“I’m in a twelve-step program for recovering ascetics,” I explained to my missionary nephew. I knew he’d “get” it.
More than a little conversant in theology and church history, Ian had joined his dad and uncles last spring at the old “home place” at Robert Lee, Texas. We had been dining quite well out by the fire pit when I felt led to confess.
In case the humor misses you, let me explain. To greatly oversimplify, may I just say that “asceticism” is a kind of over-reaction to “hedonism.” That helps, right? No. Okay.
“Hedonism” is an approach to life that says, “Get all the gusto! Deny yourself nothing!” (Solomon is the most famous of the jillions who’ve tried it. See Ecclesiastes 2.)
Asceticism, on the other hand, says that the way to be really holy is to strictly and religiously deny yourself all comfort and pleasure. If you’re a monk given to asceticism (and by no means all monks are or were), you might wear a hair shirt, sleep on the cold floor, fast for days on end, whip yourself, etc., to try to put to death all physical desires.
With medium rare steak juice trickling down my beard and in the midst of kinsmen all busily eating too much, I told Ian, “I’m in a twelve-step program for recovering ascetics.” Ascetics Anonymous.
Truth be told, I’ve never been even close to asceticism. But also true, in my early life I spent way too much time feeling guilty about enjoying God’s good gifts and that amazing blessing, life itself. I should have known my Father better.
I was teaching a Sunday School class on “Moderation” (now that’s funny!) when I remembered my quip to Ian.
Yes, Jesus says that his disciples must deny themselves and follow him. Denial of “things” may at times enter in to that, but the deeper denial is far harder. We must deny our very selves, our “right” to be our own, our claim to salvation, and our desire to take center stage with our own rule-keeping “holiness.”
The Apostle Paul issues a stiff warning in Colossians 2. He says that rules such as “Touch not! Taste not! Handle not!” have “an appearance of wisdom,” but in reality “their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body” lacks “any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” They’re just one more way of focusing on us and our sham of “goodness” rather than on God and the real thing.
The Scriptures make it clear that we may well choose on occasion to give up for a time some things or activities as a spiritual discipline, but we must not feel haughty or be loud about it or bind our way on others.
Most of the time, the best way to honor God is to enjoy his multitude of gifts at the right times, in the right amounts, and to overflow in thanksgiving as we live balanced lives eating, sleeping, working, playing—all to God’s glory. Moderation is a key to balance.
Funny though, we need to be moderate even about moderation lest we take ourselves too seriously and God not seriously enough. Folks who pat themselves on the back about how moderate they are end up tired and tiresome. Such contortion always produces a pain in the tail section.
Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org