The Bible’s Viewpoint
Is Asceticism the Key to Wisdom?
“HERMITS donned iron shackles, chains, barbed girdles and spiked collars . . . Others rolled in thorns and nettles, deliberately attracted insect bites, burnt themselves with fire and irritated their injuries to chronic purulence. A starvation diet being a matter of course, some improved on this by eating only rotten or otherwise disgusting food.”—The Saints, by Edith Simon.
These were ascetics. Why did they treat themselves so badly? In the book For the Sake of the World—The Spirit of Buddhist and Christian Monasticism, the authors explain that “ever since the time of Socrates (fifth century B.C.E.) at least, it had been widely understood that a life stripped down to essentials, unencumbered with sensual and material luxuries, was a precondition for genuine wisdom.” Ascetics thought that the mortification of the body would heighten their spiritual sensibility and lead to true enlightenment.
It is difficult to define asceticism precisely. To some, it simply means self-discipline or self-denial. The early Christians valued such virtues. (Galatians 5:22, 23; Colossians 3:5) Jesus Christ himself recommended a simple life unhindered by the anxieties that a materialistic life-style can bring. (Matthew 6:19-33) More often, though, asceticism is associated with much more austere and often extreme measures, such as the ones described above. Are these ascetic practices, especially in their more extreme forms, really the key to wisdom?
Based on False Assumptions
Among the philosophies that have given rise to asceticism is the idea that material things and physical pleasures are bad in themselves and hence barriers to spiritual progress. Another concept that opens the way for asceticism is the widely accepted belief that a human is composed of a body and a soul. Ascetics believe that the material body is the soul’s prison and that flesh is its enemy.
What does the Bible say? The Scriptures show that when God completed his creation of the earth, he declared that everything he had made—all his physical, material creation—was “very good.” (Genesis 1:31) God intended for man and woman in the garden of Eden to enjoy material things. The very name Eden means “Pleasure” or “Delight.” (Genesis 2:8, 9) Adam and Eve were perfect and enjoyed a good relationship with their Creator until they sinned. From that time on, imperfection became a barrier between God and man. Yet, satisfying legitimate human desires or enjoying God-given physical pleasures when done in harmony with God’s moral laws could never create a communication barrier between God and his worshipers!—Psalm 145:16.
Additionally, the Bible clearly teaches that man, created from the dust and made of flesh, is a soul. The Scriptures support neither the notion that the soul is some kind of immaterial and immortal entity bound up inside the physical body nor the idea that somehow the flesh prevents one from having a close relationship with God.—Genesis 2:7.
Clearly, the concept of asceticism paints a distorted picture of man’s relationship with God. The apostle Paul warned that some professed Christians would prefer deceptive human philosophies to basic Bible truths. (1 Timothy 4:1-5) Regarding some who held this opinion, a religious historian says: “The belief that matter was evil . . . and that men’s soul must be freed from entanglement with matter, induced a severe asceticism forbidding the eating of meat, sexual intercourse and so on, which could be followed only by the elite ‘perfect ones’ or perfecti who underwent special initiation.” This way of thinking has no Biblical support and was not the belief of early Christians.—Proverbs 5:15-19; 1 Corinthians 7:4, 5; Hebrews 13:4.
No Need for Asceticism
Jesus and his disciples were not ascetics. They endured various trials and tribulations, but these tribulations were never self-inflicted. The apostle Paul warned Christians to be careful lest deceptive human philosophies seduce them from the truth of God’s Word and lead them into unreasonable, extreme practices. Paul specifically mentioned “a severe treatment of the body.” He said: “Those very things are, indeed, possessed of an appearance of wisdom in a self-imposed form of worship and mock humility, a severe treatment of the body; but they are of no value in combating the satisfying of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:8, 23) Asceticism does not lead to special holiness or real enlightenment.
True, the course of Christian obedience implies vigorous exertion and self-discipline. (Luke 13:24; 1 Corinthians 9:27) One must work hard to acquire the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:1-6) Also, the Bible has strong admonition against being enslaved to “desires and pleasures” and being “lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God.” (Titus 3:3; 2 Timothy 3:4, 5) However, these Scriptural passages do not endorse the practice of asceticism. Jesus Christ, a perfect man, enjoyed pleasurable occasions that included food, drink, music, and dance.—Luke 5:29; John 2:1-10.
True wisdom is reasonable, not extreme. (James 3:17) Jehovah God created our physical bodies with the capacity to enjoy many pleasures in life. He wants us to be happy. His Word tells us: “I have come to know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good during one’s life; and also that every man should eat and indeed drink and see good for all his hard work. It is the gift of God.”—Ecclesiastes 3:12, 13.
[Picture Credit Line on page 20]
Saint Jerome in the Cavern/The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer/Dover Publications, Inc.