At Work

Asceticism Vs. Self-Denial

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We read in Genesis that God created the heavens and the earth ex nihilo, out of nothing, and that all he had made was good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). It is clear from this creation story that the Lord delights in the work of his hands.

Genesis 1:31 tells us,

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

We who are created in God’s image are called to be sub-creators. We cannot create something out of nothing, but we were made to create something out of something. Through our work we are called to be productive. We should enjoy not only the work of God’s hands, but also that of our own.

Yet some Christians believe that because of the Fall, this physical world is no longer good. They believe the enjoyment of material things has no place in the life of a believer. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have been tempted to devalue the richness of creation, as if it is more “spiritual” to live a life devoid of beauty, and music, literature, painting, and all the other things man has produced out of God’s bounty.

This is not a new idea. During the Reformation, John Calvin responded to this negative view with a resounding affirmation of the beauty of this world, and the appropriateness of our delight in it. He wrote,

Should the Lord have attracted our eyes to the beauty of the flowers, and our sense of smell to pleasant odors, and should it then be sin to drink them in?

The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal writes,

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.

Pascal is right. We believe God purposefully designed us to pursue happiness and delight. One of the areas in which we are to find this happiness and delight is in God’s creation and what we make of it.

But the Bible calls for self-denial for those who would follow Christ. Didn’t Jesus say, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself…” (Mt. 16:24). How can we enjoy ourselves and deny ourselves at the same time?

We are mistaken if we believe that self-denial requires abstinence from all earthly pleasures. This is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible never suggests that a Christian practice asceticism, which is self-denial carried to a sinful extreme. On the contrary, God has richly blessed us “with everything for our enjoyment,” as it says in 1 Timothy 6:17.

The Apostle Paul writes in Titus 2:11-12:

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.

Self-denial is saying “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and living our lives within the righteous framework that God has established. We are to do what God has commanded us to do, and abstain from what God has commanded us not to do.

One who is ruled by his own selfish desires will seek to satisfy those desires without regard for God’s laws. Self-denial requires that our desire to obey God overrule our destructive desires to find satisfaction outside of what God has for us.

Jesus requires us to deny ourselves, to subject our own desires and will to God’s will. But God’s will allows us to enjoy his creation and lawfully satisfy our physical desires.

John Piper calls this “Christian Hedonism,” which Elise Amyx mentioned in a recent post,  but I’ll write more about this concept next week.

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  • Jason Steeves

    I think God created the physical world and said it was good. I have struggled with adding too many demands to life that require extra-biblical denial of desires for the sake of piety. The consequences seem to be a lack of intimacy with the Lord and others because of a false belief that adherence to rules is the way of life. I thank God for revealing Jesus to me that I may see that obedience and self-denial comes out of a grateful and worshipful love relationship with my creator and Lord. A free life is lead by his Spirit and not the desires of my flesh.

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