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Gleaning Spiritual Truths From History

with Jerry Sittser | November 21, 2011

Why is history fundamental to the faith? Jerry Sittser, a professor of theology, believes we can learn a lot from our early Christians forefathers like Calvin, Augustine, and Luther by studying their writings and practicing the spiritual disciplines they embraced, like fasting and meditation.

Why is history fundamental to the faith? Jerry Sittser, a professor of theology, believes we can learn a lot from our early Christians forefathers like Calvin, Augustine, and Luther by studying their writings and practicing the spiritual disciplines they embraced, like fasting and meditation.

Gleaning Spiritual Truths From History

With Jerry Sittser
|
November 21, 2011
| Download Transcript PDF

Bob:  Is it possible that reading the Bible, and reading only through 21st-century eyes, we can come up with some wrong conclusions about what God is saying to us?  Jerry Sittser thinks so.

Jerry:  We’re partly informed by how we read the Bible by our own age, our own prejudices, and our own experiences.  The problem is that we don’t just have the Bible—we have to read it and interpret it.  In the process of reading and interpreting it, we can develop blind spots.  We can transcend that by reading the same Bible with 2,000 years of history in mind.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, November 21st.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.   Jerry Sittser joins us today to help us understand how what our brothers and sisters, who lived in previous centuries, thought about the Bible can expand our own understanding of Who God is and what His Word is saying to us.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us.   This is going to be a little bit of a departure from a normal FamilyLife Today program.

Dennis:  I wondered how you were going to set this up.

Bob:  I have to tell you—for years, I’ve told people that, “When it comes to the issue of our heritage as Christians, most people, I think, believe that the church was born in Acts, Chapter 2, and then there was the great silent period until Billy Graham was born.”  (Laughter)  That’s about all we know about the legacy of the church.

Dennis:  Unfortunately, I think you’re right, Bob; but I want to encourage our listeners to hang with us as we talk to a true church historian and someone who has done some serious work around the story of Christianity over the past 2,000 years.  In fact, you know a book is serious when the footnoted section at the end of the book is longer than most of the books I’ve written.

Bob:  And you know a book is serious when you look through it—and the highlighting—there’s more highlighted than not highlighted in the book; right?

Dennis:  That’s right.  Well, we need to introduce the author of the book, Water from a Deep Well.  Dr. Jerry Sittser joins us again.  Welcome back, Jerry.

Jerry:  It’s great to be back.

Dennis:  It is good to have you back.  Jerry is a friend; but in addition to that, he is a writer, professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where he has been named the most influential professor seven times.  He is the father of three, and he is also a bee-keeper with his daughter, Catherine.

Jerry:  I used to be.

Dennis:  Four hundred thirty pounds of honey.

Jerry:  In one summer.

Dennis:  Amazing.

Jerry:  Three hives.

Dennis:  Wow.

Jerry:  Mm-hmm.

Dennis:  They were busy as a bee; weren’t they?

Jerry:  They were—in our back yard.  Neighbors loved me.

Bob:  Did you have one of those suits that you’d put on that was—

Jerry:  Put on a suit and everything. 

Bob:  Wow.

Jerry:  I have stories that are hilarious with our bees.

Dennis:  Well just give us one here; alright?—just one story.

Jerry:  Well, we had a swarm once the day my youngest son had his birthday.  Eight little boys were over, and I had to collect the swarm that was in a neighbor’s low-lying tree.  I got on my suit and went over there.

Dennis:  Well, now, let me explain something because some of our listeners may not know what a swarm is.

Bob:  I’m just picturing a bunch of bees buzzing around someplace.

Dennis:  We live in the country, and we woke up one morning and looked out at a—I think it was an oak tree that usually was straight up into the air.  At this point, it was bending down with a glob of bees.  There had to be tens of thousands of bees.

