The “A” word

runWhat if the Christian lives we lived were defined by discipline? Are we not called disciples for a reason? After all, no would ever argued against the pious acts of spiritual disciplines. These acts such as prayer, meditation, and biblical study have been used for centuries to develop a deep understanding of how to worship God and serve Him well. These disciplines are rooted in history and are used to strengthen the spirit to the over-powering counter-strength of the flesh.

I have been contemplating the history of the early church recently and my thoughts have been drawn toward the monastic community. These men and women of the deepest devotion left the comforts or their homes and families to live separate, holy lives. Some went to live in the desert – alone. Others gathered in communities to practice holy living. There are specific disciplines that flowed from these faithful people. One in particular that has been on my mind recently is asceticism. This is an admittedly scary word and has lost any place within modern Christendom. The question that I have been working on is this, “Does asceticism still have value today?” Asceticism is simply “voluntary suffering.” [1]

The acts of asceticism have, no doubt, been abused over the centuries and have fallen out of regular use. Do we ever suffer purposely for the sake of Christ in our country? Do we ever really choose to feel stretched and uncomfortable on purpose? Voluntary suffering for the sake of Christ, for the sake our own discipleship, can take on many forms. There is, of course, mental anguish, emotional insult, and heartache that we feel on a daily basis that are forced upon us by living in a fallen world. But these are outside influences requiring us to respond with hearts and minds transformed by grace. But this is not the traditional meaning behind asceticism.

Traditionally asceticism is a physical act. The physical acts started with celibacy and self denial but as the centuries went on, particularly during the Middle Ages, these physical acts spiraled out of control and became self mutilating acts.[2] “There is always danger that in our asceticism we shall be tempted to imitate the sufferings of Christ.” [3] If this is our starting point, we’ve entered into this spiritual discipline with the wrong motives because Christ’s suffering was done once, for-all, and need not be repeated. I am not suggesting that we make a return to the extremes discussed above. But what I am suggesting is that there is a possibility that the practice might have a valid place in the life of the disciple.

What if there was a form or asceticism that could be utilized that avoids the dangers stated above, but still has relevance to the purpose of subduing the flesh to strengthen our discipleship. With this perspective, could exercise be the answer I’m looking for? Going for a walk, a run, or cycling, hitting the gym or doing something that causes our bodies to ache, and feel uncomfortable reminds the flesh that it must be under control. “Therefore we have to practice strictest daily discipline; only so can the flesh learn the painful lesson that it has no rights of its own. Regular daily prayer is a great help here, and so is daily meditation on the Word of God, and every kind of bodily discipline and asceticism.” [4]

Bonhoeffer recognized the need for full-person discipline as a requirement for discipleship. With the proper perspective, could acts of asceticism take on the form of daily exercise? Could it be that we could teach ourselves deep lessons in discipleship through subduing the body? The discipline of fasting is a specific physical call to deny the body of food for a certain amount of time to accomplish a particular spiritual goal. What if we viewed running or walking in the same light? Could exercise add spiritual value to the disciplined life of the Christ follower?

References:

  1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1959. p. 171.
  2. Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995.
  3. Bonhoeffer, p. 171
  4. iBid,  p.170
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