert Fathers named stabilitas. This virtue is wanted today because it answers a chief vice of our time: acedia. There is much in our flesh and the world around us that undermines stability of purpose. The vice of acedia has opposed perseverance in the lives of Christians in every time and place. The desert fathers, who were among the first wrestlers with this enemy of our Christ-life, named it akedia (from the Greek a-kēdos, “without care”). The vice of acedia is endemic yet unrecognized in our day. In his beautiful little book On Hope, Josef Pieper shows how modern Christians are embroiled in acedia and no longer discern it as a vice (it is well worth your time to undertake an in-depth study of Pieper’s On Hope). Perseverance is a powerful weapon our good Lord places in the hands of His followers as we battle the vice of acedia.
In essence, acedia is a slothful sadness that rejects the reality that we are here to become what God has in mind. When settled into the sin of acedia, one feels a sad resistance to the divine goodness God intends for one’s true self. Acedia is linked to the “worldly sorrow” Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 7:10. Under the grip of this opposition to God, a deep despondency grows, like a continual underground sighing in the soul. Some feel this sorrow as emotional pain, while others cover it by senseless overwork and busyness, inner restlessness, grasping after temporary comforts and distractions, and instability of commitments and purpose *. Acedia turns us aside from the noble purpose of our existence. As Pieper laments, “One who is trapped in acedia has neither the courage nor the will to be as great as he really is” (p. 56).
The desert fathers had a nickname for acedia: the noonday demon. This vice does not attack the beginning of our efforts – it comes as the day stretches on. If we gave acedia a voice it might say, “I have been doing this for awhile, but what do I have to show for it? Is it working? Why should I be so rigid, so hard on myself? Isn’t there something better out there?” We experience this noonday demon at every MPC school as participants confess feeling restless, distracted, or dissatisfied as they press in to God’s healing presence over the course of five days. The vice of acedia has a listless quality, and Aquinas categorizes acedia as a sin against the third commandment: “but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:10a NASB). True Sabbath is only experienced by yielding to God’s ways, and the spiritual sloth of acedia grants no rest. Rather than staying the course, the one in bondage to acedia spends their efforts on a struggle “to break out of the peace at the center of his own being” (Pieper, p. 58). Stabilitas, in contrast, enables us to rest our spirit in God.
A discouraged counselee once asked me how to answer when her concerned friends and family questioned the effectiveness of her counseling. Her mind was swarming with the doubts and distractions that acedia poses: “Why keep pressing on? Isn’t there another way that would work faster? I won’t really change, much less be transformed.” I gave her what, on my part, sounded like a self-serving answer: “Tell them it’s working.” She and I had a good laugh about my apparent self-promotion. But our laughter also came from a deeper well of joy because I was inviting her to the rest that is granted by stabilitas: to trust Christ in herself and in me, and trust that God was at work in her healing process. The dynamic between acedia and stabilitas is a bit of a paradox (like so many hopeful truths). We answer acedia’s temptation not with an immediately triumphant solution, but through a stabilizing posture of perseverance: “I will stay, remain open, and continue to wait on the Lord.” If we succumb, acedia deprives us of the gifts that only grow with persistence over time. If we endure, we will inevitably enjoy the privilege of witnessing God’s perfect, immense faithfulness to every one of His promises.
Christ with us and within us empowers us in the virtue of stabilitas, overcoming the vice of acedia simply through the choice to carry on. Distrust? Distraction? Temptation? Stabilitas is an act of the will that stays the course, sticks with the program, and continues with the daily choices that make a Christ-follower. The staying is part of the healing itself. Choosing to continue with or without comforting reassurance, choosing to stay when we feel like it and when we don’t, works a gradual conversion in our souls. Staying heals the soul as it restores something deeply human in us: the precious and glorious will with which we can say “yes” to God. Staying forms Christ’s own character within as we repent of the vice of resistance to God’s will and seek instead the virtue of stable obedience. Through this persevering, our Father grants our souls rest, delivering us from the misery of the sin of acedia and assuring us of His faithfulness. As Josef Pieper writes, “Natural man can never say as triumphantly as can the Christian: It will turn out well for me in the end” (p. 50). Praise our gracious and merciful God who grants the grace that opens to us the path of life!
