The Life of Saint Antony: How an Ancient Desert Monk Still Challenges Christians Today

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By Lauren Pratt and Jordan Parris

You might not think there’s much to learn from a monk, especially one who lived thousands of years ago. But if we know anything about church history, it’s that we are constantly learning and growing from our spiritual forefathers. For better or worse, the church fathers have shaped our theology in a myriad of ways. On October 25, Dr. Stefana Dan Laing delivered the Evangelical Voices in the Academy lecture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Laing, Assistant Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, captured the life of Saint Antony and what we can learn from him about following Jesus today.

1. Christian discipleship necessitates dying daily.

Dr. Laing explained that Saint Antony’s life of asceticism came from a desire to live an undistracted life before God. He sold all he had and left a life of lavish wealth in the city for a humble existence in the desert. The undistracted life frees us up to hear from God clearly, allowing spiritual formation to take place as we listen and obey his voice. What starts as a removal of distraction leads to hearing from the Lord, who calls us to a life of daily denial. Dr. Laing described this as “living virtuously one day at a time.”

This aspect of the life of Saint Antony poses the greatest challenge for our capitalistic culture. Every bit of work we do these days is driven toward a profit or provision for ourselves, whether it’s earning a degree or producing a product. I wonder what it would be like in 21st century America to live an ascetic life that relies wholly on God for provision. It would certainly require dying daily.

The life of Saint Antony challenges us to consider what it means to live a life fully devoted to Christ.

2. Christian discipleship necessitates humility.

Saint Antony became wildly popular in his day for his ascetic practices, but he was not interested in a celebrity version of Christianity. Instead of embracing his popularity, he sought to deflect the praise he received to the praise of God. As Dr. Laing noted, Saint Antony was teaching people through his deflection of fame to see the “power and prerogatives of God.” Saint Antony saw humility in the Christian life as connected to having purity of heart and clarity to follow the Spirit’s leading.

We would obviously agree that humility is important for the Christian life, yet putting into practice the kind of humility Saint Antony modeled is very counter-cultural for us. We fight to be known by the right people so we can get ahead in life. We assume we must promote ourselves in order to get a job or sell a product. But that’s not what Saint Antony was concerned with. As Christians, should we follow Saint Antony’s example and reject the wisdom of this world that urges us to promote ourselves? I think we have to at least consider it.

3. Christian discipleship necessitates a spiritual battle until our final breath.

Walking with Jesus means we are entering into a battle. Ephesians 6:12 reminds us that this isn’t an earthly battle but a spiritual one. Saint Antony’s ascetic journey into the wilderness revealed the intense spiritual warfare that came with following wholeheartedly after Jesus. He, along with other desert monks, received insight into the spiritual warfare around them as they embraced the disciplines of silence and solitude. The accounts of the desert monks, as Dr. Laing noted, observed that “the devil and the demons fight differently, they fight openly and nakedly.” We need to live with this same awareness of the spiritual darkness around us and ground ourselves in the Scriptures to fight this darkness daily.

Hearing about the life of Saint Antony challenges us to consider the reality of the spiritual warfare that we encounter daily. Between the busyness of our schedules and the buzzing of our phones, we are too distracted to see how the enemy is seeking to distort truth and devour our souls (1 Pet. 5:8). Dr. Laing proposed that we have insulated ourselves spiritually, giving ourselves over more and more to worldly practices, which numbs us to the Holy Spirit’s prompting to obey or his conviction of sin. The practice of spiritual disciplines that Saint Antony modeled help us re-center on Christ and his primary purpose for us: to love Christ and neighbor.

4. Christian discipleship necessitates love of Christ and neighbor.

Satan is the master of distraction, and he will do all that he can to keep us preoccupied from this primary purpose to love the Lord and those made in his image. This is why the need for community in this spiritual battle is key. The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to live in community with one another (Heb. 10:24-25, CSB). Christian discipleship calls us to love others as Christ has loved us, both those in and outside of the Church. Jesus consistently taught that obedience came from a holistic love for the Lord, and this love led to a genuine love for neighbor.

Saint Antony modeled this love by not simply living as a recluse in the desert but loving his neighbor out of the deep love he had for Christ and sought to love, serve, and empower those in need. This observation reveals the beauty of ascetism. Emptying oneself can lead to a reflection of who God is and who we are, and it can inspire us to pour out our lives for others based on God’s abundant grace lavished on us.

The life of Saint Antony challenges us to consider what it means to live a life fully devoted to Christ. Will we embrace lives where we die daily, live humbly, are aware of spiritual battles and love Christ and neighbor? This counter-cultural life displays God’s provision, grace and kindness to a world that desperately needs it.

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Lauren Pratt

Lauren Pratt currently works for a Public Relations firm in Boston while finishing up her Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies at The College at Southeastern. She writing as a way to both encourage and equip followers of Christ.

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