Jerry:  That would be correct.  The old queen bolts when a new queen is being raised; and she takes, maybe, 20,000 or 30,000 bees with her.  In this case, they settled in a low-lying tree four doors away; so somebody called me.  I went over there with the stuff I needed to collect the swarm. 

These little boys were all running around, just so excited.  They were ecstatic.  One of the mothers drives up, jumps out of the car screaming, and says, “My son, my son!  He’s allergic to bees!” 

Bob:  Oh, man.

Jerry:  (Laughter)  It was quite comical.

Dennis:  Not a good place to be.

Jerry:  He was not at much risk, honestly.  The bees were all clumped together, and they actually don’t sting you very much if you know how to handle them and so on.  But it was quite a funny event.

Dennis:  Jerry, you have taught at Whitworth University.  I mentioned that earlier.  A number of years ago, in 1993, you took 15 students to a camp in the Cascades for a month.  You taught them the history of Christianity, and you write in your book that it had a tremendous impact on them—but even more so on you.  It started you on a journey; didn’t it?

Jerry:  It did.  It was a lovely experience—25 students were in complete isolation.  I still do the experience; and now, I require them to fast from all media.  Now in 1993 that wasn’t as significant as it is today.  We followed a kind of monastic rhythm.  We had worship in the morning, afternoon, and evening.  We studied great texts.  We did service projects at the camp; and we did a lot of spiritual exercises.  It was a life-changing experience for them; but it ended up being for me, too, because I became curious about the history of Christianity as a practiced faith, not simply a kind of thinking faith.

Christians have prayed for 2,000 years, as shocking as that sounds.  They’ve fasted, they’ve done evangelism, they’ve reached out to neighbors, they’ve done family life, they have been living real lives for 2,000 years.  I became intensely interested in how that played out in normal life.

Dennis:  And in the process of doing your research on this, you literally have read hundreds, if not thousands, of books?

Jerry:  Well certainly hundreds.

Dennis:  Okay.

Jerry:  And I mean, if you would count chapters and so on, then it would get up into the thousands—sure.

Dennis:  And you say you have a favorite that is above all books that you have ever read.  I want to write that book down.  Share with our listeners what that book is and why.

Jerry:  It is Augustine’s Confessions.  Here is a man who lived this very interesting life.  He was exposed to Christianity at a young age.  His mother Monica, now Santa Monica, the patron saint of motherhood in the Roman Catholic Church, raised him as a Christian.  His father was a public official and not a believer.

He was very precocious, I mean, frighteningly smart at a young age.  He rejected the Christian faith when he was still young and really lived a wanton life for a long time—took up a mistress, practiced a life that none of us would be glad our children were doing, and began to sample the various philosophies and world-view options that were then at his disposal in the late fourth century, and finally started coming back to the faith and had a genuine conversion at the age of 30. 

He became a professor, later on a bishop in the church, and wrote voluminously.  He has written more than we’ll read in a lifetime.  It is phenomenal how productive.  But this particular book is significant, and here’s why:  He reflects on his own journey to knowledge of Jesus Christ—relationship with Jesus Christ—and he does it in the form of a prayer.

What this does is create this enormously intricate and interesting narrative pattern.  He writes about his life as a human being; but he writes about it, reflecting on his relationship with God at the same time.  So he will say, “Lord, this is what I was doing, and this is what You were trying to do in me at the same time.  I was doing foolish things and You were laughing at me.”  He says.  “You were exposing me to the consequences of my own sin so I would turn to You.”

It is this fascinating, fabulous way of reflecting on his own journey of faith.

Bob:  And of course, the first page of the Confessions is where we find that great quote that says, “The heart is restless until it finds its rest in Him.”

Jerry:  That’s right.

Bob:  And the story of his conversion is a fascinating one, as well.  He was out in his garden; is that right?

Jerry:  He was in his garden.  By this point, he was in absolute internal torment.  He had discovered through his study, and so on, that the Christian faith was true.  He believed the Bible was true.  He believed Jesus Christ was the Son of God, Who had come and died, and saved him from his own sin—all of that. 