* I am discussing here what church tradition has identified as the vice of acedia. Depression, which may be linked to this vice and is sometimes also referred to as acedia, can require different approaches for healing than what I am discussing here. I recommended Clay McLean’s teaching series on Recovery for Depression for an excellent discussion of the role of identifying childhood losses, self-pity, and burnout for the healing of depressive symptoms.
Thanks to The Heritage of the Desert Fathers project and their website, desert-fathers.com for the images of the West Thebes hermitages.
Remembering what the Lord has done builds our faith – as the Spirit shows you ways He has cleansed you of the sin of acedia and taught stabilitas in its place, please write in and share with me! email@example.com
A testimony from the desert: the blessed fruit of perseverance in marriage
My marriage of over 40 years has been my “place” of stabilitas. I came to Christ in a little plywood stable that my dad built for my pony, a gift on my sixth birthday. For some mystical reason I felt God calling me that day, and I was awestruck by the subtle experience of the Lord with me there. I was seven years old, and from that point on HE has dominated my life, calling me over and over again to love, obey and worship Him.
Comments Off on On perseverance: to become an everlasting splendor
by Sarah Colyn
I recently scanned the New York Times list of best-selling advice books and noticed a strong theme: results now. It’s in our nature to want quick rewards for our efforts and swift gratification of our desires. Top-selling books offer a lifestyle makeover for health and weight loss in just 30 days, and de-cluttering that will magically transform your home in an instant. We are creatures who feel soothed and excited by the prospect of getting what we want right away. Perhaps you’ve seen a baby escalate from a mellow cry expressing her desire to be held or fed into a disintegrated wail if mother’s response comes too slowly. This demand for immediate gratification and intolerance of waiting suits an infant who is rightly at the beginning of character development. But those who have heard the call to maturity in Christ must lift their eyes to a more thrilling horizon than “I want it now.” We are called to become the men and women we truly are, those “everlasting splendors” who will live forever with our God, and we are called to help one another along in this becoming we call discipleship (Lewis, The Weight of Glory, p. 9).
A publisher might have a hard time selling many copies of a book with bright call-outs on the cover that promise: Slow results! Imperceptible gains! You’ll see change years later! Yet wisdom points to the special worth of things that take time to grow, and surely our natural admiration of long-term endeavors is a gift from God: “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). While the world panders to our impatient impulses, the greatness of Christ’s call stirs our hearts. The very fact that our Father asks something of us that will put meaning into every moment of a lifetime breathes on an ember deep within the soul. In Something Beautiful for God, Malcolm Muggeridge notes that so many were drawn to join Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity exactly because everything was asked of them. He laments how churches are turning to follow the world’s marketing techniques, “directed toward softening the austerity of the service of Christ and reducing its hazards with a view of attracting people into it” (p. 52). True Christian leaders, taking their example from Christ Himself, inspire us to commitments that operate on the scale of eternity. Leanne’s book Listening Prayer is one such inspiration, showing how to begin a daily practice of dialog with God that will only accumulate over weeks, months, years and decades into profound transformation of character and power in ministry.
Those of us recovering from addictions learn the value of committing to slow results. Patrick Carnes is a gifted researcher who has pioneered treatments that foster real healing from life-destroying sexual addictions. In his book, Recovery Start Kit he explains the commitment required for healing and the timeframe in which we can expect results: “The process takes ultimately three to five years before cravings cease to be a day-to-day problem.” From the perspective of our flesh, this is an unappealing sales pitch: three to five years of strenuous daily submission to a program of recovery and a long wait for noticeable results. But through eyes illuminated by God’s grace, we begin to look at time and commitment differently. What astonishingly good news: a person enslaved to impulses that threaten to destroy everything he or she holds dear can have hope of lasting recovery. What is five years to spare one’s life, to save one’s marriage, to deliver one’s children from the generational damage of addiction? The consequences of addiction often bless us with a desperation that pushes us into such long-term commitment and delivers us from false hope in quick fixes. Surely every man and woman who seeks the kingdom of God needs this commitment to persevere.
