I was not reared in a home where strict self-denial was practiced as a measure of personal and spiritual discipline, which classically is known as asceticism.
There was, however, a strong element of asceticism practiced among members of my denomination as late as the mid-1950s. For example, there was a lay elder who announced proudly on the floor of a church assembly that he had engaged in sex with his wife only three times and that they had three children.
Then there was the time I was visiting our denomination's conference grounds, and I was chastised by a woman for playing tennis on Sunday afternoon. On that same occasion, I had to delay leaving for home, for the person who had brought me refused to take lengthy trips on Sunday.
Some of my friends believed that it was all right to do things on Sunday as long as it did not require other people to work. That ruled out swimming in public facilities, movies and visits to amusement parks. We could go swimming in the river or bay, fly kites, play tennis or go sailing.
Many churches had hard, uncomfortable pews without cushions and wooden chairs for Sunday school. Some people thought we were serving the Lord by being physically uncomfortable. Thank goodness, most churches realized that there were better ways to serve the Lord before I became a pastor and had to frequently attend all-day church meetings.
From whence have come ascetic practices? Based on Paul's letter to Timothy, such asceticism was influenced by a form of Judaism known as Essenes and by Oriental tendencies that developed into Gnosticism. The gnostics taught abstinence from all physical pleasures, contending that the only part of our life that pleases God is the "spiritual." We were supposed to be in the world but enjoy no worldly pleasures. In Paul's time, the gnostics renounced marriage and abstained from certain foods. They engaged in speculative mythology, which Paul denounced as "profane myths." What made the Gnostic heresy even worse was the fact that the adherents believed they alone had the only true knowledge (gnosis) about God.
We always err when we select only the parts of the Bible that support our point of view. For example, we are left to wonder what such ascetics would do if they took seriously passages from Genesis, Timothy, and elsewhere, which plainly state that "everything created by God is good." Here we argue to lift up and thank God for the goodness of all his creation and his creative ways, such as marriage and sex between marriage partners.
Since any part of creation can be misused and abused, everything needs to be sanctified by God's word and by prayer. Every created thing has God's stamp of excellence. There is no part of God's created order that needs to be cast aside and labeled as "bad." Our part is to accept such things as sex and good food as grateful people, for then they become consecrated by the divine blessing and our responsive prayer.
How do we avoid the pitfalls of asceticism, on the one hand, and a lack of self-discipline, on the other? The only way is to continue as long as we live to be students of God's word privately and with other believers who desire more than anything else to follow God's way, to discover his truth, and to live the life of faithful obedience.
Gene Norris is a Presbyterian minister who specializes in marriage and family therapy.