Friday, October 10, 2008

Don't Beat Yourself Up

This post is a summary of the message shared at Titusville Branch on October 5, 2008.

Many Christians do not agree with a once common practice in the church: self-flagellation. Throughout Christian history there have been ascetics who promoted severe self-discipline and denial of many sensory pleasures. The term “mortification of the flesh” came from scriptures like, “...those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24, cf. Romans 8:13 and Colossians 3:5). This idea and these scriptures were used as a basis for things like self-whipping, extreme fasting, wearing hairshirts, etc.

From the Past to the Present
The following comes from Wikipedia’s article on “mortification of the flesh”:

  • Dominic Loricatus is said to have performed 'One Hundred Years Penance' by chanting 20 psalters accompanied by 300,000 lashes over six days.
  • Francis of Assisi, is said to have asked pardon to his body for the severe self-afflicted penances he has done: vigils, fasts, frequent flagellations and the use of a hairshirt.
  • Catherine of Siena wore sackcloth and scourged herself three times daily in imitation of Dominic.
  • At the latter half of the twentieth century, JosemarĂ­a Escrivá practiced self-flagellation and used the cilice, a modern-day version of the hairshirt.
  • Pio of Pietrelcina, wrote in one of his letters: “Let us now consider what we must do to ensure that the Holy Spirit may dwell in our souls. It can all be summed up in mortification of the flesh with its vices and concupiscences, and in guarding against a selfish spirit... The mortification must be constant and steady, not intermittent, and it must last for one's whole life. Moreover, the perfect Christian must not be satisfied with a kind of mortification which merely appears to be severe. He must make sure that it hurts.”
  • Pope John XXIII wrote: “But the faithful must also be encouraged to do outward acts of penance, both to keep their bodies under the strict control of reason and faith, and to make amends for their own and other people's sins... St. Augustine issued the same insistent warning: ‘It is not enough for a man to change his ways for the better and to give up the practice of evil, unless by painful penance, sorrowing humility, the sacrifice of a contrite heart and the giving of alms he makes amends to God for all that he has done wrong.’ ...But besides bearing in a Christian spirit the inescapable annoyances and sufferings of this life, the faithful ought also take the initiative in doing voluntary acts of penance and offering them to God.... Since, therefore, Christ has suffered in the flesh, ‘it is only fitting’ that we be ‘armed with the same intent.’ It is right, too, to seek example and inspiration from the great saints of the Church. Pure as they were, they inflicted such mortifications upon themselves as to leave us almost aghast with admiration. And as we contemplate their saintly heroism, shall not we be moved by God's grace to impose on ourselves some voluntary sufferings and deprivations, we whose consciences are perhaps weighed down by so heavy a burden of guilt?"
Back in 1990 my wife and I visited the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Leading up to this large church is a two-mile walkway called ‘Calzada de Guadalupe.’ Every year penitent people crawl on their knees the entire length to plead for mercy and miracles.

No Value Against the Flesh
It is true that Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” However, Paul writes in Colossians 2:23 that these types of activities have “the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” They only have the appearance, the facade, of wisdom. They come from self-made religion. And they have no value against fleshly indulgence.

True, we are not to live according to the flesh, we are to deny ourselves, and we are not to indulge fleshly desires. However, Romans 8:13 makes it clear one way we are to put to death the deeds of the body. Paul says here that “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Denying ourselves isn’t something we do for the purpose of “self-abasement and severe treatment of the body.” It is more a matter of obedience – obedience to the Spirit. The Holy Spirit may lead us to fast or to deny ourselves some pleasure. But asceticism only has the “appearance of wisdom in self-made religion” and has “no value against fleshly indulgence.”

Few People Practice this Today
I have never met any Christian that actually practices any type of strict asceticism or mortification of the flesh. Many baulk at such a thought. What I find interesting, however, is that there are many of us who practice a type of internal self-flagellation.

Sometimes we cannot get over ourselves when we fail, when we sin, when we make a mistake. We often have to brutally beat ourselves mentally before we can accept the Father’s forgiveness. We berate ourselves with verbal thoughts like: “You idiot. You’re such a loser. You’re such a failure.” And we can’t walk through the corridor of Christ’s mercy until a substantial time of self-flagellation has passed.

This, too, has no value against the flesh. This type of response doesn’t enable us to overcome.

Not only is this a type of false humility, this strips faith from us. Lack of faith hinders God’s work in our lives. Lack of faith displeases Him (Hebrews 10:38, 11:6). And lack of faith prohibits righteous living. Romans 3 says that faith is the very thing needed to be made right with God. Faith, not a self-whipping.

Do we place more confidence in beating ourselves, or in the atoning work of Jesus? Can he justify us without the help of our self-flagellation? I would submit that he cannot justify us when we beat ourselves up because we are placing our confidence in ourselves, in the flesh, rather than in his sacrifice for us.

How Long Does it Take to be Right with God?
How much time does it take to become right again with God when we’ve sinned? How long does it take to trust Jesus for his available mercy and forgiveness? Does it take hours or days of self-punishment? Or do we really have faith in Christ’s work? We can be right with God a split second after failing, if we only believe (see 1 John 1:9-2:2). Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Paul says that he did not have “a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9). How long does it take to believe?

Faith to Overcome
It takes more faith to get up and go on, than to beat ourselves up for how we have failed. (It takes more humility, too.) And faith is the only thing that enables us to overcome.

“... my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”
Hebrews 10:38-39

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