A Brief Meditation for the Month

December 2021

Throughout history, men and women have endeavoured in every conceivable way to justify themselves and obtain acceptance with God. Attempting to keep both body and mind free from sin, some have resorted to the most absurd extremities. Doing penance, going on pilgrimages, inflicting pain on their bodies, fasting, prayer vigils, and abstaining from every form of physical or worldly pleasure, and more. For centuries, isolated monasteries and convents have drawn into their cloisters sincere but deluded souls like Martin Luther, intent on finding peace with God through a life of solitary confinement and self-denial, free from the temptations of sinful society and the fleshly allurements of the outside world.

How blessed it is to know that such efforts, while futile, are so unnecessary. The apostle Paul, who spent part of his life seeking to justify himself before God through his strict religious life as a Pharisee, came to understand and write: “being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Romans 5:1. In ignorance of such peace-giving truth, multitudes still hope to find acceptance with God upon their own terms or in some way devised in their own imagination. Some misguided souls like Simeon of Syria have gone to extreme measures in their attempts to be holy and merit favour with God. Celebrated by Lord Tennyson in his poem, ‘Saint Simeon Stylites,’ Simeon, a young shepherd, first sought peace for his soul shut within the confines of a monastery cell. Thinking he would be free here from the contaminating influences of the outside world, Simeon believed a life of austere self-denial and bodily flagellation would surely make him more acceptable with God.

Unable, however, to convince himself that this method of ‘self-denial’ was sufficiently meritorious before God, he withdrew from the monastery around 423 A.D. to a mountain near Antioch. Here he erected a pole for himself nearly three metres high, atopped with a small, railed platform upon which he perched. In these constrained conditions, he lived alone day and night through all weather. Although his initial thinking was that here he would be nearer to heaven and further from sinful earth and earthlings, he remained dissatisfied with the degree of his self-denial. He, therefore, extended his pillar heavenward to around eighteen metres. Here he lived clothed only in animal skins with an iron collar around his neck for the last thirty years of his life, preaching twice daily to those who came to listen to him. Aged seventy-two, Simeon died on his perch without the assurance that he had done enough to meet God in peace. He was buried in Antioch with great solemnity and respect for his supposed saintliness, setting the trend followed by many other “Pillar hermits” in their pursuit of personal holiness and meritorious acceptance with God. Adhering to their interpretation of what it means to be in the world but not of it, John 15:19; 17:11–16, they imagined they could purge themselves of their sins and keep themselves uncorrupted by the ungodly world.

Jesus Christ, however, procured true lasting peace and reconciliation with God for sinners through the death of the cross. Dying as the just for the unjust, 1Peter 3:18, he purchased a free pardon for those who repent and put their trust in him. He says to everyone, who rests by faith upon his finished, and all-sufficient work of atonement, however guilty they may feel themselves to be, “Peace be unto you,” John 20:19, 21, 26. He offers this peace as a free gift—“My peace I give unto you,” John 14:27. What an exceedingly precious gift!

G. G. Hutton.