SELF-DENIAL AND ASCETICISM
Self-denial and asceticism are related concepts. In biblical usage the denial of “self” is a virtue. It refers to both physical discipline and to spiritual discipline. Thus Paul could talk of “buffeting his body and keeping it under, lest after preaching to others he be disqualified”. He also tells us that he “fasted often”. Spiritual disciplines of self-denial include humbling oneself, thinking of others as more valuable than oneself, sharing wealth with the poor, and forgoing leisure in order to serve the kingdom. Biblical self-denial is helpful in seeking God and in hearing His voice.
“Asceticism” is extreme self-denial. The term derives from the same root as is used in athletic and military training. In spiritual use though, it implies a nearly complete renunciation of worldly pleasure. Although sometimes used to describe monasticism, it is only some monastics that practice the ascetical life. The most famous monastic ascetics were the desert fathers. Here is a description of the extent of their severity in self-denial: “The defining characteristic of the fourth century dessert monastics is asceticism. The degree of self-denial practiced in these early communities was staggering. Any normal human desire that can be identified was the target of these people. This of course included immoral (illicit or unlawful) desires, but also morally neutral, licit , and lawful human drives. Thus, the dessert fathers lived alone, with minimal human contact. They viewed food as a necessity only, and shunned all desires of taste and palate. Sexuality, family, community, convenience, approval, encouragement, affection, comfort, distraction, entertainment, pleasure, music, warmth, color, form, scenery, costuming, novelty, etc. were all suspect and renounced. Only those stimulations that accompanied learning about God and fellowshipping in the Spirit were tolerated.”
This form of extreme self-denial is not biblical. It has philosophical roots in the idea that the physical world and the body are evil. The exact gradation where Godly self-denial becomes heretical asceticism is not easily defined. It is a personal threshold that has to be decided in prayer and faith.