The Pitfall of Asceticism

Paul said, "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing" (Rom. 7:18). In their efforts to overcome the flesh, some professing Christians have decided that living close to God is possible only by extinguishing all fleshly desires, and they have adopted an ascetic way of life. Asceticism is the moral philosophy supposing that higher spirituality requires abuse of the body.

A tide of asceticism swept through Christendom soon after AD 300. Many at that time fled into seclusion and practiced severe forms of self-denial. They had no spouses, indeed renounced marriage. They attempted to get along on as little food as possible and considered it meritorious to fast for long periods of time. Occasionally, they met with other people for worship, but their days were mostly spent in prayer, meditation, or some monotonous industry like basket weaving. The new movement, centered in Egypt, soon absorbed thousands of people. At one time a traveler reported that there were nearly as many people pursuing a religious life in the desert as there were living in the cities. But the movement spawned revolting extremes. "We read of hermits or anchorites grazing in the fields after the manner of animals, rolling naked in thorn bushes, or living in swamps infested with snakes." St. Simeon Stylites confined himself for a while to a rocky shelf about the size of a small room. Then he moved to the top of a pillar, at first content with a perch about nine feet above ground, but eventually raising it to about sixty feet. For the last thirty years of his life he never forsook this lofty seclusion.

Did asceticism conquer the flesh? By no means. Some of the hermits confessed that they were constantly tormented by carnal fantasies, or by bizarre visions of angels and demons. The harder they tried to defeat the flesh, the more spectacular their failure. They failed because you cannot overcome the flesh by the power of the flesh.

The Fallen Body, Soul, and Spirit

The three lusts

The three threats to spirituality are the world, the flesh, and the devil. "The flesh" in this expression is a general term referring to man's overall sinful nature. The Bible teaches that from this nature arise three kinds of lust—"the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" (1 John 2:16). Here, the term "flesh" has a narrower meaning, referring to the sinful desires characteristic of the body alone. These are not the totality of sinful desires, however, for man is a composite being, with a soul and a spirit besides a body. All three components of man carry the inherited stigma of the Fall. All three are depraved.

We cannot digress into an extended discussion of the body, soul, and spirit. Without being dogmatic or presenting our conclusions as though they had the force of doctrine, we will simply say there is good evidence that man's soul is the seat of emotion, understood as responses of self to the world around it. In the Bible, love is attributed to the soul, never to the body or the spirit. No reference to them appears in Luke 10:27, for example, where it would be natural to include them if they were capable of love. As for man’s spirit, there is good evidence that it is the seat of self-consciousness and of knowledge in general (1 Cor. 2:11).

We infer from John's catalog of human lusts that the body is subject to wrong desires rooted in biological drives ("lust of the flesh"). The soul is subject to wrong emotional responses to the external world, as perceived through the eyes or the other senses ("lust of the eyes"). And the spirit is subject to devilish grasping for equality with God ("pride of life").

It has often been observed that the three temptations of Jesus sifted Him for these three kinds of lust. If He had turned stone into bread, He would have displayed lust of the flesh. If He had grasped for possession of the kingdoms brought before His sight, He would have displayed lust of the eyes. If He had sought acclaim by descending supernaturally into the Temple, He would have displayed pride of life.

It was necessary that the second Adam, sent into the world to offer Himself as a perfect sacrifice for sin, prove Himself free of every fault found in the first Adam. In disobeying God's command, the first Adam and his wife yielded to the same three lusts that were missing in Jesus. The fruit enticed Eve because it was "good for food" (it appealed to lust of the flesh), "pleasant to the eyes" (it appealed to lust of the eyes), and "to be desired to make one wise" (it appealed to pride of life) (Gen. 3:6).

It was necessary also that Jesus be "in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15). His temptation was comprehensive because it probed all three elements of His nature: body, soul, and spirit.

Desires good and bad

It must be understood that every lust is the perversion of a good desire. To make this clear, we will sketch the spectrum of desires and show how each has gone awry through sin.

