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!

  • Short answer: self-denial practiced for the sake of self-denial is probably self-righteousness.

    Retort to the short answer: Self-denial, in theory, isn’t practiced for its own sake.

    Long answer: The denial of the flesh in, say, fasting for Lent, serves the end of heightening the awareness of the spirit, to draw the one fasting closer into communion with G-d. Fasting in particular is a time of intense physical purification, which correlates with spiritual sanctification. Each process leaves us aware of our own weakness, and yet lightened of our dependencies, our passions, our cravings.

    We deny ourselves for the sake of intercession, or for sanctity in a feast day, or to prepare ourselves to receive the Eucharist, or to restore our awareness of co-suffering with Christ. I suspect you need to know you’re doing it, otherwise you’re probably not. On the other hand, Yeshua taught that if other people can see you’re denying yourself, then you’re also probably not. It’s not for show, really.

    Summary of the long answer: Self-denial for the sake of self-denial is irrational.

    • @Mr Pond: I think I like it.

  • Wow! Interesting line of thinking here. I have never really given it much thought. I have just thought that it was a good thing to practice self-denial and also something I am not very good at doing. Things like fasting always seem to be things other people can do. I am happy for them, but at the same time, I have always felt kind of inferior because I am not very good at those kinds of things.

    • @Abigail: Yes, that’s very much to the point. Though the practices do have their benefits, it’s only legalism that says someone is “better” for practicing (or inferior for not practicing) them. My only advice is 1) Definitely don’t try self-denial unless you’re really convinced God is leading you to it for a time, and 2) Definitely don’t feel inferior, whatever you do!

      • Eric…I hear what you are saying. In my head I get it. However, it is still hard not to feel like I am somehow blowing it or missing out or something when I hear others speak about what they are doing and how it so blessed them, and how G-d spoke to them, etc. And then there are those teachings that tell us that fasting, etc. is practically a mandate. *sigh*

        I really need to intentionally keep my focus on my heavenly Abba and listen to what He tells me in my spirit. It is His responsibility to bring me to the place where I should be and mine to co-operate.

        I appreciate the idea of only doing it if He directs me to do so. I guess the thing is that I wonder if I am rejecting what He is telling me…or is He really not telling me? It’s hard to know sometimes.

      • Yes, grace is always easier to get with the mind than with the emotions, isn’t it? Did you ever read that post I had up by John Newton, “Degrees in Glory”? “Let us not measure men, much less ourselves, by gifts or services. One grain of grace is worth abundance of gifts.”

        On the other hand, your restlessness might be a symptom of God challenging you to try something you haven’t done before. It’s hard to tell from here. It might be worth your time to investigate a book like God’s Chosen Fast by Arthur Wallis.

        God’s guidance is usually pretty clear when you ask, though. See Torrey, How God Guides.

        Grace and peace!

  • That is an awesome quote!

    There is always the possibility that He is calling me to greater challenges…although, at this point, I am already being greatly challenged. 🙂 I will go check out those posts.

    Thank you!