Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Proper Motivation for Discipline and Asceticism

Many of us scorn the idea of discipline or asceticism (temporarily depriving ourselves of something that we desire). This is probably because we don’t see these things rightly. We often look at asceticism for asceticism’s sake (see Doug Wilson quote below). No wonder that isn’t appealing.

We must look at discipline and asceticism as depriving ourselves of something of small importance for the sake of something of great importance.

For an example, let’s look at Jesus’ confrontation with the Satan in the wilderness. There seem to be many reasons why Jesus went to the wilderness (to show himself as a greater Adam, resisting Satan; to show himself as a better Israel, not grumbling in the wilderness; to triumph over Satan to inaugurate his ministry, ect.), but I find his responses to Satan while there really interesting. When Satan offers Jesus bread, Jesus quotes to him Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mat. 4:4).

On one hand, this was probably to contrast Jesus to the Israelites in the wilderness, in that he didn’t grumble for food like they did. For the purpose of this post, however, notice that Jesus did not just say, “I don’t need bread.” He was hungry and he felt the very legitimate desire for food. Rather, he was showing that he cherished every word from the Father more than food.

When we think about whether we should carry out a type of discipline of asceticism, we should only do so to attain something even better.

It is not holy in itself to fast. Jesus made quite a point of this at the “Sermon on the Mount” (Mat. 6:16-18). It is only good to fast if we are depriving ourselves of food because of a genuine realization that we want the better things in life more. In this light, fasting is logical.  It isn’t sufficient in itself to read the words in the Bible. We sit and read from the Bible, instead of being somewhere else, because we believe that we will ultimately glean more from what we discover than by doing other things at the moment. We don’t get magical tokens for praying, but it is blessed by God when we count talking to him and fellowshipping with him as more valuable than other things.

Notice too that this does not negate lesser things. True, the Word of God is more valuable and satisfying than food, but we cannot neglect food. We just shouldn’t treasure is too much. Spending an hour praying is probably more essentially valuable than getting my hair cut, but I cannot never cut my hair. Where I would err is wen I care more about by my image in the mirror than my time with my Father.

What matters is seeing things in their proportionate value. Sometimes, it takes discipline to force ourselves to re-align our values. But, we don’t do so for the superficial sake of the action, we do so because we (rightly selfishly) want the best thing for ourselves.

“Indeed, I count everything as loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” –Paul, Philippians 3:8

“We don’t practice asceticism for asceticism’s sake. We practice asceticism for the sake of greater enjoyment.” –Doug Wilson

“God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in him.” –John Piper

"So, if we wish to follow Christ-and to walk in the easy yoke with him-we will have to accept his overall way of life as our way of life totally. Then, and only then, we may reasonably expect to know by experience how easy is the yoke and how light the burden". -Dallas Willard


  1. Josh ... I love that you're pondering this topic. It's something that has been simmering in my mind for several weeks. Appreciate your thoughtfulness here.

  2. Thank you, Seth. It seems that Lent has brought discipline to a lot of people's minds lately especially. I'm glad to see it surfaces as a topic of social media discussion.