By rekindling our rich tradition of self-denial, Christians in the West will reap an abundant spiritual harvest and learn to cope better with life’s painful losses, says Tony Wilson
The spirituality of self-denial gets a bad rap in our hyper-consumerist, hyper-individualist society today. Every waking moment, we are subjected to stimuli that tell us we can have it all and have it now. But self-denial has a rich history in our Christian traditions and it is one of the few activities that Jesus assumes will be part of our spirituality: “When you fast, do not look sombre like the hypocrites” (Matthew 6:16, emphasis mine). It’s time to rediscover this essential tool in our spiritual battle.
When examining a subject such as self-denial we must first look at our shared human condition; the template left for us by our first parents and around which our lives naturally conform.
Without getting hung up on the literal vs symbolic debate in the opening chapters of Genesis, we can draw theological truth from the text that sets out the core problem we battle with every day. Having been given vast swathes of good things, extensive freedoms, meaningful responsibility, original goodness and a close relationship with God, you would think Adam and Eve had it made. But into that matrix of perfection a seed of doubt was planted.
Was there something extra that God was withholding? Something that could make life even even better? Something that had to be grasped because God was not going to offer it freely? The great lie was founded on the wrong belief that we can retain all the good things God gives us and do a smash-and-grab – have our apple and eat it.
Sadly, the rupture in the trusting relationship between Adam and Eve and God created a theological explosion that rumbles on today. We live surrounded by the aftershocks from that cataclysmic moral earthquake.
Now we are cursed with this mindset: we think we can enjoy all that God has for us while simultaneously taking whatever we want from the world.
The teachings of Jesus regularly upbraid the wealthy for their dependence on material things and Paul holds even the most basic comforts lightly (Philippians 4:10-13). So why do I get so easily angered by things that threaten to deny me the most trivial of my goals? The person who takes a little too long to pack their shopping at the supermarket checkout, or my favourite coffee being off the menu at my local café.
Social media amplifies the fear that we might not quite be living our ‘best lives’ and mobile phones give us the means to pivot in an instant to do or have the thing we want most. My self-centredness hits me square in the face every single day.
I have a processed sugar habit. It’s the last mind-altering substance left unregulated by government. My comfort comes in many forms: cake, chocolate, biscuits and ice cream. I know there is something dysfunctional about my relationship with sugar when I find myself pushing a chocolate wrapper underneath the top layer of rubbish in the bin so my wife doesn’t see it.
I repeatedly seek the pleasure of eating one square of this delicious substance until there’s nothing left, and, frankly, by the end, I’m not really sure I’m enjoying it any more. But the compulsion to consume is strong. I’m more closely aligned with the dessert fathers than the Desert Fathers! So how do I bring my appetites and desires to order? Let’s take a look at a wrong answer first.
My contentedness need not depend on circumstances. I can enjoy things but be indifferent to losing them
By taking an overly puritanical position, we can locate the problem in the thing being enjoyed and think our desires are intrinsically wrong. Our solution is to get rid of the ‘bad stuff’ – to banish the chocolate from the shopping trolley. The problem with this approach is that God declares the whole of his creation to be good, and calls us to enjoy all he provides (Genesis 1:31).
It is right, therefore, for us to enjoy the things of this world – but in their proper measure. When recreation, sex, literature, food, work, art, friendships, home or family are enjoyed responsibly, they become icons that point us to God. They become a focus for our thankfulness; reminders of God’s goodness and care for us. They reveal something of his character.
But we are all idol-making machines and we turn the gift freely given into the thing we need to grasp. The icon that points us to God becomes an idol that we worship in his place; the thing that competes with him for the focus of our being; the thing without which we lose our wellbeing.
What is the answer to this predicament?
After his baptism and before the start of his public ministry, Jesus engaged in spiritual warfare with the idols of pleasure, fame and power. He rejected each of these in preference to serving his heavenly Father and, in doing so, modelled something important about the Christian life.
Fasting is a way of setting something of value aside in order to prioritise something of higher worth. Skipping lunch to pray twice a week does two things. It punctuates our week with intimate moments with God and it teaches us that we don’t need the things we think we need. Making a controlled self-sacrifice reminds me there is something worthier than my appetites, and helps me to build the resilience I need to cope with uninvited suffering.
I learn that my contentedness need not depend on circumstances and that I can enjoy things but be indifferent to losing them. It’s one of the reasons the seasons of Lent and Advent are so powerful. We can learn a great deal when we choose to go without something we desire.
But because of our fallen nature, the discipline of saying no inevitably brings us pain. The spirituality of self-denial and suffering go hand-in-glove, so we need to take a deep dive into the theology that links them.
