Acedia – What the Desert Fathers teach us about procrastination


We all know that it’s important to spend time in God’s Word. We probably even want to spend time reading His Word, listening to Him speak afresh to us and enjoying a loving relationship with Him. Why then don’t we do it as often as we should? The simple answer is procrastination.

Acedia Definition – What Does Acedia mean?

The word acedia is a Greek word that literally means, “Without care.”  The closest equivalent English word is sloth. Suppose you were asked to name seven of the worst sins, what would your response be? I am almost sure you would immediately think of the common list know as the seven deadly sins.

When this ist was created, the desert fathers placed in the middle the world ‘acedia’. Even though acedia sounds like sloth upon translation, it meant a lot more than that to the desert fathers of the fourth century.

To them, it was a dejection that made it hard or impossible to be spiritual and it was characterised by a boredom that led to one falling to sleep when reading the word of God.

Furthermore, they placed it central to the list to demonstrate it was a sin common to all people and from which all the others flow.

The history of desert fathers

The term desert fathers (and also desert mothers) refers to a group of devout hermits, monks and ascetics who lived in the Scetes desert in Egypt in the third and fourth century AD. There are a number of well-known desert fathers but ‘Anthony The Great’ is arguably the most known. He is in fact referred to as the founder or father of desert monasticism. He was in the desert in the year 270 AD and stayed there until 271 AD. At the time of his death, he had inspired thousands of monks to take the path to seclusion in the desert.

Lessons from the Desert Fathers jtdyer.comChristian Monastism was greatly influenced by these early hermits. For instance, the Mt. Athmos monastic traditions, as well as the Rule of St. Benedict, were all largely influenced by the earlier desert fathers. While they are not so well know in today’s evangelical church, a look into church history reveals that almost all of the church renewal movements were somewhat pegged to some devout men and women who chose to separate themselves from the ordinary mundane life in order to hear God more clearly. Examples of such renewals include the German evangelicals and the England Methodist revival. Even though each of these renewals had different effects and took different turns, they were all largely influenced by the desert fathers.

What began as one man’s quest for separation gradually grew into communities of monarchs. It started by monarchs grouping into twos or threes and then over time, it graduated into fully fledged monarch communities. This evolution is what birthed monasteries that were guided by some rules and guidelines in order to enhance discipline, guarantee silence, establish fasting and prayer.  Monasteries also included some work like weaving baskets and clothes in order to cover their living expenses.

The desert fathers were led into the deserts because of their resolve and commitment to seek God. For instance, when Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire in the year 313, one of the fathers by name Anthony resolved to sell all his possessions and go into the desert. In those early days, these monarchs believed that mixing religion with politics was not the method of producing a Christian society. As far as they were concerned, the only way to be a true Christian was to be spiritual as opposed to the pursuits of the mundane things of this age.

The noonday devil: Distractions and Procrastination

The desert fathers had only one goal – to obey the most important commandment:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’

 ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Mark 12:28-30, NIV

As far as desert fathers were concerned, the only thing that mattered was loving the Lord and the best way they knew to do this was by forsaking everything and everyone in order to completely focus on God. But then, they realized something they had not envisioned – it suddenly became apparent to them that it was almost impossible to think of nothing else than scriptures the whole day.  Even though they were out there in the desert to do nothing but just focus on reading the word of God, praying and fasting, they often had wandering minds or got tired of doing one thing all day, all week. It didn’t take them too long to realize that this was not working. That brought them to a new realization – that even in solitude, you could still lose your focus on what took you to seclusion in the first place. It was an interesting challenge that needed a creative solution.

The biggest challenge was around noonday when the sun was blazing hot. It was not easy to maintain focus on God and they often suffered from wandering minds. This phenomenon was so common that they nicknamed it the noonday devil. One of the ways the desert fathers dealt with this challenge was to create a schedule and stick to it.  Also, as monarch communities evolved, it became necessary to do some work in order to keep the facility afloat. This also helped them to plan out their day and for their prayer time become more fruitful.

