The Desert as Christian Failure

“The church has consistently ministered to the unintentional victims of failure. It has found it much harder, however, to accept intentional failure as central to the gospel itself. Yet Christianity is for losers—so much so that winners must undergo failure to become Christian. Against a lifetime of socialization, there remains the firm insistence: “Whoever would save [one’s] life will lose it, and whoever loses [one’s] life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25, RSV).

The central image for failure is the desert. It runs from Adam and Eve’s exile east of Eden through John’s exile on Patmos. It is in the desert that our primary temptations become exposed—those of power, status, and security (Matt. 4:1-11). These temptations are the precise marks which our society identifies as success. Thus for the Christian to be faithful is to fail—intentionally.

But the process through which we refuse to embrace the driving values of the surrounding society is not a teeth-gritting self-denial. By breaking the craving for these “values,” the desert becomes our honeymoon with God (Jer. 2:2). It is where God forms God’s people. Without this desert honeymoon, Christianity is too easily reduced to a justification of questionable winning, or solace as sour grapes for failing when we really wanted to win.

Pure faith hears the full silence of God, and believes—for the absence of God touches one’s thirst more than the presence of everything else. “In the desert we go on serving the God whom we do not see, loving [the God] whom we do not feel, adoring [the God] whom we do not understand, and thanking [the God] who has taken from us everything but [God’s self]” (Charles Cummings, Spirituality and Desert Experience).


Charles Cummins Spirituality and the Desert Experience (Studies in Formative Spirituality, Vol. Two) Dimension, 1978

In time, the search becomes the goal, the longing becomes sufficient unto itself, and the perseverance transforms the meaning of success. Then some quiet evening, perhaps by full moon, it becomes strangely self-evident that we would not be searching had we not already been found. And the desert blooms when we find ourselves willing to be last—not because the last may become first, but because the game of “firsts” and “lasts” is no longer of interest.”

Paul Jones “The Desert as Christian Failure” Text available on-line at: From “Intentional Failure: The Importance of the Desert Experience” Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life Vol. VII, No. 1 (Jan/Feb 1992)(Nashville, TN: The Upper Room,1992), 16-21.



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