Php 4:11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. Php 4:12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. Php 4:13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
While reading for a second time “To the Golden Shore”, a biography of Adoniram Judson, I came across an interesting time in his life. Now before I challenge something he did during a particularly difficult time in his life, let me state that this is one of a few books that has had a profound effect upon my Christian life and so I heartedly recommend it. Judson was a great man of faith and used mightily in the kingdom of God but there is an important point to make and something he said serves as a good illustration.
After his first wife died in Burma he got to thinking about the co-workers and his own children that had also died along with very little fruit for their efforts up until that time in Burma. He began to wonder if in his zeal to do great things for God he had brought others into harm’s way and so began to feel guilty for his wife’s and other’s deaths; all to make a name for himself. For a while I think he fell into one of the great traps that many in the name of Christianity fall into which is that he must punish himself and the best way to do this was to eradicate the pride in his life basically through self-denial.
Let me quote him so you can see what I am writing about. “…and the way to dispossess self-love is to cease indulging it; to regard and treat self as an enemy, a vicious animal, for instance, whose propensities are to be thwarted, whose indulgences are to be curtailed…” When I got to this quote I knew pretty much what I was going to read next because you can see the Monasticism creeping into his thinking. Certainly self-denial is a biblical teaching but it is all the extra-biblical things he says that shows he has gone well beyond healthy self-denial. It is significant that during this time he moved off into the jungle to live by himself with only the absolute necessities to live on.
The Bible teaches that we are to deny ourselves that which does not serve to honor the Lord but if we are children of God who have been given new natures I don’t think that we are to think of ourselves as an enemy and a vicious animal. Yes, we have corruption that remains within but denying ourselves the good things of life evidently because we can’t be trusted with them kind of misses the point I think.
Notice in a further quote that this is exactly what Judson says that we are to do, “Adopt a course of daily, habitual self-denial…fast often; keep they body under…cease adorning they person…occupy a poor habitation; suffer inconveniences…Not only be content, but desirous, to be unknown, or being known, to be condemned and despised of all men…” You can see his attempt to punish himself in these words as well. But we also see that he believes we must basically take vows of poverty to battle sin in our life and it is better to wear rags and be offensive to people rather than being liked by others.
There are two problems I wanted to point out in this type of approach to the Christian life. It falls into the mistake of assuming that being poor is the best way to battle the flesh. But Jesus never taught that anyone had to deliberately be poor or make life as miserable as possible. For sure we should be willing to live under such conditions if the Lord providentially calls us to it, but in reality being poor rather than rich or even “middle class” only exchanges one set of trials and temptations for another. In either and all cases a child of God should be able to serve the Lord well. Didn’t Paul say that he had learned to be content with little or much as the above verses show?
Secondly, I think this has our approach to sanctification somewhat backwards. The only real way to control your flesh is to love Christ more than what your flesh desires. This is how Paul could say that no matter what we do, do all for the glory of God. We are always going to have sinful passions in this life but only by transforming our minds into conformity to Christ can we control them. Merely denying your flesh what it wants will only stir up the desires all the more as 2000 years of Monasticism has shown. Our body will only do what our mind allows it. So the only way of sanctification that best honors the Lord is by developing a heart that loves him above all the things this world offers.
It is interesting that just before Paul says that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation in 2 Cor. 5, he said that the love of Christ controls us. At the end of the day, our love for the Lord must be what rules our life. Moralism and self-denial without that motivation is just so much legalism.