But still, he could not become a Christian because of the battle within his own will.  He had a divided self, as all of us do.  It finally reached this fever pitch when he was in the garden.  He was with his best friend, Olympius; and he was so tormented—he slipped away by himself to pray, to weep, to struggle. 

He heard two children playing on the other side of this garden wall, one saying to the other, “Take up and read; take up and read,”—some childhood game.  He took that as a cue from the Holy Spirit—goes back to where Olympius is sitting, grabs a collection of Paul’s letters, opens it up randomly, puts his finger on the page and comes up with a text from Romans 13.  He reads it; and right there and then, he turns his life to Christ and gives himself up to Him.  It’s quite a story.

Dennis:  It really is; and interestingly, you write in your book—and this is really what prompted you to put this book together, Water from a Deep Well.  You say that we, as Christians, can come dangerously close to living a very narrow life, thinking that the Christianity that we practice in our era is really it—that it is the way to know God.

You went on this search and actually came up with 11different eras, with all kinds of lessons about what believers in times past learned and what they have to teach us today.

Jerry:  Well, I think it’s possible—likely, even—for us to become prisoners to our own era.  Now, that doesn’t mean that everything we do and believe is wrong.  Much of what we believe is right and good; and someday, when historians are writing about our period, they’ll say, “Dennis, and Bob, and Jerry, and a whole lot of other people—they really got this one right, and we’re grateful for it.  It’s a part of the heritage that we value now—but not everything.”

We’re protected from ourselves—we’re released from the prison of our own age, our amnesia and isolation if we can draw from the well of Christians who have lived for 2,000 years.  Now, they didn’t get everything right, either.  The advantage is, “We know where they got things wrong because it’s over and done with.”  We don’t know that so well about ourselves.

Let me give you an example.  There were other Christians in other eras who read the same Bible we read.  That’s been done for almost 2,000 years now, and they just read it differently.  They focused on some texts that we tend to overlook, ignore—say, a text like, “How you use money.”  The Bible has a lot to say about money, and that’s a blind spot for us; and it wasn’t in other eras, for example—or, “The imitation of Jesus,”—and so it enlarges us. 

More than that, I think it protects us from becoming lonely and isolated.  We belong to a family that’s much bigger than the three people sitting around this table, and our friends, and our churches.  That family goes back 2,000 years.  They were as flawed as we are.  They had blind spots like we have; but we can get to know them and become, in a sense, family with them—partners with them as we try to live out the Gospel today.  It’s a lovely thing.

Dennis:  You actually say that Christians today have an advantage over those who lived way back then because we have the advantage of peering over their shoulders.

Jerry:  It’s the advantage of chronology.  We have more information than they had.  We can look back and learn from them; they could not look ahead and learn from us.  It’s an enormous advantage for us.

Bob:  How would you respond, though, Jerry to those who would say, “You know, we’ve got the Scriptures.  We don’t need anything other than the Scriptures.  In fact, Peter tells us that, ‘all that is necessary for godliness—for life and godliness’ is found in the Scriptures.  So the study of history is really secondary.”

Jerry:  Well, it is secondary.  In a sense, Bob, I believe that’s true—that the Bible has unique authority.  It is the Word of God.  It tells us all the necessary information we need to know about salvation history and especially about the fulfillment, the culmination of that in the coming of Jesus Christ.

I wouldn’t dispute any of that.  The problem is that we don’t just have the Bible.  We have to read it and interpret it.  In the process of reading and interpreting it, we can develop blind spots.  We are partly informed by how we read the Bible by our own age, our own prejudices, and our own experiences.  We can be enlarged; we can transcend that by reading the same Bible with 2,000 years of history in mind because they read that Bible.  They just read it slightly differently.  It’s not like they changed it—not the broad orthodox Christian community that has existed for 2,000 years.  That can be enormously helpful to us.