Bodily desires Lusts of the flesh
desire for nourishment (necessary for survival) gluttony
desire for sex (necessary for procreation by married couples) desire for immoral sex
desire for physical comfort (necessary to promote healthful rest) aversion to activity, leading to laziness
desire for activity (necessary to sustain work) compulsive overwork
desire for a sense of well-being (necessary to help us curtail emotional excesses) desire for drug-induced highs, leading to substance abuse

These bodily desires would exist even if all sensory input from the outside world were shut off and all memory of past input were erased. But the following desires of the soul come into play only if the senses are operating. Being soulish in origin, each is associated with an emotional state.

Desires of the soul Lusts of the eyes
desire for stimulation
   emotion: feeling excited
   purpose: so we will investigate
      the surrounding world
thrill-seeking, risky behavior; a liking for bizarre entertainment
desire for play
   emotion: a playful spirit
   purpose: to promote learning
      and social cohesion
desire for play when inappropriate,
   perhaps instead of work
desire for personal territory
   emotion: a liking for pleasant       things and surroundings
   purpose: so a woman will want to
      make a nice home and a man       will want to turn his land into       a garden
covetousness for things and property
desire to associate with other people
   emotion: brotherly love
   purpose: friendship
a cliquish mentality, leading to neglect or rejection of anyone apart from one's close friends
desire to nurture and be nurtured
   emotion: natural affection
   purpose: family life
a tribal mentality, leading to disregard for the needs and rights of outsiders; a main cause of war
desire to eliminate perceived danger
   emotion: anger
   purpose: protection of self and       others
malice toward those perceived as a threat to oneself, leading to wrath, hatred, and violence
desire to escape from perceived danger
   emotion: fear
   purpose: protection of self and       others
irrational or uncontrollable fear; fearfulness; worry; cowardice
desire to mourn a loss
   emotion: sadness
   purpose: an essential process for       adjusting to the change

A soul is not the exclusive property of man. When speaking of animals, Scripture acknowledges that they also possess a nephesh, translated "creature" in the accounts of creation (Gen. 1:21, 24; 2:19) and the Flood (Gen. 9:10, 12, 15, 16) but generally translated "soul" (Gen. 2:7; Ps. 16:10; 34:2; Isa. 61:10; and many others). Therefore, all the desires of the soul, with the emotions reinforcing them, belong to animals in some measure, at least to the higher animals. Every dog-owner knows that his pet is capable of all the soulish emotions, including fear, rage, affection, territorial possessiveness, playfulness, and even sadness.

But the following desires belong only to man. They may be considered desires of the spirit because they require self-consciousness and perhaps also some conceptual knowledge.

Desires of the spirit Pride of life
desire to look attractive (the foundation of taking care of oneself) vanity; overattention to grooming and clothes
desire for approval (the foundation of obedience to parents and to God) compliance with social pressure to do wrong; following the crowd
desire to regard self as a good person (the foundation of a hunger for righteousness) complacency about self; spiritual pride; refusal to repent of sin
desire for knowledge (the foundation of curiosity and all worthwhile learning) a sense of intellectual superiority; regarding others as dumb
desire for achievement (the foundation of all excellence in fulfilling our legitimate roles in society) taking pleasure in besting others and making them losers
desire to lead (the foundation of authority and of helping roles) seeking power for its own sake; thirst for power
desire for immortality, the highest achievement of self (the foundation of interest in the gospel promise of everlasting life) devoting life to no better purpose than making a name or a legacy that will be remembered by posterity
desire for a relationship with God (the foundation of enjoying His fellowship) idolatry—creating false gods made in man's image

It is obvious that our flesh is a vigilant foe, always hanging around and attacking at moments of weakness. We cannot have any good impulse or feeling without the flesh trying to grab it for some shady purpose. Whenever a worthwhile desire rises within us, the flesh strong-arms it in the direction of lust. As a source of temptation to sin both in our outward conduct and in the leaning of our hearts, the flesh is relentless. And we habitually fail to say, "No." Fleshly sin is therefore a fault so deep-seated in our nature that to remove it by our own efforts is impossible. We cannot defeat the flesh by the power of the flesh.