For followers of Christ there is no higher calling than to submit ourselves to a process of transformation that has eternity as its horizon. In Christ-centered healing ministries such as MPC we certainly do see God accomplish deep healing in an instant. He is able to touch the earliest memories and most crippling wounds with His miraculous grace, and to cleanse the darkest stains with His redeeming blood. We want and need Him to do so, we rejoice in these miracles, and it is right for us to eagerly desire relief from our suffering. But Christian maturity also calls us to patiently wait on Him, to settle ourselves into a stability of purpose. Our eyes are lifted to God and His eternal will. This gives us strength to wait for complete fulfillment, tolerating the tension of the now-and-not-yet of wholeness in Him. While our flesh insists that we need relief, comfort, and satisfaction now, stabilitas is a virtue that commits us to that which is unshakeable and sure: forever-life with our God. What a tragedy when we abandon the pursuit of benefits we could possess forever because of temptations and discomforts that will fade and wither like the grass of summer. The meek choices that cultivate stabilitas are made moment by moment. Praise God for His grace that inspires us to stay with those daily practices that may seem weak and poor to the eyes of man. For surely our submission to slow results and imperceptible gains is accruing rewards that are joyful and glorious beyond imagination. In the meanwhile, know that we at MPC are cheering you on as you choose again today to show up for your personal prayer time, small group, recovery meeting, daily mass, and humble acts of love and service. The day is coming when we will laugh together in delight at the fullness of transformation God has completed in us!
Photos courtesy of Kanok and Africa at freedigitalphotos.net
Comments Off on On perseverance: the virtue of stabilitas
by Sarah Colyn
The Desert Fathers were some of the Church’s earliest pastoral care experts. They were moved to seek communion with God in the quiet, rugged atmosphere of the Egyptian desert. In the first generations after Christ’s incarnation, thousands of men and women went to live in these tiny communities to pursue union with Him. Some of you belong to religious orders that are descendants of these groups, and what a privilege it is to have you join us at MPC schools! The scenic setting of these hermitages brings to mind Leanne’s description of the “rigorous but sternly magnificent work”1 of becoming our true selves in Christ. And as for all who desire to abide in Christ, our spiritual ancestors’ most significant choice was not to go to the desert, but rather to stay.
We can imagine a disciple in his austere room, days or weeks into his time at the hermitage. The excitement of his new commitment is fading, the rough edges of his fellows are starting to rub the wrong way, and character defects and unconfessed sins of the past are surfacing. As he sits, directed to study, pray, or simply be silent, temptations pepper him at a steady pace: ideas of other work and service he should attend to, resentment toward the leaders and program he’s committed to, frustration that nothing seems to be changing in his soul, doubt that this is really the direction he wants to go in life. The counsel the Fathers gave such a disciple is sorely needed for us today: stay put. The seeker’s task was to stay. He was to resist the sense that there was something else he needed to go take care of. He was to resist the doubt that what was happening in that room was working or was doing any good. He was to choose stability, to cultivate the capacity to remain in the place where God is at work. The Desert Fathers called this virtue stabilitas.
About sixteen centuries after the Desert Fathers started recommending the virtue of stabilitas, Leanne Payne was praying through Isaiah 58, “Is this not the fast that I choose,” and asked the Lord, “What fast do you desire me to keep?” His answer profoundly ordered her personal life and ministry: Persevere with Me as I have persevered with you. Leanne testified, “I have not arrived, but am still persevering, and find that all my joy and any wholeness as well as ministry that I have is in this fast.”2 Truly, Christ calls all His followers to this practice, to keep the fast of stabilitas – remain in Me, abide with Me, persevere with Me, practice My presence.
Our Lord longs for us to stay with Him and His regenerating, transforming work because He longs to make us new. It’s no coincidence that Leanne wrote about perseverance in The Broken Image, a book that demonstrates healing for the deepest damage the human soul can know. For all who seek such healing for ourselves and others, we will certainly need this virtue of stabilitas, the capacity to persevere. As we chalk up day after week after month after year of perseverance, we can join Leanne in testifying to the truth of one of her favorite phrases, “The becoming never stops!” As with all true virtue, stabilitas displays the beautiful mystery of the Christian life: Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling – persevere, stay, choose – for it is God who is at work in you – God’s own indwelling presence is your hope and confidence (Philippians 2:12-13, NASB).
