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Asceticism is the practice of strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline. It is seen as a journey towards spiritual transformation. Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, meaning “exercise, training, practice.”
Asceticism has been practiced by different religious groups, including Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and the practitione. By contrast, Zoroastrianism, Ancient Egyptian religion, the Dionysian Mysteries, and Left Hand traditions, oppose ascetic practices.
Ascetics give up worldly pleasures that divert them from spiritual pursuits and live a life of chastity, harshness, and extreme self-denial. They may pull back from the world to practice their disciplines by adopting thrifty lifestyle, giving up their material possessions and physical pleasures to attain salvation and inner peace.
They dedicate themselves to spiritual exercises of meditation and fasting. They abstain from marriage, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, certain food, exposing themselves to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, flagellation, and even self-mutilation. Some practice monasticism by secluding themselves from the world in order to carry on their religious vows and devotion. Asceticism is usually associated with monks, priests, and yogis.
Jewish and Catholic Asceticism
The Essenes, a Jewish mystical sect, practiced a lesser form of Asceticism and existed during the Second Temple Judaism in the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD. Its adherents abstained from drinking wine and cutting their hair (Numbers 6:1-21). Some scholars believe that they were from the Zadokite priests. Pliny the Elder (died c. 79 AD) recorded that the Essenes lived in isolation, had no money and did not marry and lived in the land of Israel next to the dead Sea.
Certain Catholic ascetics (monks and nuns) practice Monasticism. They choose to be celibate and abstain from certain foods, fast, do prayer vigils, and isolate themselves from society and the world by living in monasteries to focus on spiritual matters. Catholic Monasticism has been regulated by religious rules (e. g. the Rule of Saint Augustine, Anthony the Great, St Pachomius, the Rule of St Basil, the Rule of St Benedict,) and, in modern times, by the Canon law of the church.
The Bible Doesn’t support Asceticism
It is true that Jesus taught His followers to deny themselves (Luke 9:23; Matthew 19:16-22), and flee from the lusts of the flesh (1 Peter 2:11; 1 Corinthians 9:27). But that doesn’t mean that the Christian should seek pain and affliction as a way of life.
In 1 Timothy 4:3, Paul warned against fanatical ideas that were first introduced into Christianity by the Gnostics and promoted by the monastic system. The Gnostics believed that all matter was evil, and that the human body, being material, must have its passions repressed and rejected. To them, marriage was therefore sinful. But the Scriptures teach that marriage is a ordained and blessed by God. To undermine this institution would be to attack the wisdom and graciousness of God (1 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 13:4). The Christian should not seek celibacy unless he is called to it (Matthew 19:12).
Also, the Bible teaches that humans are not saved by their meritorial works nor by mortifying their bodies. The Lord declares, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Salvation is a free gift, without money or price (Isaiah 55:1; John 4:14; 2 Corinthians 9:15; 1 John 5:11).
The Lord wants us to take pleasure in life (Ecclesiastes 8:15; 5:19). And He has created “everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). There will be times when a Christian may need to humble himself by abstaining from pleasurable pursuits (Daniel 10:3) but that abstinence would be for a limited time and under special circumstances (1 Corinthians 7:5).
Christianity opposes Monasticism
Jesus Christ prayed earnestly to the Father, “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). The disciples were to be in the world (vs. 11, 15) but were not to partake of the spirit of the world. God sent them into the world (v. 18) that they might call others to salvation (Mark 16:15). And they were commissioned to spread the good news of the gospel to all people (Matthew 28:19).
In His service,