Friday, February 12, 2010

Denial of Self, The Last Thoughts

Self Denial – And the Christian Experience

I feel that I did not finish my thought on this topic before my computer died. It is so hard at times trying to express the deep, somewhat philosophical, question I raise here.

I’ve established previously that I think the place for self denial is when the urges of the self comes between us and obedience to obvious commands. But I really have the sense that Christianity, including Evangelical Christianity, has taken it far beyond that and has made self-denial part of the works mentality and reflecting the dualistic perspective that anything human (including all of our desires) is bad.

I was thinking of the concept of Lent. I know that it has a lot of history. But when I hear my catholic friends (okay, I am now including Catholics and not just Evangelicals) talking about what they are giving up for the Lord, they are giving up things that bring them pleasure . . . like chocolate. But what command does eating chocolate violate? None. So I wonder if the act of self-denial for self-denial’s sake is just another misunderstanding of God’s great gifts (for us to enjoy) and the wrongful concept that we can somehow do something to please God (apart from Christ)?

The Evangelicals march to the same drum at times, but maybe not celebrating Lent. I have to use extremes to illustrate my more subtle point.

How many pastors would drive a sports car, say a BMW convertible, even if it were a decade old and cost less than the Plymouth mini van that they might drive instead? I say very few. The reason (and the same reason I could never be a pastor) is that many people would question him. We Christians suppose to do things for a variety of motives, but never for the motive that we simply LIKE something. This includes BMWs and chocolate.

It reminds me when I first starting looking into going to the mission field. I loved rural, cold climates and mountains. However, every time I mentioned that those “likes” were the motivations that made me want to go to Iceland, or Nepal . . . my spiritual leaders would frown and tell me those were bad motives . . . “wanting something.” Instead, they told me, “You must do it because you are called and God does call people based on their desires.” So, oddly, I ended up in the center of a very hot and flat metropolis.

Another story of why I think that pleasure if frowned upon in Evangelical circles comes to mind.

Once I was a deacon in a large church in Minnesota. We were having our monthly deacon meeting one cool, autumn, Thursday night. Just before the meeting, I had run five miles . . . so I was a bit thirsty. I stopped by a 7-11 store and bought a 20 oz diet Mountain Dew. I rushed to the meeting in the pastor’s office, however when I got there I discovered that we were all waiting on the head deacon, who had been delayed.

As I sat sipping my Mountain Dew, the first person commented, “That’s a lot of sugar.” I rotated the label, “Its diet.” Then I took another drink.

The next person said, “I think there is about 20 times the caffeine in a Mountain Dew as in coffee (which he was holding in a Styrofoam cup his hand).

“No that’s not right. A Mountain Dew has about the same caffeine as one strong cup of brewed coffee.”

I took another sip and someone else spoke up, “I gave up pop because they are just too expensive. I just couldn’t justify spending that much money on myself.”

I didn’t say anything but took another drink. Finally the last straw was a woman who said, “That aspartame gives me a headache and they think it leads to bladder cancer.”

I just had to burst out laughing. I mean, I was just trying to enjoy a cold drink after a grueling run and none of the deacons would hear of it. They all at to frown at me for having the audacity to drink ( and enjoy may I add) a cold soda in church. I thought the next time I would bring a cold beer. But we all behave much more extremely within the walls of a church, especially during an official church meeting.

In summary, and I think there is much more that could be said, is that our personal desires area a good thing (unless they go against God’s law) because God created us and we ain’t crap. We don’t have to buy cars that are just practical. We don’t have to just buy second hand clothes or from Sam’s club. We don’t have to avoid sugar, chocolate, caffeine, good music, a good cigar (I don’t care for them but many people do), a great glass of wine or a sports car . . . thinking that if we desire it then it can’t be from God. This doesn’t start to address the financial aspects. I’m certainly not advocating spending money foolishly or going into debt. I am absolutely not talking about the prosperity gospel. I have a deep felt heart for the poor.

But like I alluded to earlier, you CAN usually talk positively about personal desires in the privacy of your home or at a restaurant with your Christian fiends, but within the walls of a church, if you do . . . you meet the evil eye. But, if we have a loving God who created us, then it makes him happy when we enjoy life here on this wonderful earth.

Enough said.


NOTAL said...

While I agree with you, I think there is a biblical root to some of this kind of self denial. I think of how big a role fasting played throughout both the Old and New Testaments, or the story of Daniel refusing the luxurious food from the king. I'm not sure what role (if any) fasting should play today. I have never fasted. But the idea of fasting definitely seems to share the same line of thinking as avoiding other pleasures.
How do you see the biblical idea of fasting?

Scott in Boston said...

The scenario you described sounds almost like a Monty Python sketch...

"They all at to frown at me for having the audacity to drink ( and enjoy may I add) a cold soda in church. I thought the next time I would bring a cold beer."

For the next deacon's meeting, you should have taken in a huge 32 oz. beer bottle, and after a round of critical comments, poured out a glass of the Mtn Dew you had in it, and then humbly asked for prayer about trying to conceal your diet Mtn Dew addiction.

MJ said...

I don't know about the Daniel passage. Maybe eating vegetables was Daniel's desire . . . he really liked them. As far as fasting, I wonder if it is not connected with prayer as having an extreme focus. Like anyone (not necessarily a Christian) being too worried about a test, or too consumed with a work project to eat. So, in this case, being so focused on a situation and prayer for it that you don't eat. Not that food, or the enjoyment there of, is bad. Just a thought.

MJ said...

Scott,it makes me think that I've told you this story before. I do have the bad habit of rehashing.

I had a similar (but briefer)experience here once when I showed up at an elders' meeting with a mocha topped in whipped cream.

Scott in Boston said...


I think a key in Daniel's situation may have been the "luxurious food"...I have heard it taught that while much of the royal staff incurred later health problems from a rich diet, Daniel stayed healthy.

Anonymous said...

Re Lent: I'm giving up sleep.

I don't do much different on Lent except go to daily Mass. Unfortunately, daily Mass is also at the time I do most of my writing, so I have to get up at 4 Ayem to do both. Who needs drugs when you've got sleep deprivation?

Re Doin' the Dew in front of the Deacons:

Next time, bring the beer; either their heads will explode (paradigm shift without a clutch) or you'll get turned into a pile of rocks.

I'm sensitive to caffiene (headache side effect) and I don't like or trust either High Fructose Corn Syrup OR Aspartame. If you can scare up some of the GOOD stuff with Real Cane Sugar, do so. It's worth the price.

You want to know what Denial of Self ("Mortification of the Flesh" in my church's dialect) looks like when taken WAY too far, check out St Rose of Lima sometime. To this day I cannot tell if she was one seriously messed up woman who was holy in spite of her pathological self-destructiveness, or whether the Church mistook her pathological self-destructiveness for Holiness. (If the first, I don't want to ever get that screwed up. I mean, ripping her face to one solid mass of scabs and scars with her fingernails to destroy her looks? Gargling lye to destroy her voice? Dying from such self-mistreatment in her twenties or thirties?)

Headless Unicorn Guy

theartistformerlyknownasgeorge said...

I am willing to bet the food Daniel and the others gave up was unclean according to the OT laws, which they were obligated, by God, to keep.

I doubt they were just giving up gourmet.