During the fourth century, hundreds of ascetics sought to escape temptation by punishing their bodies and living as hermits. The extremes they endured in order to deny the gratification of their “physical lusts” seem incredible.
St. Ascepsimas wore so many chains that he was forced to crawl around on his hands and knees. Besarion, a monk, would not give in to his body’s desire for restful sleep—for forty years he refused to lie down while sleeping. Macarius the Younger sat naked in a swamp for six months until mosquito bites made him look like a leper. St. Maron spent eleven years in a hollowed-out tree trunk. Others lived in caves, dens of beasts, dry wells—even tombs.
The most celebrated ascetic, though, was Simeon the Stylite of Syria. He spent 37 years living on different pillars, each one higher and narrower than the last. His final pillar stood 66 feet high.
Whenever anyone mentions “spiritual disciplines” to me, the aforementioned images come to mind. Perhaps my distaste for them results from the ulcer I once developed while going on an extended fast.
Recently, while researching the meaning of Lent for church, I ran across some online articles explaining that Lent usually involves different spiritual disciplines (like fasting, prayer, silence) that help us keep our sinful nature in check.
Ughh, I thought to myself. Please…you can keep your hair shirt!
But then the realization occurred to me: more than keeping our sinful nature in check, Lent is about connecting to God. For 40 days, we make a concerted effort to deepen our relationship with our Maker. Mortifying the flesh, while important, doesn’t occur by focusing all of our energies on mortifying our flesh. Any recovering alcoholic will tell you that focusing all their energies on not drinking only drives them further toward the bottle.
Drinking deeply of Jesus, though, makes any other substitute seem like a poor knock-off.
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Interestingly enough, those well-known people who mortified their flesh are called “ascetics.” You know what English word comes from “ascetic”? Athletics. Through the spiritual disciplines we engage in spiritual “athletics” that strengthen our relationship with God.
This Lenten season, if you choose to choose to practice a spiritual discipline, focus on Jesus—not your sin.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Disciplines of Abstinence:
Disciplines of Engagement:
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Michael co-pastors The Neighborhood Church with Eugene Scott in Littleton, Colorado.