Death to Self: Christianity Without Asceticism Is Not Christianity
“Strip me of the consolations of my complacent spirituality. Plunge me into the darkness where I cannot rely on any of my old tricks…Take my lofty spiritual concepts and plunge them into darkness, and then burn them. Let me only love you, Beloved. Let me quietly and with unutterable simplicity just love you” (John of the Cross, Spanish priest and mystic).
Nothing matters in life except worship. Nothing lasts, except worship. Nothing satisfies, but worship. We have one objective: to acquire hearts of pure and vigilant worship. But we have a problem. Something in us blocks us from God. It makes us oblivious. Instead of a life of peace, we get strung out, anxious, angry, and exhausted. Something in us needs to die. We have to be purged and remade. This is why Christ fasted for forty days in the desert. This is why the Church invites us to join Him in the Great Fast of Lent.
“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. [Then] the tempter came” (Mt. 4:1-2).
Over the past century, America has undergone a growing trend.There is certainly not a lack of passion in our religious communities. Americans have spared no expense to make church entertaining. Millions of dollars have gone towards contemporary worship, lights, and televised productions. A charisma and zeal has moved across the nation to make Christianity comfortable and Christians feel good about themselves. In all this religious buzz, however, the very concept of asceticism has virtually disappeared.
For years, many Christians were persecuted because they refused to eat meat on Fridays. That ban was removed in 1955. Some Christian leaders felt it was too austere. How could people keep their faith when they had to sacrifice a meal or two? In my grandparents generation, and their grandparents’ generation, Sunday morning and Sunday evening were reserved strictly for worship. That too fell by the wayside. After all, Americans have soccer games to go to and important television shows to watch. The religion of sacrifice has been replaced with the religion of do-what-feels-good and look-after-number-one. As easy as it is to criticize others, we need to take an honest look at ourselves? Lent has come. How will we enter it?
We begin Lent with this dramatic scene: Christ tempted in the desert. As soon as He is baptized, Jesus Christ is whisked away into the desert. There are no vending machines, no televisions, not even a microwave or sofa. He is stranded in the dry, rocky desert. He is the Son of God. Clearly, Christ was not in need of purification. Yet, by assuming a human body, he assumed everything that the human must undergo in order to be transformed. Our bodies, minds, and souls are utterly useless if they are not purged in the desert. Our selfishness, our lust, and our pride — these are killing us — and we can only live when we kill them.
Then the devil came. In each temptation, Jesus shows us how to conquer the sicknesses in our soul: lust, apathy, and pride.
“The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Mt. 4:3-4).
First, the devil tempts with lust. We associate lust with pictures or stolen glances. Lust goes deeper than that. It is the insatiable spirit of always wanting more. Nowadays, nearly everything tempts us to lust, not merely with the eyes, but with all the senses. We are drunk with all the possibilities of things we can eat, drink, buy, and feel. The 21st century is an endless life-coma. We are caught up phantasy. God becomes a distant memory or idea. Fasting is our only way out of it. St. Symeon the New Theologian explains:
"Fasting gradually disperses and drives away spiritual darkness and the veil of sin that lies on the soul, just as the sun dispels the mist. Fasting enables us spiritually to see that spiritual air in which Christ, the Sun who knows no setting, does not rise, but shines without ceasing. Fasting, aided by [prayer], penetrates and softens hardness of heart. Where once were the vapors of drunkenness it causes fountains of compunction to spring forth."
The Church gives us general guidelines for fasting during Lent. Everyone has a different temperament and different needs. However, we cannot take this invitation to fast seriously enough. We need discernment and we need to be deliberate.
Next, the devil tempts with apathy — forgetfulness and indifference.
“The devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” (Mt. 4:5-6).
“You are a good person.” “You are too important, too special, to fall on your face.” “You do not need to pray more, fast more, or do all that religious stuff…don’t strain yourself.” Have you ever had those thoughts. It is the same today as it was then, when Christ stood on the temple. To give into this temptation is as deadly as it would be for a man to jump off of that pinnacle. There is only one response:
“Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Mt. 4:7). ’
Apathy is a fancy word, but a simple concept. It is the delusion that you are “pretty good already” and you should not get too concerned about your soul. We drown when we do not lean on God.
Finally, the devil tempts with pride.
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (Mt. 4:8-10).
Jesus Christ played the royal flush. This was the final word and nothing else could stand up to it: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
We cannot conquer evil by focussing on sin. We conquer evil by focussing on God. What are we worshipping? In his book, Living Into Focus, Arthur Boers suggests:
“One of the most significant challenges of contemporary technology is how it shapes our awareness, where it attracts our attention, and the ways that it sometimes — perhaps even often —draws us away from the things we value most…One way to think about where we pay attention is to remember an old theological word. ‘Idolatry’ is a problem of directing reverence and regard in the wrong direction” (Boers 81-82).
He concludes by citing Psalms 115: “[Our idols] have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see: and ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell…so are all who trust in them” (verses 5-8).
What are we worshipping? Whatever we get most excited about, whatever consumes the most of our thoughts and passion, that is our god. Sometimes, like during Lent, we need to simply give it all up — our food, television shows, and entertainment — so that we can step back and realign.
“Thus says the Lord, the one who created you, who formed you: ‘Do not be afraid, for I have delivered you. I have called you by your name, and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overcome you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. You are precious in my sight and I love you. Do not be afraid — for I am with you” (Isaiah 43:1-6).
There has only ever been one road left to us. Our Savior was clear. We have to die to ourselves in order to live. Lent is our opportunity. If we dare to enter the refining fire, we will discover that God is with us with every step. God grant us strength.