“…why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations–“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” ~ Colossians 2:20-23
I taught on these verses a few weeks back. While going through these verses we talked about the tendency to focus merely on the outer, or the physical aspects of religion…the appearance of holiness, but how often we fail to see the root issue. The root issue is the heart. We talked about how ultimately the change of the heart was the work of Christ, not a result of our own efforts. We spoke on the tendency of us all to add to the Scriptures, even if not intentionally, but our tendency to be more narrow, than the Word of God is narrow. Basically legalism…In my teaching I made the observation that legalism indulges the flesh just as much as licentiousness.
In light of these things, we can glean that if keeping rules, regulations, and focusing on the ‘physical’ aspects of religion is bad, then lets go the other way. Lets not talk about Spiritual disciplines, or lets not worry so much about anything that does indeed look religious. We run from all things that might reak of ‘asceticism’….
I think this is a dangerous attitude to have for the Christian.
First off, is all asceticism bad?
I don’t think so. All asceticism really means is self denial, or an abstaining from ‘worldly pleasures’. I don’t think any of us would argue that there is indeed an aspect to this involved in the Christian life. I would argue that true Christian asceticism isn’t simply self denial, or abstaining from ‘worldly pleasures’ but in fact an abstaining from ‘inferior pleasures’ in order to pursue and indulge ourselves in pleasures beyond our wildest dreams. (Very similar to John Piper’s idea of Christian Hedonism.) Nevertheless, it cannot be argued that there is indeed an aspect of asceticism, or self denial involved in living the life of a Christian. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this, “If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desire of the flesh…we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ.” I think in the life of John the Baptist, a man Jesus says is the ‘greatest of those born of women’…You see a man who truly embodied an ascetic lifestyle. So obviously, if this is true…Asceticism is not a bad thing.
I think ultimately the issue is…What is our motivation? We’ve all made fun of artsy actors and actresses who have uttered this phrase. The fact is though, many times in our Christian lives that is what we are attempting to do. I think in the Colossian church that is what some we’re doing. Putting on a show. Giving the appearance of holiness, or of wisdom. God does not call us to be actors…He calls us to pursue Him, and to point others to Christ. If our asceticism is us doing that…I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Isn’t that what we see in the life of John the Baptist? Do we not even see aspects of asceticism in the life of Christ?
Asceticism does have a negative connotation amongst many Christians today. It is understandable, but ultimately there is nothing inherently evil about it. The main issue is our motivation. Perhaps it would be better to say the biggest issue is vision. Are we trying to figure out how we look through the eyes of others, or are we trying to figure out how God sees us? Are we seeking after the appearance of holiness, or are we trying to draw closer to the one who has made us holy? Are we seeking the praises and approval of men, or are we pointing others to the only One who is worthy of praise? Are we trying to cleanse ourselves of sin, and earn God’s favor, or are we showing people who Jesus Christ is…the only one who is able to cleanse.
So the issue isn’t asceticism…the issue is motivation. The issue is whose eyes are we trying to look at ourselves through. The eyes of man, or the eyes of Christ. Ultimately I think the issue is the heart.
Only Christ can give us both new eyes and a new heart…