Dennis:  Well Jerry, as I read the book, I kept wanting to—I wished you were there—because I wanted to say, “Now, Jerry, you did all this research on these 11 different eras; and you said this had a profound impact on your life.  Can you give me two or three take-aways of what this has done for your own pursuit of God, practically speaking?”

Jerry:  I can.

Dennis:  I figured you could.  (Laughter)

Jerry:  Let’s take what I call the spirituality of the early Christian martyrs.  In the first few hundred years of church history, when the church was still a minority movement—it was a very small movement for a long period of time.  We can’t get the impression that you’ve got gigantic cathedrals and so on.  The church didn’t even have any church buildings as we understand them today until well into the fourth century.

Rome—this huge, sprawling empire, wrapping itself around the Mediterranean Sea—was actually tolerant of religion.  They didn’t always like religions, especially new ones that came from the East, but they were tolerant of religion—all except Christianity.  There was something about Christianity that became an enormous irritation to the Roman Empire.

There were a number of reasons for this; but ultimately, they were a threat to Rome because they called Jesus, “Lord.”  It was their exclusive commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and to the Christian faith that ultimately rattled Rome so profoundly.  Rome said, “We’ll tolerate any religion, as long as we’re number one.”  Well, Christians said, “Sorry.  Jesus is number one.” 

So, in the early Christian period, you have a lot of these wonderful martyr stories—of people who, under enormous pressure, were willing to submit their lives to the arena, to the sword, rather than to betray their commitment to Jesus Christ.  It awakens me; it inspires me to see people who are willing to pay the ultimate price for being followers of Jesus.

Dennis:  And as a result of studying these martyrs’ deaths on behalf of their service for Christ and love for Christ, you’ve personally been challenged to go deeper and to practice some of those same spiritual disciplines that Christians of old have practiced—that seem to be missing today—the discipline of fasting, the discipline of meditation—that’s a lot of what you do when you take your students away for 30 days.

Jerry:  I try to expose them to a broader range of spiritual disciplines than we would find current today.  For example, the discipline of serious self-examination, which you find in the desert fathers, for example.  Another one—and this will lead to a second practice and example that I like is monastic rhythm. 

The monastery, which to us seems like this foreign, strange, isolated kind of institution today, was really the carrier of culture in the Middle Ages.  They began to emerge in the fifth, sixth century; and when, especially the western part of the Roman Empire collapsed with the invasion of various tribal groups—we used to call them “Barbarian”—better to call them, “tribal,” these days. 

The west became so unstable that monasteries became the most stable institutions in society.  They weren’t just places where people gathered to pray.  They practiced the trades.  They were hostels—now, we call them motels.  They were pharmacies; they were hospitals.  They provided a lot of the necessary social services that were needed and used in the Middle Ages. 

What I like about monasteries is the rhythm of life that they established.  They created this rhythm between what they called ora et labora, “prayer and work”.  They wove those two together into this kind of seamless whole.  They would pray eight times a day together.  They called them “the divine office”.  They’d pause, they’d be still for a while, they’d gather in a chapel, they’d pray, they’d chant the Psalms, they’d listen, they’d listen to a short meditation sometimes, and then they’d go back to work again or to a meal. 

Then they’d come back and pray, and then back to work.  We tend to isolate religious life from secular work life.  We do religion on Sunday, maybe a Bible study during the week; but the idea of that kind of tight-woven rhythm that allows prayer to affect work and work drive us back to prayer is a marvelous idea.

Dennis:  So back to you.  How has that impacted you in terms of mixing prayer and work?

Jerry:  Well, I try to follow a little more strict rhythm than I used to.  Instead of just praying in my morning quiet time, which I’ve done for many, many, many years—I try to pause more often during the day; for example, when I ride in the car now, I never turn on the radio.  Instead, I’m just—

Dennis:  Hold it.  Hold it.  You can’t—

Bob:  Wait, wait, wait.  We don’t just say that here.

Dennis:  You can’t do that.  You can’t turn off a radio.