Lessons from the Desert Fathers

We might not agree with everything that the desert fathers did, and we probably might not get a chance to seclude ourselves out there in the wilderness. Nevertheless, there are some timeless principles that we can glean from the desert fathers and apply them in our modern day life. Let us have a look at some of these:

The power of separation

There is power in separation. As you look through the scriptures, you will realize the pattern of separation – God would separate his people before he used them to do a great work. Consider the following Bible examples:

Abraham – God wanted to bless him, to make his name great, and to bless the families of the earth through him. But before that happened, God required Abraham to separate himself from his father’s house, from his people and from his country. When Abraham Obeyed, God fulfilled his promise (Genesis 12, 13).

Noah – Noah is a man we would identify with easily. He lived in a perverse generation. A generation that was so full of wickedness that God decided to wipe them out completely. But even though he lived in such a sinful environment, Noah was still a just and righteous man. He lived a separated life so to speak. Because of that, God revealed his 100-year plan to him and gave him a way out of the punishment that God was about to release on mankind (Genesis 6:8-9)

Moses – Moses was raised in royalty – in Pharaoh’s household. But he knew he was Jewish and he didn’t like how his people were mistreated by the Egyptians. So he took the matter into his own hands and killed one of the Egyptians that he caught mistreating his people. This led him to flee away from the glamorous life and while in the wilderness, the Lord appeared to him and gave him a call (Exodus 3). Even after answering the call and successfully leading the Israelites out of bondage, he would occasionally go up the mountain alone in order to hear from God (Exodus, 19:3, 24:15).

Samson – Samson is arguably one of the most famous Bible Characters. He was the strongest man that ever lived and he literally led a one-man assault against the philistine nation and prevailed. He was so strong that he could tear a lion into pieces, carry the gates of a city up the hill, capture 300 foxes and attach a torch on their tails, and other exploits as recorded in the book of Judged. But what was the secret of his strength? The secret was that God had called him to lead the life of a Nazirite, a separated life from the day of his conception to the time he died (Judges 13:1-7).

Jeremiah – Prophet Jeremiah was called at a crucial time in Israel’s history and his ministry helped to restore hope to the Jewish people who were at a point of despair. When God called him, he was a bit confused and was wondering why God would call him at such an early age and give him such a huge and noble responsibility. That is when God took him behind the scenes and told him how He had separated him for that assignment right from his mother’s womb (Jeremiah 1:5).

John the Baptist – John was the prophet that had the noble responsibility of preparing the way for the coming Messiah. His ministry was so phenomenal that even though he went preaching in the wilderness, where there were no people, people literally flocked there to listen to him. Just like Jeremiah, God had set him aside from his mother’s womb and in fact, the angel that announced his birth even said that John would be filled with the Holy spirit right from the mother’s womb (Luke 1:15).  

Jesus – after John the Baptist baptised Jesus, He was led into the wilderness where he remained for 40 days and 40 nights. This moment of separation prepared him for the public ministry and eventually, his suffering, passion and death on the cross.  The devil probably had no clue whom Jesus was prior to this but when he was baptised, God announced him and everyone who was there heard it. The devil must have heard it too and from then on, he started trying every trick to pull his ministry down. But after the 40 days of separation, Jesus was ready to tackle any temptation the devil hurled at him.

Paul – Paul, who was initially called Saul, was one of the persecutors of the early church. One day, however, Jesus appeared to him while he was on his way to persecute the church and what transpired from this experience was a radical transformation. Paul later one became a major contributor to the Bible having written close to three-quarters of the New Testament. But before he ever wrote his first epistle, or preached his first sermon, he went through a period of separation. He stayed in the wilderness of Arabia where he probably got most of the revelations that he later wrote in his epistles (Galatians 1:17-18).

With all this said, I think there is no surprise that Jesus said:

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:6

God is all we need

The second lesson we can learn from the desert fathers is the importance of making heaven our primary focus. The desert fathers knew that our life on earth was temporary and we were headed to a more glorious future on the other side of death. This understanding is what prompted them to sell their properties and go to seek God in the wilderness. Even though God does not want you to sell your stuff as a way of showing your devotion to him, He wants you to serve him with your possessions. The pursuit of happiness should never be our principal goal in life. On the contrary, serving God should be the main driving force behind our existence.  