But we cannot shrug off the problem, telling ourselves that we cannot help being human. We dare not walk after the flesh, for then we cannot walk after the Spirit. There are only two ways to walk and they are mutually exclusive (Rom. 8:1). We always have two paths before us. We cannot go backward. We cannot halt where we are and put off making a choice. We must go forward, either to walk after the Spirit along one path or after the flesh along the other path.

Likewise, just as there are only two ways to walk, there are only two ways of life, either in the flesh or in the Spirit (Rom. 8:9). Which is our way of life emerges from this verse as a question of overriding importance, for unless we are in the Spirit, we do not belong to Christ, and if we do not belong to Him, we are, like all unredeemed humanity, doomed to die in our sins.

How do we know which is our way of life? In the flesh or in the Spirit? It is a simple matter of observing our walk. Our walk shows the condition of the inner man. If we are in the Spirit, we will walk after the Spirit, but if we are in the flesh, we will walk after the flesh.

Let us therefore use the catalog of fleshly sins that we presented earlier to examine ourselves. If some combination of these describe what we are—if they show the true motivation governing our lives and shaping what other people see—then we should ask whether the Spirit dwells within us, for if He is there, He creates a new man with new motivation. Although sin lingers in some degree, the new man gains a dimension of goodness lacking before. This goodness issues from a regenerated heart with impulses higher and better than the flesh, and it molds a character conforming in its likeness not to any fleshly model, but to Christ. Let us be sure that in our real self we are a new man.

Besetting Sins

Individual differences

All Christians are capable of all sins all the time. Yet in struggling against the flesh, we do not all face the same battles. Our battles are different because our weaknesses are different. My flesh may attack me through desires that you can easily manage without falling into temptation, and vice versa. One man may be prone to laziness, another to lust. One woman may be a gossip, another a worrier. The sins that hang onto a person and become chronic are known as besetting sins, or vices. Although the sinner tries to resist them every day, he may never achieve complete victory so long as he remains in the flesh.

Just as every lust is a perversion of some good desire, so every vice is the reverse side of a virtue. A bad temper tends to afflict the sort of person who is outstanding for drive and ambition, who knows how to get things done. A lazy person may excel at staying calm in moments of crisis. A lustful person may be especially warm and affectionate. Someone prone to depression may be sensitive and thoughtful. The trick in combating a vice is to defeat it without hurting the related virtue.

A four-step strategy

The Bible says, "Confess your faults one to another" (Jas. 5:16). The writer implies that if we do not know our faults, we should find them out. Self-knowledge is the essential first step in a successful campaign to overcome our besetting sins. Altogether there are four steps.

  1. Admit the besetting sin. Be honest with yourself. See yourself the way others see you. If you are not sure what your besetting sins are, just ask the people who have known you a long time. They will tell you. And if they will not, the Holy Spirit will. He holds the mirror of conscience before our spiritual eyes so that we can see our sins. Therefore, any professing Christian who is neither aware of his besetting sins nor troubled with guilt about them should question whether the Spirit truly dwells within. He should examine his salvation. Many lost people do live in denial, however. I have known alcoholics who insisted they were social drinkers. And I have known people who thought their abusive rage was a reasonable response to other people's stupidity or unfairness. What atrocity done by men does not involve this sort of moral blindness?
  2. Identify the trigger. Generally, a besetting sin is a habitual response to a particular set of conditions. You cannot prevent or change this response unless you are able to anticipate it, and to anticipate it you must know what conditions produce it.
  3. Identify the fuel. Once you fall into sin, the trigger may not go away. On the contrary, it may continue, perhaps in a form harder to resist. Your sinful response may itself make the situation more conducive to sin. Therefore, you need to work not only on preventing sin, but also on building your power to correct yourself when you go wrong. For every besetting sin, you need to identify the fuel in your thoughts or surroundings that keeps the fire going. The fuel is whatever tends to maintain and intensify the sin. Once you understand the usual chain of events, you can check your sinful response by withholding the fuel.
  4. Substitute Biblical responses for sin. Exactly what we mean here will become clear in the next lesson, where we will discuss strategies for dealing with specific sins.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's Primer of the Christian Life: A Detailed Map of the Pilgrim's Road, designed to serve as the textbook for a yearlong course on basic Christianity. For further information, click here.