1. Payne, The Broken Image, p. 156.
2. Ibid, p. 145.
Thanks to The Heritage of the Desert Fathers project and their website, desert-fathers.com for the images of the West Thebes hermitages.
I’m glad for this chance to write to you as Christmas Day draws so near. I think of you in your homes, churches, and communities around the world and am moved by the mystery that together we form the beautiful and broken body of Christ. We are those who continue to grow and become, and we are those who watch for the light. Whether you stand in confidence and strength this December or are struggling in a place that seems dark, you are in good company. I am profoundly grateful that our Father does not ask us to make this journey alone, but places us in a family, a body to which each one of us is precious. I pray that the Spirit breathes life into my words today and uses them to share the gift of hope with you.
At Advent we look back at the moment when Christ took on flesh and the Word came to dwell among us. And we look forward to when He will come again, riding on the clouds. We live our lives on the path between Bethlehem and the New Jerusalem. Hope is the virtue that keeps us on the path and the posture that keeps us oriented toward eternity and our God who is the great I AM. Our lives as Christians are an ever-unfolding journey of simultaneously anticipating and receiving the finest gift: “Christ in you, your hope of glory.”
In this letter I will share the words of two wise Christian brothers: Josef Pieper and Sill Davis. Pieper wrote an excellent little book, On Hope, which conveys the pastoral wisdom of Thomas Aquinas about this essential virtue. And Sill presented an insightful and healing workshop about hope at last summer’s MPCS in Wheaton. Hope is a fundamental virtue of the Christian life, and it is worth the effort to seek wisdom about what hope is and how it can grow within us.
Hope is the journeyer’s virtue. Aquinas named the Christian life the status viatoris, which is the condition of “being on the way.” One day we will finish the race and possess the fullness of life that God gives. But in this world we are journeyers. “I do not consider that I have laid hold already,” as Paul writes in Philippians 3:13. We are in the process of becoming who we truly are in Christ. If someone asks, “Are you a Christian?” our truest answer would be, “Yes, I am, and I am still becoming a Christian.” I wonder if you can feel the deep comfort of this truth. Whatever is asked of us, whatever we are called to be, we only need to say, and indeed only can say for ourselves, “I’m working on it.” Or more accurately, “We–God and I in relationship with the body of Christ–are working on it.”
Hope is fundamentally about the direction we’re heading. In hope, God’s grace collaborates with the “yes” of our will to point us in the direction of who we are to become. The one who looks to Jesus is continually in the process of becoming more of his or her true self. Hope is a theological virtue: something divine that happens in us through God’s presence and work in our lives. God brought us into existence ex nihilo–out of nothing. We are His creatures and derive our existence from Him. It is our nature to move toward being, and hope keeps us centered in this longing to be who God made us to be. Without hope we will turn in sin back toward the nothingness from which we came. Hope is a theological virtue because it is about being “grounded in a real, grace-filled participation in the divine nature, which comes to man through Christ” (Pieper). It’s much deeper than the simple feeling of human confidence that something good is coming our way. This true Christian hope is something we can’t live without. As Sill described so well, our hearts cry out for hope the way a hungry baby cries to be fed: “Give me that hope! Give us what we need to birth our dreams.”
This status viatoris life of being-on-the-way has guardrails on both sides of the path: humility and magnanimity. Hope is about becoming who we truly are, and humility and magnanimity grant us accurate self-understanding. Pieper’s definition of humility is crystal clear: “Humility is the knowledge and acceptance of the inexpressible distance between Creator and creature.” God has created us, chosen us, and adopted us as His children. We are His creatures. We are infinitely loved, fully known, and faithfully cared for, and it is God’s being that gives our being such incredible dignity. Humility is something we often get confused about, thinking that it means putting ourselves at the bottom of the list or focusing on our negative traits. Humility isn’t about looking down on ourselves; it’s about knowing God as other. Humility helps me remember that I am not God, but am possessed by God, and helps me rejoice in the right relationship between the infinite God and little me.
