Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
It is not often that you’ll come across a self-flagellating, long-term appetite denying, hermit-type isolating, cannot eat, cannot touch sort of Christian. When we think of asceticism, the practice of severe discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence and secularism for religious piety, we think of historical church figures like Saint Catherine of Siena, whose extreme fasting and self-harm, though praised, ended her life at the age of 33. We think of monks, of sisters living in convents, and maybe of some more modern sects who live intentionally apart from the world. But asceticism is here and now and active even amidst our mainstream living; it just looks a little different than it has in the past. Paul wrote about it to the church in Colossus, the struggle against it is written across history. And still, culturally and individually, we fall into it, even in the land of plenty where denial is far from the norm.
Asceticism is the abstention from all forms of indulgence, but we have skewed the definition of “indulgence” and we have confused “abstention” with denial. It is not indulgence to acknowledge the flesh. It is an indulgence to always feed the flesh what it wants. It is not indulgence to acknowledge that we are sexual creatures with sexual desires. It is indulgence to feed those desires apart from God’s good boundary lines. It is not indulgence to feel badly about a hurtful comment, to cry about a heartbreak, or to lament a particularly difficult season in our lives. It is indulgence to allow those moments full control over our lives.
Generation to generation, the costumes and the objects of desire from which we try to distance ourselves may change (at one time, it was covetous to have a healthy girth, to marry early in the teens, to talk about nothing; now, it’s a cultural norm to be thinner than is healthy, to delay marriage into the 30s and 40s in favor of careers and self-discovery, and to talk about everything), but despite its varying hues, asceticism still roots out from one place, fear of the flesh. It's an unhealthy extreme for which there is no reward, as Paul warns, because it is, ironically, just another extension of our flesh.
We cannot successfully deny, or abstain from, our earthly desires with severity, saying “No” to them, or by stuffing them down deep into our pockets. When we deeply compact the desires of our flesh, we risk hardening our hearts, stopping them up. When we simply say “No” to our desires without taking a moment to acknowledge where they come from and why, we give the enemy a foothold and risk a major blowout to come, and worse, the inability to walk in the freedom of Christ.
It would be easier to say we don’t feel anything and to cut ourselves off from the objects or feelings of desire, but that’s denial of a different kind.