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The Table Video

Gerald Sittser

Is Your Spirituality Too Easy?

Professor of Theology / Senior Fellow in the Office of Church Engagement, Whitworth University
October 20, 2016

Gerald Sittser of Whitworth University explains how the Christian Monastic movement were psychologists that understood the challenges to spiritual transformation and psychological dynamics. In contrast to modern reductionistic psychology, Sittser points out how the “Desert Mothers and Fathers” made sense of adversity and critiqued “easy success.”


They have a very clear view of human nature. How it’s fallen and how it can be reclaimed and redeemed. So I always start there and then I try to explore the depth of their understanding of how human nature can be informed and reclaimed. There’s a kind of psychology that comes into play here. I would argue that a lot of modern psychology in its various schools, I don’t wanna be over simplistic here, but in its various schools, tends to be more reductionistic than they are.

Depending on where you go you may discover you’re pretty much the product of your gene pool and that’s it or it could be you’re pretty much the victim of your background and that’s it. And they have a more nuanced view of things than we do in many cases. I’ll give you one example.

So John Cashiness’ outlining the thought of Abba Daniel and Abba Daniel says that human nature is a war between what he calls the flesh and the spirit. By flesh he means, our desire to indulge our appetites as much as we possibly can and by spirit, it’s the part of us that really wants God, and to know God, follow God and practice the disciplines that call us into a deeper life with God.

And he said the soul is right in the middle. And what the soul wants is the best of both worlds. It wants to sort of indulge the flesh so we can experience pleasure and it wants to be spiritual, but not too much. And so it’s constantly wallowing in lukewarmness. And he said, “God will never let us get away with that.”

And so, one of the things, the tools that God uses is adversity to break us of our lukewarmness and move us gradually toward a deeper life with God so that we become more spiritual, I guess you could call it. But not indulging pride at the same time and that’s why the spiritual journey, he says, has to be hard and long. Easy success leads to spiritual pride and that’s the most damnable vice of all.

Evan: And we often look to psychology, we often look to spirituality for an easy, very fast transformative experience [mumbles].

Man: Yeah, I was–

Evan: Yeah, yeah.

And they will simply not allow us to do that. There is nothing simple and easy about the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Now, I’ll say, it’s not the world of Augustine, not the world of Calvin, they’re very different. Their view of grace is not a reformation view of grace I admit that, I teach that, I clarify that as much as I can. They would say grace would operate like this: Imagine you have a young child, well, you do have young children, So how old’s your oldest?

Evan: Four.

Okay, so let’s just say he sleeps on the top–

Evan: She.

She sleeps on a top bunk bed, which obviously too young to do, but let’s just say that for the case of our conversation here. And there is no way she could ever jump to that top bunk bed, ever. And so playing with her and encouraging her and loving her, you say, “Jump. Jump and daddy will help you get to the top bunk bed.”

So she jumps, you lift her up and you say to her, “Oh, you are such a big girl. [calming music] “I can’t believe how strong you are. “I can’t believe how high you can jump.” Well of course, she didn’t do anything to get to that top bunk bed. You did it all. There was no contribution she made whatsoever. And yet, you are encouraging her at the same time.

That was their view of grace. It isn’t that God helps us, God does it all and yet our efforts, our response give a cue to God that we want His help, that we hold up our arms to Him. [calming music]