Magnanimity guards the other side of the path. I encourage you to get comfortable with this wonderful word magnanimity. It means “the aspiration of the spirit to great things,” and Pieper explains that “a person is magnanimous if he has the courage to seek what is great and becomes worthy of it.” In the first verse of “O Holy Night,” the writer captures the feeling of magnanimity that stirred in humanity when Christ appeared, “and the soul felt its worth.” Truly God has created us with awesome possibilities, and He ennobles and empowers us to reach great heights. If you have been captivated by a moment of human greatness when standing before an exquisite work of art or watching an athlete in a peak performance, you have felt the rise of magnanimity in your soul. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we have been united to God and are empowered creatures who live in the Spirit. With magnanimity, we make our choices toward the greater possibilities we have in Him, and we dare to be as great as He has made us to be.
Hope is about being on the way as creatures who are both finite and marvelous. Sill described hope as fuel for the trip, like gasoline in the engine of a car. Hope ignites our God-given nature to grow and become. When my son was learning to ride his bike, he discovered that he had to keep moving forward in order to keep his balance. This is what it’s like to be human–in order to be who we really are, we must keep becoming. When we lack the virtue of hope, we turn back toward nothingness. In his ministry in Chicago, Sill works with men involved in prostitution. The most difficult aspect of his work is not getting the men off the streets or free of addiction; it is reaching a man who has fallen into hopelessness. I think it’s important for us to be wise about what life looks like when we lose hope, because this knowledge gives us power to come back onto the good path. Just like any path, it’s possible to wander off on either side. For those of us whose early lives were marred by abuse or failures of love that blocked the fundamental nurture of our little souls, we may be more vulnerable to losing hope. Pieper has named the badlands that flank the path of hope despair and presumption.
Let’s look at despair first, not to dwell on it, but to become wise about this dangerous threat to hope. If we can identify despair for the distortion of reality that it is, we can orient ourselves back to God’s kingdom reality. Fundamentally, despair is when a mind changes the “not yet” of this life into a barren “not.” Hope calls us to journey toward a life abundant, knowing we have not yet fully arrived. The despairing heart hears Christ’s invitation to be resurrected, healed, and to follow Him and answers, “I will not. Don’t ask anything of me–just leave me as I am.” Despair is a decision of the will to renounce our inner longing for wholeness and close the door to becoming.
As Sill shared in his workshop, despair can take us to very dark places emotionally. He described well the downhill slide of a despairing soul–despair can shadow our face, the way we walk, and the way we dress, and compel us to use drugs or relationships to try to grab hold of some feeling of happiness. But despair has another, sneakier guise as well. Western cultures are brimming with despair in the form of a forced, prideful insistence: “I’m fine just the way I am.” Lady Gaga’s hit song chants, “I’m on the right track, baby; I was born this way;” this explicitly religious anthem is a fitting theme song for despair.
The truth is that our souls restlessly ache for greater wholeness. In our “born this way” state, we feel a deep dis-ease that whispers something is wrong. But the despair of the world tells us that we must try to silence this whisper, ignore this longing. Despair takes the fundamental invitation to become and treats it like a curse or a small-minded intolerance. The world calls hope dangerous. Again I say that it’s important to recognize despair for what it is, because we don’t yet have full immunity to these hope-killing voices of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
God’s true message to us is so different from the message of the world. God touches our lives with awesome dignity by coming to us, just as we are, and claiming us for His own. But He doesn’t stop there. He continues His saving work in our lives by calling us to become more and pours out His grace and mercy to make this becoming possible. The world has gone so far as to make despair prescriptive, but Christ has overcome the world–alleluia!
If we veer off the path of hope to the one side, we find ourselves in despair. But there is another possibility that leaves us without hope, and that is presumption. In despair, we claim that we will not change and close the door to becoming. In presumption, we claim that our process of becoming is complete and that we have already laid hold of the prize of fullness of being. We deny the journeying nature of the Christian life, not by refusing to move, but by telling ourselves that we have already arrived. In sharing about hope, Sill described a challenging moment in his healing journey: “I wanted to go into ‘hyper healing.’ I wanted to say, ‘Lord, hurry up and get it over and done.'” He was tempted, as we so often are, to try to make his healing happen, and he recognized that this impulse would actually take him out of God’s will and steal his hope. In this wish to skip to the end, we are leaving the true path of listening, following, and trusting God. This attitude kills hope because we’re grabbing onto a feeling of security that isn’t real in this world. We’ve left humility behind–that knowledge of the difference between God and us–and we’ve also strayed from our willingness to live in complete dependence on Him.
