Asceticism: Colossians 2:16-23

by Christopher Paré

All of my posts to date have focused on the Gospels in keeping with my series on the commands of Jesus.   I’ve decided to deviate some and turn to the epistles.  A couple of weeks ago I read through Colossians and came across a passage that struck me.

Here it is: Colossians 2:16-23 (ESV)

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

  If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”(referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. 

During my study of Church History I have read about some pretty intense practices that modern day protestants would think simply unthinkable (whipping, intentional starvation, cloistering etc).  The modern understanding of asceticism applies more directly to the words “severity to the body” in verse 23, but I was surprised by what I found in further study of the passage.  The greek word translated in verses 18 and 23 as “asceticism” is ταπεινοφροσύνη.  Blue Letter Bible gives the following definitions for the word

1) the having a humble opinion of one’s self

2) a deep sense of one’s (moral) littleness

3) modesty, humility, lowliness of mind

This definition of asceticism has begun a reshaping of how I see myself and how I think I should behave as a Christian hoping to enter into vocational ministry.  The best way to explain what I’m talking about is with a story.

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about miraculous healing.  In the post I included my testimony that was included in a sermon I preached in 2008.  After the service I had a number of people come up to me and compliment me on my preaching.  With each compliment I gave a reply along the lines of  “That had nothing to do with me, I am only a vessel.  God is the one who did all the work.”   One of the men in the church rebuked me and told me to accept the compliments I was being given.  I didn’t listen to him, and was actually quite upset with him.  I’ve spent the past three and a half years thinking that I was right, but according to this verse, I was wrong.

I am not trying to say that being humble is wrong.  In fact, humility is at the base of our faith in that Christ humbled himself, even to death on a cross.  The end of verse 23 gives insight into this seeming paradox.

These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Self-made religion, Asceticism, and severity to the flesh (along with the other things Paul mentions in verses 16-19) have no value in  stopping the indulgence of the flesh.  They are, in fact, able to draw the believer into the indulgence of the flesh.

Public practice of religious devotion throws open the gates for pride to enter into our hearts and minds.  To many, my refusal of compliments after my sermon would seem to be humble.  I was giving God the glory that He deserves  for working through me in preaching.  However, we as Christians understand that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.  We have been told that those who seek the praise of men have received their reward.  In showcasing my “humble” opinion of myself I ended up doing the exact opposite of my intentions.  I may have denied it then, but thinking back to that day I can see where my heart really was.

Stopping the indulgence of the flesh is a matter of private devotion to God through Christ.  It is in the secret places that we find our deepest weaknesses and, in turn, the depths of His grace.  This devotion expresses itself differently in each Christian, and Paul lays a framework of how these differences are to be addressed in public life in Romans 14.

In another sense, the paradox still remains.  In 1 Timothy 1:15 Paul says that he is the foremost among sinners who Christ came to save.  This is an extremely humble opinion of oneself and leaves a shade of gray around which ascetic practices are appropriate for Christians and which practices are useless.

As you can tell from the back and forth nature of this post, I am still learning about what all this means.  One of the most remarkable things about the New Testament is that it brings about a whole new dimension of understanding each time you read it.  I hope that you have found this post thought provoking and encouraging.

It’s good to be back.  My schedule is getting into a nice groove, so I’m hoping to be able to post weekly again.  Have a great week!