Feb 192010

Today on a blog that discusses issues of spiritual abuse– the blog in question is directed to survivors of a high-control group that puts a lot of emphasis on finding God through physical suffering, righteous living, and other forms of legalism– a very interesting question was raised in this post:

If you purposely choose to practice self-denial by taking cold showers, limiting sugar, etc – is it really self-denial?

Or put another way…

Can self-denial practiced for the sake of self-denial really be considered self-denial?

And just in time for Lent! My thoughts on the subject are (characteristically) slightly askew, but the other readers seemed to like them. So here is the comment I left, somewhat revised for you:


It all depends whether or not it starts and ends at a position of grace.

When I’ve voluntarily practiced self-denial (e.g. fasting) it’s made me keenly aware of how self-absorbed I usually am (because I can http://www.flickr.com/photos/joethorn/347936529/think about nothing but food!) and thus heightened my awareness of my need to depend totally on God. It’s not that it makes me holier; it’s that it shows me my need of God’s grace to make me holy. Kind of like the Law, as properly understood according to Galatians 3:

…So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. …

On the other hand, “self-denial” practiced for the sake of making yourself feel superior to other people (for instance, if you want to feel more committed and passionate for Christ than “worldly Christians” are) is not self-denial but self-gratification. There’s a reason “not by works” is correlated with “so that no one should boast” in Ephesians 2.

On a third hand, Martin Luther once proposed that if your particular besetting temptation is to feel superior and self-righteous for, say, not drinking alcohol, an appropriate act of self-denial for you might be to “have a drink to spite the devil.”

[Here’s the full quote of that and a thoughtful explanation via “Internet Monk”: link]

What about you? How have teachings on self-denial helped or hindered you in your spiritual journey? How do you keep your spiritual disciplines in the perspective of God’s grace? Inquiring minds want to know!