If you haven’t read the introduction to this series please read it here first.
In a culture that values wealth, fame and pleasure, the ascetic temperament is the most difficult to relate to. There is always a newer model to upgrade to, a higher level of wealth to attain, and new pleasures to seek. Sure, we might admire Christians who serve God in solitude and simplicity, but we also often suspect them of being religious fanatics.
John the Baptist is probably the most prominent ascetic in the Bible. His mode of dress and his diet were beyond simple, and he lived in solitude in the desert. Jesus also frequently sought solitude, often going off to deserted places to pray, and we know that the Son of Man had “no place to lay His head”, which meant that he didn’t even have a home of His own.
Just as a man in love with a woman sets apart chunks of his income for an engagement ring, spends his time going on dates with her, tells all his colleagues and friends about her, and reads her letters and text messages over and over again, so does the believer consumed with God price time spent alone with Him above all else, set aside a portion of his money for His work, tell everyone who cares to listen about Him, and read His words over and over again.
Our culture can relate well with the former, a man in love, but the latter is considered a religious fanatic. However, this is simply the romantic side of asceticism: the seeming strictness is born out of a desire to reserve a major portion of their lives for the passionate pursuit of God.
Early asceticism was marked by solitary living, but these days there are “modern monks” around us who have learnt to live in detachment even while in society, enabling them to minister to others while also being able to recharge and be refreshed in solitude with God.
Do you think this temperament might be yours? Do you feel closest to God when you’re alone and there is nothing to distract you from focusing on His presence? Would you describe your faith as more “internal” than “external”? Are the words silence, solitude and discipline very appealing to you?
If yes, while you may not be able to join a monastery or a society of ascetics, you can lead a life of simplicity and enrich your faith by solitude, with these tips:
1. Retreat: Recognise that spending time alone with God, away from others, is essential for your growth. As a modern-day ascetic, limited retreats may be the mainstay of your faith walk. Whether you “go to the mountain”, create a prayer room in your home, or obtain permission to use the sanctuary or prayer chapel at your local church alone, just the act of setting apart time and separating yourself from the hustle and bustle of daily life, can usher you into worship.
2. Keep vigil: Watching in the night is not merely about losing sleep. It’s about being vigilant at a time when others are not, and many Christians have found the quiet of the night or pre-dawn to be one of their best times of prayer and worship. As Gary Thomas puts it, “While others slumber, the ascetic lifts his or her soul to God; while all creation awaits the sun, the ascetic welcomes the Son.”
3. Be still: You may not be able to take a vow of silence, but you can still take out time to keep quiet. If you can attend one of those retreats where you aren’t allowed to speak for a set time, that’s great, but if you can’t, arrange a few hours to abstain from needless chatter. There is much to be learnt in silence, especially in an age where we talk so, so much.
4. Fast: Nearly all Christians know the benefits of abstaining from food, TV, etc. If you’re an ascetic you’re most likely not a stranger to giving up the delights and consolations of this world so as to enjoy those that God offers.
5. Obey: Strict obedience can lead you into legalism, but remember that rebellion can be habit-forming. Be determined to obey, and also be sensitive to the Holy Spirit at all times.
6. Work: Working hard is acceptable to God and when it is done right, it can be part of our worship to God.
7. Live simply: A simple living environment and a simple lifestyle is as much a form of worship as boisterous music and loud instruments. As an ornate cathedral is to a traditionalist, and a garden in bloom to a naturalist, so is a sparse, quiet room to an ascetic; a call to worship.
8. Endure hardship: Instead of fighting hardship, an ascetic grows by embracing and enduring it when it comes, as a good soldier of Christ. (2 Tim 2:3)
Some temptations to watch out for as an ascetic:
1. Overemphasising personal piety: Beware of outward displays of piety that are not really for God.
2. Neglecting social obligations: Jesus spent long hours in solitude and prayer, but He always came back to minister to people. Be sure to balance your need for spiritual refreshment with your Christian obligation to reach out to others.
3. Trying to gain God’s favour or love: Our living and worshipping is by faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. No amount of fasting, simplicity or sleeping on the ground will make God love us more. Be careful not to let your acts of worship become attempts to win something or the other from God.
4. Masochism: Seeking pain for its own sake is not the same thing as enduring hardship for the sake of Christ. Masochism is a sickness, not a spiritual path.
Salvation in Christ is by grace through faith. Denying yourself and taking up your cross to follow Jesus is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Like other acts of worship, when asceticism becomes an end in itself, it is a distortion of a time-tested and treasured Christian practice. Jesus must TRULY remain at the centre of all acts of worship and devotion.
Next Sunday we’ll be ending this series with a review of the temperament that happens to be mine – Enthusiasts: Loving God Through Mystery and Celebration.
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