Earlier I described how cultures and communities promote despair. I’d also suggest that our communities can promote presumption, even our church communities. Good Christian people that I minister to from their twenties through their eighties have asked me, “Shouldn’t I have this figured out by now?” My answer is an emphatic, “No!” I pray that God blesses every one of us with relationships in our churches where we can honestly share about our process of becoming and the “not yet” aspects of our lives. Truly our whole life is rich with meaning, and hope holds us on a journey in which we are always becoming more of who God made us to be.
I imagine that each of you reading this letter deeply desires a life dominated by hope. Folks in this worldwide community of people whose lives have been touched by Leanne Payne’s ministry bear ongoing witness to the journeying nature of the Christian life–higher up and further in! Hope is a theological virtue, which means that it is God’s gift to us, the result of God’s presence in our lives. We can’t earn this gift; yet we do need to cooperate by exerting effort of our own (see I Peter 1:3-7). So how can we encourage one another to grow in hope? I’d like to suggest two important hope-builders: fear and commitment.
Pieper describes this first hope-builder, fear, as something that “lives intimately” with hope. His advice may ring strange to our ears, but he makes a compelling case that fear of the Lord keeps us moving on the hopeful path. He reminds us that to be fearless in this sin-torn world would be unnatural. We don’t have to look far to be reminded that we are vulnerable creatures. Most of all, we are vulnerable because of our ability to sin. This ability to turn away from God and from the true self He made us to be puts us in danger. Fear of the Lord is what will compel us toward Him, much as we might hurry through a dark night toward a bright bonfire. I encourage you to pray through your anxieties, sharing them with your Father and allowing Him to reveal what’s in your heart. Somewhere at the base of any anxiety, we are likely aware of our potential to turn away from God. Separation from God is a wonderful thing to fear! Fear of the Lord turns us to Him, and as long as we’re turned to Him, we are facing in the right direction to continue the process of becoming. Psalm 115:11 puts it this way: “They that fear the Lord hath hoped in the Lord” (Douay-Rheims Bible).
The second hope-builder is commitment. Commitment is a quality that early Christians called stability of place (stabilitas loci). Rebecca DeYoung’s book Glittering Vices describes how the desert fathers discovered commitment as an antidote to despair; commitment blocks our impulse to leave the path and holds us in the place of becoming. Stability is essential to hope because it allows us to persevere in the process of becoming as we stick with the relationships, habits, and practices that help us become who we are in Christ. Commitment is the opposite of relying on quick results and protects us from depending on gratifying feelings as we decide what we will do each day. And commitment is key to holding us in our faith-community relationships where we can be encouraged, challenged, and ministered to. When the journey of becoming has taken us outside of our comfort zone or left us weary, stability and commitment will help us persevere until we reach the prize.
The power of commitment shapes not just our personal habits but also our relationships. Stable participation in our faith communities allows us to grow in hope together. Sill shared about a member of his church who has held him in this place of commitment, a true friend in Christ who has fueled his hope: “He’s a big guy. He’s probably about six feet, four inches, has hands big enough to palm a basketball. At a time when I wanted to run out of the prayer meeting, this big hand grabbed my shoulder, and he pulled me close to him and just prayed and loved me.” We can share the gift of hope with one another through these simple but powerful actions of commitment to reach out to one another, share truthfully about our journeys, and pray together.
MPC is a ministry that embodies hope. Each one of us who serves in this ministry is engaged in the process of becoming, and we are inexpressibly grateful for the privilege of journeying with all of you. It is a joy to write to you in this Advent season, to share the wonderful news of hope. We can look ahead with joy and persevere each day on this holy path with the deep-hearted confidence we have in our Savior and King. One of my favorite parts in the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder is when the family has come through a crisis, and Pa says, “All’s well that ends well.” These are true words of hope that don’t dwell upon the danger or darkness, but affirm that where we find ourselves in the end determines what kind of journey it’s been. Our God is named Alpha and Omega, for He is our origin and the one in whom our becoming is fulfilled. All who remain in Christ will know, see, receive, and become something more wonderful than we could ask or imagine. Hope proclaims: It ends well for me. It ends well for you. It ends well for us!