Monday, December 20, 2010

Personal Asceticism

"True humility is an excellent grace; it is the clothing and ornament of a Christian; nor is there anything that makes a man more like Christ, than this grace; but in these men here respected, it was only the appearance of humility, it was not real; it was in things they devised and willed, not in things which God commanded, Christ required, or the Scriptures pointed at; they would have been thought to have been very lowly and humble, and to have a great consciousness of their own vileness and unworthiness to draw nigh to Christ the Mediator immediately, and by him to God..."
-John Gill commentary on Colossians 2:18

" I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit, brothers and sisters, so that you may learn through us the meaning of the saying, 'Nothing beyond what is written,' so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another."
- I Corinthians 4:6 NRSV

When one thinks of "asceticism" one thinks perhaps of severe physical treatment in pursuit of closeness to God. It is this physical aspect that springs to mind for many people. However, I want to point out what I will call "soul asceticism." This is quite simply where you put yourself down, or intentionally foster a low-self image, as a means of spiritual advancement. The core theological error in this is quite simply that as a redeemed child of God, we have been renewed in Christ. We are called to live joyfully and creatively for His glory.
"Soul asceticism" is quite another level from what Paul describes in Galatians 2:20 when he says "not I, but Christ"(KJV):
"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."
- Galatians 2:20 NRSV

Instead of "daily crucifixion" as advocated by some, Paul represents a once for life crucifixion and then our life is hid with Christ in God. Paul speaks directly to this topic in Colossians 3:
"So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory." (1-4)

Who we are as Christians is tied up with who Christ is because we have been raised with Christ. This is the reality of the kingdom today, here and now. We are to seek first the kingdom of God (things that are above) and not earthly achievements. When He comes back in glory, we will also be glorified with Him.

"Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator." (5-10)

Worldliness stands as the direct opposite to seeking the kingdom. This passage is probably one of the clearest in Scripture on what worldliness is. As an ex-fundamentalist, it seems a bit too simple! :) But here we have it, what Paul considers antithetical to the kingdom of God. What is interesting for our discussion here is how Paul starts off: "Put to death," which is very much crucifixion language. We know from Gal 2:20 that we were crucified once, then raised to live in newness of life. Paul's use of "put to death" doesn't represent a theology of daily crucifixion, but a theology of the resurrection life. "As we have been" put to death in Christ once, so these worldly things ought be dead with our old selves. Paul is making much the same point as he made in Romans 6: "How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." (2b-4) These passages are a reminder of Whose we are and Whom we serve. So ought we to remind ourselves of this daily. The same understanding can be applied to Romans 8:13, where we are told to put to death the deeds of the flesh.

"Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account." - Hebrew 4:12-13

The Christians actions in this life, whether worldly or Godly, are no longer effect His relationship with us, but we will be held accountable before the Lord at the judgement. We either walk with the Lord or we don't. We seek His kingdom or we don't. We walk away or we remain close. Sin doesn't break the fellowship of a Christian with His Savior for the same reason salvation can't be lost. (We either believe the gospel or not.) What APPEARS to be a break in fellowship is really our wandering off in the woods of worldliness away from where God is. We ALWAYS have the wonderful privilege of being able to come and ask boldly at the throne of grace.

The idea that "sin breaks fellowship," is extremely destructive to the Gospel of Christ. No matter how bad you are, or how far you stray, think of God as your owner with you tethered to His almighty hand by one of those retractable doggie leashes. You may fall down the sewer drain. You may get so far you can't see Him. But He's got you, He loves you, and He's in control. One day you'll come back for dinner when your soul is so withered you can't stand it anymore. Or you'll get harshly yanked back!

The idea that "sin breaks fellowship" puts the pressure on YOU to make sure you are acceptable in His sight. Rather we ought to rest in the truth that we are adopted and grace flows from the Father to us on the mere account of our being in Christ:
"He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved." - Ephesians 1:5-6

So it is with the concept of "daily crucifixion." You've been crucified once in Christ. The task that remains to you each day is to seek the kingdom of God in the power of the Spirit. Calling this type of drawing near to God's heart another crucifixion is irresponsible since His grace is upon us as sons continually. It is not in vain that we are told:

"His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness,
and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ." - 2 Peter 1:3-8

Our escape from the corruption in this world is made possible by his promises of divine power--power that's available to the Christian 24/7 as we claim his promises by living out our lives in faith in His commands. We see here in this list many opposites of the worldly attributes we found in Colossians 3. These are all characteristics of those advancing His kingdom.