Just like the desert fathers, we should always remember that God is all we need. And there are many scriptures that remind us this. An example is what Jesus said when teaching his followers on the importance of not being ruled with worry. He said,

Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?

 (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Matthew 6:31-34, KJV

Nothing steals out time like the pursuit of the things of earth. And Jesus was reminding his followers that it was all about priority. As long as meeting our needs is our priority, we will never have enough stuff. However, if we could make seeking God and his kingdom as our priority, then he would be more than willing to step in and make sure we had all we needed. Just to emphasise this thought, the Holy Spirit repeated this in other portions of scripture. For instance,

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. Col. 3:2

As difficult as that might sound, it is not only possible but a requirement for us. The only way of enjoying our walk with God on a day to day basis is to endeavour to set our mind on things above and not just on earthly things. Peter also encourages us to do this.

But in your hearts set Christ apart [as holy—acknowledging Him, giving Him first place in your lives] as Lord. Always be ready to give a [logical] defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope and confident assurance [elicited by faith] that is within you, yet [do it] with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15


You are not alone

I think this is the most powerful lesson we can learn from the desert fathers. Even though they had taken stringent measures to be closer to God all day, they were still found themselves losing sight of it. They reportedly had to deal with wandering minds and thoughts when they were supposed to be in meditation and prayer. So don’t be too hard on yourself. You are not alone in this. Those that went before us went through dry spells and we will for sure have to experience them too. But then, we should look at devotion as a discipline. That way, we will not rely on feelings but on discipline. Once we discipline ourselves to have regular devotions, it will not matter if we feel like it or not. It will not matter whether we feel close to God or not – we will keep on doing our devotions and our persistence will eventually wear out any resistance.

We ought to approach God daily in faith and say, “Lord, I know I am very busy with a lot of stuff that needs to be done but still, I want to fulfil your will. That is the primary thing. ”

Whenever you start struggling in your devotions, just remember, you are not alone.

It’s not smooth all the way

Another important lesson to learn from the desert fathers is the fact that you can still go through challenges in your devotion even after making up your mind to start being more committed.

Let’s say you went to a solitary place and was just in God’s presence all day and night for 40 days and 40 nights  – what do you think would be the result? Maybe something really awesome and spectacular like say, raising someone from the dead? But guess what, when Jesus completed his 40 day fast, the Bible says the Devil came to tempt him.  That is not the response you would expect right?

Likewise, you shouldn’t expect it to be smooth all the way. Scripture says,

Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all. Psalms 34:19

Hurdles will always be there but the good news is that God is an ever-present help in the time of need.

The desert fathers usually did most of the hard work in the mornings when it was cooler but as they sat down at noon to relax and reflect, their minds would often wander and they would lose focus on God. The same is bound to happen to us wherever we may be. For instance, you might be at home all ready to start your devotion and then something happens. Your phone rings or someone knocks at the door, hubby asks for a cup of tea, etc. Even when in church, you could still get distracted easily. For instance, you could start praying and then a thought crosses your mind and before you know it, you are busy worrying and thinking about things back at home.

Jesus had his fair share of distractions in his public ministry. As you read the gospels, you realize that he had to deal with a lot of that on a day to day basis. A classic example is when he was on his way to heal the daughter of Jairus only to be interrupted by the woman with the issue of blood. Even though the Bible uses just a couple of verses to describe that interruption, it must have been a lengthy one because the servants of Jairus managed to come with the report that the daughter was already dead. In this example, as is the case in almost all other cases where Jesus’ ministry was interrupted, He always dealt with the interruption without losing focus on the original goal.

Even though we all look forward to a time when we will be totally immersed in God’s presence, it is only human that we will have to deal with interruptions in our devotion. The rule of thumb is to never let the interruptions decide if you are going to do your devotion or not. You have to make up your mind to always keep the main thing the main thing. There are many interesting things that will happen to us and some will definitely take our attention. Other times, they will not even be interesting things but they will be important nonetheless. Whichever the case, we should never allow the interesting and the important to ruin our personal walk with the Lord.

In next week article, we will look at some reasons why we procrastinate and how to overcome them.

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