Jerry:  Alright.  Sorry.  Oooh!—faux pas.  (Laughter)

Dennis:  You keep going.  Keep going.  I’m only partially—

Jerry:  That’s alright.

Dennis:  Bob is totally kidding.

Jerry:  I turn off the radio, except when I’m listening to FamilyLife.

Dennis:  There you go.  Amen!

Jerry:  Which I consider of greater authority, even than the Bible itself.

Dennis:  Oh, no.  No, no, no, no, no!

Bob:  Now, we’ve got to get to editing!  (Laughter)

Jerry:  No, there are little ways throughout a day when you can take a moment to pause and to look to God.  I pray when I’m walking across campus; for example, I’ll pray for the next appointment I have.  I always pray when I walk into a class. 

These are little gestures; but they remind me that when I’m teaching, I need another Teacher present Who is going to do the real work, through the power of the Holy Spirit—that when I go home to be with my wife, or when I’m talking with my kids on the phone, or we have people over for dinner, this needs to be seen as part of a divine activity. 

“God needs to be in this”; and by following that rhythm of prayer and work, I start to see those two as affecting each other.  My religious life does not become so isolated from my secular or work life—and that’s what has happened to most people in modern Christianity.

Dennis:  And as a result, we’re not having near the impact on the culture we ought to be having.  I found it interesting that you described the monastery as being the primary influence on culture.  If there’s a need today, it is for the faith of those who follow Jesus Christ and who desire to be obedient to the Scriptures—it is time for us to press into the culture and make a difference where we work, where we play, where we go to school, and where we live.

Bob:  It’s not just that we’re not having an impact on the culture, but the converse is true.  The culture is having too much of an impact on us and on our own lives; and as a result, it is draining the salt out of the saline solution.

Dennis:  And I think what Jerry’s book does, Bob, is it takes all of us kind of back to something we desperately need to be reminded of in this hectic, busy, fast-paced culture that we live in.  We need to make sure we are pursuing God—that we are getting to know Jesus Christ more and more intimately every day.

That’s what he’s talking about when you’re talking about praying.  You’re talking about engaging Jesus Christ before you walk into a meeting, as you perhaps have an appointment with a person.  The issue is getting to know Him more and more.  As a result, your life will be transformed; and you’ll transform those you touch.

Bob:  When you read about the lives of others who have gone before us—who have walked faithfully with Christ, and we have their writings, and we have their stories recorded for us, and see how they have lived out their faith—I think those examples give us courage, and they give us a vision for what our lives can look like.

That’s one of the reasons that I think your book is so helpful.  It’s a book called Water from a Deep Well, and we have it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.  You can find out how to get a copy of the book when you go online at FamilyLifeToday.com.  Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call toll-free 1-800-FL-TODAY, 1-800 “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”.  Ask about Jerry Sittser’s book, Water from a Deep Well; and we’ll make arrangements to get a copy of the book sent to you.

Now, I don’t know how many of our regular listeners are signed up to receive our twice-a-month e-magazine called The Family Room; but I wanted to let you know that the next issue of The Family Room, that comes out early in December, is going to include some articles about how to keep Christ at the center of Christmas in your family and an article by Dennis and Barbara on ways to keep your marriage fresh.  In fact, they’ve got five suggestions for you in this article.

The e-magazine is free.  We’d love to have you sign up to receive it.  All you have to do is go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on the link you see there for The Family Room.  You can sign up online, and then we’ll start sending the e-magazine out to you.  I think you’ll really enjoy it. 

Again, it’s absolutely free; and we’d love to have you signed up.  Go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link that says, “The Family Room”, and then you’ll be in line to get the next issue when it comes out.

Now, tomorrow we’re going to continue to look at some of the things we can learn from Christians who have lived in past centuries.  In fact, we’re going to see if there’s anything that we have in common with the Desert Fathers.  We’ll find out who they were and what we can learn from them tomorrow.  I hope you can be with us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas. 

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