Closer to God
Key Facts and Ideas
Definition: The practice of self denial in the power of the Holy Spirit in order to bring everything human, body, mind and spirit, back into communion with God.
Orthodox Christianity affirms the inherent goodness of all creation. Did not God survey his creation and declare it "good" [throughout Genesis 1]? Orthodox Christianity has historically fought against all forms of false spiritualism that would seek either to deny goodness to creation (eg., Gnosticism, Manichaeism) or marginalise earthly realities as mere shadows of a truly real heavenly realm perceptible to an enlightened intellect, (Plato - The Cave). So, Christians do not fast or practice chastity, (to take just two examples), because food or sex is "bad." Far from it; they do these things in order that food and sex might glorify God according to the proper use and purpose of each.
Christianity inherited from Judaism a strong affirmation of the goodness of the physical realm, locating evil not in creation but in the alienation of humanity from God, a primal rebellion that took our eyes off Him and locking us into deadly disordered passions. However, every disordered passion, be that emotional, mental, psychic or of the body, is a human distortion of something GOOD. Evil arises out of the heart not from the natural world itself. Jesus taught that it is to the heart that we must look if we are to confront evil and uproot it.
18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. 19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. 20 These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” [Matthew 15:18-20]
The "heart" in Hebraic thought is neither our cherished but abused blood pump not the seat of soppy sentimentality in a greetings card. It is not simply "feelings" nor is it something invisible and fluffy. The heart is the seat of who we are as persons and that includes the body, the intellect, emotions, will, conscience, personality. Moreover the heart is its ALL encompassing reach is the point of contact with God and the spiritual realm. It is the heart, therefore, in BOTH its physical and spiritual aspects that must be brought back into communion with God. This is what asceticism is all about. It is a means not an end. It is the way of bringing us entirely and entire back to God. The fruit of asceticism is no less than the fruit of the Spirit.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. [Galatians 5:22-23]
How is Orthodox Christian Asceticism Practised?
The first step toward the healing of our rift with God is repentance. The second step is to offer our life entirely to God. We have covered these in the first two sessions. The third step, asceticism, becomes necessary because we soon realise at step 2 that there is an inner resistance, a heaviness inside, even a distracted or disorientated confusion that prevents us giving ourselves wholeheartedly to God. If we don't face up to these obstacles and deal with them, our growth back to God, our salvation will untimely abort and the devil will have won. If repentance and consecration is true it MUST lead to asceticism as a means of bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Such self denial and right ordering and integration of our faculties through the heart to God is what will lead to theosis, deification. It saves us from the charge of hypocrisy, false witness, that what we say with our lips we deny in our lives. So, bearing in mind its vital importance for all Christians, how is asceticism practised?
Asceticism is practised through the through the will in prayer to God and for life. On account of the centrality of the will if anything is going to change for the better in our lives it is the sin of pride that must be dealt with first if further progress is to be made. Pride places ourselves where God should be. It replaces His rule for ours. It subverts our relationships with Him and others through all manners of self pre-occupation. In short, pride has to be killed. In abject poverty of spirit we need to come to God and "throw in the towel" as it were and surrender ourselves to Him. Then, and only then can we hope to make progress with the other sins. How we make progress depends on the sin. This table is given as a guide only for our lives cannot be as neatly categorised as this traditional list might suggest. For a start there are inextricable links between all the sins. Envy and greed are "joined at the hip" as it were. Other combinations are also colour coded but there are other connections as well.
|Sin||Sin's Target||Ascetic Task||Fruit|
|Pride||Will||Surrender to God||Communion with God|
|Envy||Relationships||Thanksgiving||Contentment with God's Gifts|
|Greed||Possessions||Offering||Attachment to God alone|
|Gluttony||Food||Fasting||Strengthened body and will to serve God|
|Lust||Sex||Chastity||Depth in relationships|
|Sloth||Energy||Work discipline||Human development|
What this traditional table does leave out -
although it is there, it just needs bringing out - is that "pride" can
just as much concern our intellectual, technological and psychological
hubris as the usual focus for that sin, which tends to concern our
personal life issues. This, particularly in the modern context,
needs some ascetical attention by Christians.
Finally, a warning! The experience and teaching of the great ascetics in the Orthodox Church shows that the devil can subvert even asceticism by taking hold of idealism and pushing it beyond nature. Many have ruined their health, physically and spiritually by being caught unawares of this trap. It is absolutely vital, therefore, that a Christians consults regularly with his or her spiritual father or mother to determine the right and Godly balance in asceticism that will bring fullness of life rather than a prideful and morbid misery masquerading as sanctity ... over which the devil of course rejoices.
Bring your life into good order with God and you will know life with no end.
What are the main obstacles in my life that prevent me from getting closer to God?
1. Ascetic Struggle (Orthodox Christian Information Centre)
2. Fasting (Orthodox Christian Information Centre)
Your Own Questions Answered Here