Jesus clearly promises that we will experience suffering (John 16:33). Paul doubles down on this in Romans 8:17 when he writes: “As his children, we will receive all that he has for us. We will share what Christ receives. But we must share in his sufferings if we want to share in his glory” (NIRV, emphasis mine). It isn’t an optional extra; suffering is a necessary condition to share in Christ’s glory.
For Paul, the interplay between voluntary self-denial and suffering can become the means by which we detach ourselves from the world and conform our lives to the pattern of Christ. In perhaps his most enigmatic verse (Colossians 1:24) Paul writes: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” Theologians of every stripe agree that there is nothing lacking in Christ’s self-offering on the cross to accomplish our salvation, so it leaves us wondering what Paul was driving at.
Perhaps he was saying that he completes the suffering of Christ by allowing it to be applied to his own life? Just as we gratefully receive the gift of salvation won for us by Christ through the cross, we have to accept that his suffering is completed in us. As we all form part of the mystical body of Christ, it makes sense that none of us can dodge a share in his suffering. The glory to which we are called and the suffering on the journey are two sides of the same coin.
A word of caution is necessary, though. We shouldn’t be actively seeking suffering – life doesn’t need our help and will throw plenty at us anyway. Neither is it wrong to seek to alleviate suffering or to pray against it. One of the most immediate spiritual benefits is that suffering keeps us close to God in prayer, but it is right to petition God for relief.
From our limited perspective, we can’t know whether God is permitting something in our lives to build virtues and deepen our relationship with him. Paul had a “thorn in [the] flesh” that wasn’t taken away (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) but he could recognise the spiritual fruit it brought about.
Making a controlled self-sacrifice reminds me there is something worthier than my appetites
Hebrews 12:11 reminds us that discipline is painful but yields “a harvest of righteousness and peace”. So while we seek to alleviate both our own and others’ suffering, we should also develop an attitude of equanimity by focusing on the fruit it develops. Getting to the place that James recommends (James 1:2) is the work of a lifetime – accepting trials with nothing but joy is not my natural response, but it is the path to endurance.
We need to remember that real suffering and loss means real pain. For those of us experiencing daily pain right now, this is more viscerally real than any theological treatise, so pastoral sensitivity is essential; we must all remember our calling to walk alongside those who suffer (Galatians 6:2).
Simple ways to grow in spiritual resilience
If you’re prone to…
Join the longest queue and spend the time praying for the people who are waiting
Wanting several holidays a year
Turn one into a Christian retreat, a volunteering holiday or a pilgrimage
Attaching your self-worth to work
Take a regular day off to dedicate to family or friends
Being driven by social media
Do a digital detox for 24 hours every week or turn off your phone at 6pm
Always talking about yourself
Go to the next social event determined to listen
Fearing you might not have enough
Prayerfully review your resources and raise your giving
Bingeing on treats
Buy a chocolate bar and eat one square a day
Feeling bitter when something good happens to others
Actively rejoice and praise their successes
God is not vindictive but he is committed to building in us the virtue of holding all things lightly. He trains us until the choice between doing his will or satisfying our own appetites always results in the right decision. The loss of a lifelong career or a beloved relationship will always bring grief.
This is the process by which we set something or someone aside and learn to live with a vacuum that had once been filled. As we get older, we understand these losses more when friends die and our bodies leave us less able to do things we once enjoyed. Society’s obsession with youth abhors this and denies all things related to ageing and death. As Christians, we must embrace the reality and learn to accept the humility of our earthly destiny.
We are all idol-making machines and we turn the gift freely given into the thing we need to grasp
On Ash Wednesday, many of us hear the words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” as ashes are placed in the shape of a cross on our foreheads. This isn’t morbid, it’s truth. God calls us to a destiny with him beyond death and we need to look at our lives in the light of eternity.
By easing our grip on the things we rightly enjoy here and now, we make ourselves ready to set them aside. It’s the way we reverse the choice of our first parents – instead of grasping for the things we fear God won’t give us, we declare our trust that God will grant us everything we need.
Gradually, with the grace of God and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we can turn our idols back into icons that properly orientate our lives towards our ultimate destiny. We learn to live in a spirit of gratitude for all the blessings we enjoy.
Our losses are set in the context of all that God gives us and in the light of the new creation to come. The radical detachment that Jesus demands in his teaching in Luke 9:57-62 seems hard at first, but set against the confusion of competing priorities and unhealthy attachments, it is the salve we need.
On paper this path looks easy – but the reality is tough. We must regularly reject the fear of disappointment that threatens to overwhelm us. The daily exercise of self-control is one way of building the strength of character to cope with loss and pain. After all, if I can’t say no to a bar of chocolate, how am I ever going to survive the truly tough events of life?