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I recently read Listen to the Desert: Secrets of Spiritual Maturity from the Desert Fathers and Mothers by Gregory Mayers.

I know it can appear stylish to read these ancient eremites (“Hey look at me. I’m not bound by evangelical sub-culture.”) But that’s not me. I’ve been driven to look more closely at models of Christian maturity that have been missing in my life.

When I read of what these ancient followers of Jesus thought and did, I am struck by the boring, tedious, shallowness of what I think and do.

No, speaking this way is not therapeutic self-flagellation, nor is it a transparent attempt at spiritual one-upmanship.  It’s just a fact that I have a thing or two to learn about all this following Jesus business. Facing the second half of life, I am looking for people who have something to say.

The first desert dwellers were in North Africa in the third century BC. These early efforts led to similar movements in the Mediterranean region and Europe.  They were driven by a desire for simplicity of life, an uncluttered mind, and a deep excavation of the soul–what Thomas Keating, a contemporary leader in the resurgence of contemplative Christianity, calls  “divine therapy.”

So, in the next few posts, I want to talk about what I learned from reading this book. In a nutshell, it amounts to,

Face yourself

Face all the junk in your life that you know about, and in time, with practice, all the junk you never noticed.  Allow God to direct you in exposing all those tricks you play on yourself, those childish games that pass for knowledge, the familiar false self that keeps true knowledge of self and knowledge of God at a distance.

This is no spiritual self-help program. This is real. In reading of these ancient masters, I have asked myself many times, “Where have these people been in my life, in my church? Why is this way of thinking, even in part, missing from how I have learned to think about the Gospel and communion with God?”

In my experience, the Protestant evangelical church does not teach us to face ourselves as a path to spiritual maturity. The short-answer reason for this is that the Protestant evangelical focus has been on protecting doctrine and then promoting that protected doctrine as the

key to spiritual maturity.

I am not against doctrine (so save your comments), but doctrine devoid of spiritual maturity–on the part of leaders and laity–is a like watching a long ugly train wreck.
The Gospel calls for deep and continual spiritual transformation. The desert fathers and mothers had a handle of some vital lessons about how that should be done.

For those of us tired of limping along in the pretend paradise of our own egos, it may be time to shut up, already, and listen to the desert.


Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.