There is a story about one of the desert monks, Abba Lot, who sought out the counsel of his elder, Abba Joseph. When Abba Lot came to the elder, he proceeded to explain that he keeps his discipline as best he is able: fasting, praying, meditating, silent reflecting, and fighting to prevent sinful thoughts from entering his mind. He then asked the elder what more he could do. Abba Joseph’s reply was to stand up and stretch his hands toward the sky. When he did this, it is said that his fingers seemed to glow and burn as with flames. He then said to Abba Lot, “Why not be totally changed to fire?”
This story is intriguing for a number of reasons. It was not unusual for desert monks to seek out the advice and counsel of their elders and colleagues. However, it seems that Abba Lot was doing all the right things and we have no reason to think that any of his practices consisted of “going through the motions.” In Abba Lot, I think we can see a portrait of someone who is earnestly seeking God but haunted by the question, “is there more?” One who has a living relationship with God, but wants to become even more rooted in God.
Abba Joseph’s answer to the question of “what more should I do?” may not appear to be helpful at first. It may seem more like spiritual showboating, or at least far beyond the reach of the rest of us common folk. But his answer, I think, comes in two parts that are both within our grasp.
The first part is a reminder to let God do his work in the midst of our own doing. Abba Lot speaks of all the things he does and Abba Joseph speaks of being changed, of being transformed. To put it differently, if we are only concerned with doing, even the most earnest doing, we are never open to receive from God. This is why spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines are two-way streets. They are acts of love in which we give ourselves to God and God gives Himself to us. We give God the time and the spiritual space to form us into Christ’s image and God does just that and fills us with more and more of his love and goodness.
The second part is an invitation to lay aside our own notions of what is or isn’t possible. We will never know if Abba Joseph’s lampstand hands were real or the product of embellishments. However, I don’t think the truth or fiction of Abba Joseph’s feat is the point of the story. Instead, it is that anything is possible with God, even things as outlandish sounding as a man’s fingers glowing like candles! This echoes Matthew 19:23-26, after the rich young ruler refuses to part with his possessions in order to follow Him,
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
To frame this up, consider the following: in the eyes of Jesus’ audience, the rich had a better chance than any others of being saved. Yet, here is Jesus saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one of these privileged to enter the kingdom of heaven. The disciples are understandably dumbfounded. Jesus has just told them that the people they believed to be at the front of the line to enter the Kingdom are actually facing a Herculean task. It is a “what hope is there for us?” moment. Christ’s response is frank: humans cannot accomplish this, it is something that only God can bring about. “With God all things are possible.”
Turning once more to Abba Joseph’s shining fingers, the Christian journey is not something that has a cap on it. There is no point that we reach in this life when we are “good enough”. God refuses to settle for “good enough”. Instead He continues to draw us closer to Him through our ongoing transformation into ever-greater Christ-likeness. There are times when we feel like we’ve hit a plateau or a wall. There are times when God seems distant and it’s all we can do to sit down and read a Psalm or say the Our Father. This is because we go through different seasons in our life, ups and downs, as it were. However erratic our course may appear at the moment, we can rest assured that, in the bigger picture, we are following a steadily upward course.
It is this steadily upward course that Abba Joseph is pointing towards. When he asks, “Why not be totally changed to fire?” Perhaps he is asking, why not give God full control to grow you and shape you as He desires? Rather than relying on your own efforts, why not let God’s Spirit consume you and fill you? Focus on doing that which is possible for you (the praying, the meditating, the fasting, etc.) and leave that which is seemingly impossible (the miraculous growth and life we have in Christ) to the Almighty who is able to do all things.