Instead of "daily crucifixion," Paul calls us to keep ourselves under subjection to Christ:

"Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified." - I Corinthians 9:25-27

We are to make a conscious decision to place our beings at Christ's service:

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." - Romans 12:1-2

Scripture tells us to do everything for "the glory of God." (I Cor 10:31)

This co-opting of our beings for Christ service, the subjection of ourselves to Christ, indicates not crucifixion but renewal. Our old man is DEAD once for all. The question is whether we will ACT like the old man or live up to our calling in Christ.

(Paul's "I die daily" in I Cor 15:31 is in reference to the peril he encountered in his work for Christ, not a renewed death to sin.)

And finally, we have the parable of the talents. God has gifted each Christian with certain drives and abilities that may or may not be used in an overtly spiritual way, but which can help advance the kingdom.

Now we are ready to address the topic of "soul asceticism." Most fundamentalists would be against monasticism and especially against physical self-punishment as a way to draw close to God. However, in these churches it seems you get a steady diet of things you need to "die" to:

-Yourself
-Your dreams
-Your desires
-Your ambitions
-Your plans
-Things you enjoy (music, food, movies, etc.)
-Whatever else YOU are "holding on" to

You can't be you because if it's you then it's not God. If you want it, especially if you want it badly, you'd better die to it--unless it is ministry related. Your desires will only get you into trouble. Any personal initiative rooted in what you think is best for your life is suspect, unless you can say "God told me," and even that can be suspect if it matches too closely with what you say YOU want. I perhaps exaggerate a little, but not much. It all goes back to the concept of "daily crucifixion."

The Biblical method is not to rip your soul--your humanity--out and leave it in a box, but to subject it to Christ. In everything you do, remember that you will give account one day. Invest your talents!

"Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment." - Ecclesiastes 11:9

Do what you will but live with the judgement in mind.

The fundy will say, but, the heart is desperately wicked! I stand in awe of their distrust of the Spirit's renewing and sanctifying work.
The solution is not to lock your humanity in a cage, but to continually submit to the Lord in subjecting your mind, body and soul to Him, by giving Him the final say in whatever you do.
If you try to deny yourself without truly submitting to the Lord, you don't get anywhere anyway.
You are what God made you to be. Be what God made you to be, only in Him. This is the meaning of taking up the cross. To put ourselves at the service of a crucified and risen Christ whom the world hates. Not denying the abilities and drives that God has allowed you to have, that make you who you are.

Finally, in Colossians 2 we see how such false humility is useless and prideful:

"Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
"If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch"? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings.
"These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence." (18-23)

This is precisely what fundamentalists do. They "disqualify you" because you don't play along with their insistence on "self-abasement" (soul asceticism) and following "regulations." They themselves "appear wise" in their PIETISTIC ways, but it is worthless in keeping ourselves in check.

In contrast, Paul tells us that true holiness is an outgrowth of Christ in us, and not something that we can arrange.

But, the fundy says, there has got to be a standard, some way to measure people! No there doesn't:

"Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
"Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, 'As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.' So then, each of us will be accountable to God. Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another." - Romans 14:1-4, 10-13

All of the above errors put a barrier between us and God because they invite us to throw up a facade instead of coming to Christ as we are. We become the problem, requiring the make-up of works and the mask of false humility to be acceptable. And so we never change into what we ought to be.
To be real before God is to invite God to change you as you really are. To come to God in make-up and a mask is asking God to expose you. To be real before God is for God to mold the dreams and affections of our hearts into that which is pleasing to Him. Those who come to God hiding something will find a God intensely interested in what you are hiding, like a young child with a stolen cookie behind his back.

I'll end with some of John Gill's commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:16,
Ecclesiastes 7:16
"Be not righteous over much
This is not meant of true and real righteousness, even moral righteousness, a man cannot be too holy or too righteous; but of a show and ostentation of righteousness, and of such who would be thought to be more righteous and holy than others, and therefore despise those who, as they imagine, do not come up to them; and are very rigid and censorious in their judgment of others, and very severe in their reproofs of them; and, that they may appear very righteous persons, will do more than what the law requires of them to do, even works of supererogation [going beyond the call of duty] (...) and many there be, who, by an imprudent zeal for what they judge right, and which sometimes are mere trifles, and by unseasonable reproofs for what is wrong, expose themselves to resentment and danger.
[...]
"neither make thyself over wise;
above what is written, or pretend to be wiser than others. So the Arabic version, "show not too much wisdom"; do not affect, as not to be more righteous than others, so not more wise, by finding fault with present times, or with the dispensations of Providence, or with the manners and conduct of men; setting up for a critic and a censurer of men and things"

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