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The Lure of Asceticism

“Without the infinite personal God, all a person can do, as Nietzsche points out, is to make systems. In today's speech we would call them gameplans. A person can erect some sort of structure, some type of limited frame in which he lives, shutting himself up in that frame and not looking beyond it.”



Asceticism: a definition from the oxford dictionary:

severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.

It has been said that by the time Jesus Christ appeared on earth the Jewish people were subject to well over 600 laws in addition to the 10 commandments. During the time of Jesus, the Scribes and Pharisees ensured that the devoted did not disobey these laws… using intimidation and bullying if needed.


Jesus addressed this squarely several times. It was clear that He did not find this legalistic adherence to faith… which was bound by nearly impossible rules helpful in becoming holy or righteous.


In Matthew 23 he said of the Pharisees:


“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”


Then a little later he continues his rebuke:


““But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves”…


 …“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!


“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness”


It is apparent that Jesus wanted a different kind of relationship with His people. His disdain for the burdens that men laid on those who desired to follow Gods ways is so evident in these passages. Fake religious ceremony brought out some of Jesus harshest words!


We can see that in the Old Testament as well, God wanted those who followed him to positively impact the world around them and not be focused mostly on asceticism as shown in this verse from Isaiah 58:


“Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’


If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,”


What a powerful passage this is!


Imagine a world where people would fully grasp and embrace the simplicity of this passage.


I love the way Jesus takes on this fascination with such religion:


“You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”


What he appears to be saying is that focusing on the checklist, to the degree of casting aside empathy, while ignoring real sin in our hearts is missing the point entirely.


After the fourth century we see the organization of the Church begin to develop its own set of religious traditions and requirements. During the Middle Ages the word of the Pope superseded the Bible, those who disagreed with the Church such as John Hus… were put to death.


This fascination with legalism wasn’t really a new problem though, the apostles were already dealing with this many years earlier. Peter says in second Second Peter 3 verse 15-16:


“as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”


Peter says here that some people choose ignorance and twist the scripture to say something it does not. Some would argue that perhaps God should have made it more clear… And to that I would point to a more recent document - the constitution of the United States, a rather plainly worded document that laid out a foundation for the “land of the free and home of the brave”. Since 1787 the people and the government have been haggling about what it means. Adding to it through something called “precedence”… making this actually rather simple document more and more complicated. Yet, the constitution continues to present a clear overarching truth - that government is for the people and by the people. It is a thorn in the side of the corrupt and those who seek to control the people. As has happened in Christianity, there are many leaders in US history who tried to either manipulate these foundational documents or disavow them with laws that contradict them.


I think of my experience as a leader, those times that I implemented a process designed to address a specific local  situation and that process became the rule for every situation. It happens naturally… I’ve probably made the same mistake myself I am certain.


The fact is that a checklist is so much easier than a relationship. When a young couple get married they start off in a “Honeymoon Phase”, a few years in they have discovered that one cannot operate with only feelings and sometimes subconsciously develop checklists. The feelings of empathetic love wear off and now they need to figure out how to stay in love.


In the case above, the couple can choose to work on their relationship through communication, courting and random acts of kindness… or they can create checklists that keep the relationship in a place of stasis or “sameness”. The former will deepen love, but it’s hard work. The latter will maintain the illusion of a loving relationship but underneath they will grow in resentment or disappointment.


Then there are children… similarly when we pass on our checklist relationship mentality to our kids their faith becomes incredibly shallow as do their relationships! As Chuck Swindoll says:


“You want to mess up the minds of your children? Here's how - guaranteed! Rear them in a legalistic, tight context of external religion, where performance is more important than reality. Fake your faith. Sneak around and pretend your spirituality . Train your children to do the same. Embrace a long list of do's and don'ts publicly but hypocritically practice them privately... yet never own up to the fact that its hypocrisy. Act one way but live another. And you can count on it - emotional and spiritual damage will occur.”



It’s just so easy to flip into this kind of existence in our relationships as well as in our Church and faith. It is so easy to find examples of this historically. This is why history shows numerous Church splits as these checklists get challenged by believers who “find the real Jesus” and then an offshoot starts - soon to also be bound again in legalism.


We crave the easy way. Relationships require work… there is an investment of time and energy to produce feelings of love and a desire. Sometimes this work can seem like it’s to much. This is when we revert back to a checklist like a warm security blanket.


We can go for years without a deep and meaningful connection… going through the motions of relationship. Checking the boxes… in a Church setting those boxes will become focused inevitably on the things that God really doesn’t care about.


I’ve had seasons in my relationship with God and also in my wife and kids as well where I’ve checked boxes… coasted so to speak. I share this not in terms of self condemnation but as a simple fact. Everyone will go through seasons like this.


As Paul says though in Colossians 2:


“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, 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.”


We make the choice though to stay in the comfort of asceticism largely because we don’t even realize that somewhere along the way we have exchanged authentic relationship for the deception of self made religion… until we are finally shocked out of complacency in some way. Further to this we fear giving up our rules because we know intuitively that without this, our faith will be messy. It will involve mistakes, grace, patience, kindness… but the upside is genuine unshakable faith. A depth of relationship that is not worried about missing a checked box but rather passionately pursuing the miracle man from Nazareth. When you are in love you do loving things!


Second Corinthians‬ chapter 3 says that when we are bound by legalism or for that matter it’s cousin asceticism a veil covers our eyes: 


“that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."


Freedom… I believe God is calling this generation to come back to the simplicity of the Gospel… the Holy Spirit is beginning to stir in many young people. There is a hunger for truth in a world that is fake. The tolerance for fakery is weaning away!

This authenticity comes from relationship with Christ combined with the anchor of the written word called the Bible. If the Bible is more important than the relationship we risk losing the point completely as the Scribes and Pharisees did - and as has happened many times in Church history.


As Jesus says to the Laodicean Church in Revelation 3:


“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”


The adventure of authentic faith awaits as we step into the boat with Jesus…


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