In a previous blog regarding the fact that Pope John Paul II used to whip himself and mother Teresa used a cilice to inflict pain throughout the day in order to grow in their dedication (i.e. being spiritual) to God. Therefore, the Pope and Mother Teresa just went further than the “normal” Christian. That seems to make perfect sense since both the Pope and Mother Teresa are often seen a people who live at the pinnacle of spiritual dedication. The point was raised that we – as protestants, also believe in disciplining ourselves (fasting, praying, bible reading, etc.). To be a Christian is to be disciplined to live a certain way… isn’t it? In short, how does personal discipline and spiritual living relate to each other? Are they effectively synonyms?
You can read the previous blog for the back-story.
Isn’t self-denial a discipline of the Christian life that does, indeed, aid in our relating to God and receiving grace? And isn’t fasting kind of like self-mortification by denying the stomach food and inducing its pain response? How is this different from aggravating the receptors in the skin in a similarly non-lethal
Great question. Let’s jump in and see what Paul would say regarding this. Read the following passage in Romans 8:1-25 and take note of how Paul moves from the effects of justification (v.1-8) to sanctification (v. 9-17a) to glorification (v.17b-23) to the implications for our sanctification in light of our future hope (v.24-25). I will segment the passage to better delineate the flow of thought.
As you read, please notice how the “meat” of the passage fixates on helping the followers of Jesus Christ (“Christians”) in Rome (ironic given that the Roman Catholic Church is centered in Rome today) grow in their faith. The very issue that the Pope and Mother Teresa were addressing in the harsh treatment of their bodies is the thrust of Paul’s teaching: how can I grow closer to God?
Effects of Justification (becoming a Christian)
- 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
First, We need to realize that the thrust of this verse is not achievable within the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) belief system. The idea of God’s condemnation being removed completely cannot happen in the RCC system since God’s grace must be continually received through the sacramental system. Without the operation of the sacramental system condemnation cannot be avoided. Second, this then sets up the divergence in how we (and I might add, the Apostle Paul) would approach personal discipline and being spiritual or “sanctification” (how we grow in our faith). Given this Herculean distinction, how do we relate personal discipline and growing spiritually?
Sanctification (growth as a Christian)
- 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. 12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,
Notice that Paul’s emphasis is not on physical discomfort but on walking in the Spirit. I count ten references to the “Spirit” in nine verses. This gives a strong clue as to how Paul views our ability to progress in our faith. In short, we trust that how the Spirit says we should live is the best, most satisfying, the most God enjoying/honoring way to live. When the seductive sounds of the flesh cry for our devotion we remind ourselves of the truth that we have been given by the Spirit (via the Word of God) and respond by saying “no” to our flesh. Notice that there is not even a hint of personal abuse in this teaching. What about fasting or self-denial you ask? Personal disciplines do not in and of themselves grow us in our faith but in order to increase our ability to say “no” to the cravings of our flesh that will hinder our already established faith. Personal discipline can never be the basis our growth since that can be done without God and, therefore, makes a provision for being proud (which is exactly what Paul seeks to avoid – see my comment below regarding 2 Cor. 12:2,7-9).
Paul is instructing the Christians at Rome not in self-denial or bodily-harm but trust or faith or walking in the Spirit (living according to the Word of God). Whipping ourselves or using a cilice can NEVER produce legitimate spiritual fruit. The only thing self-denial can do is make us more disciplined, not more spiritual. This exactly the type of discipline that Judaic legalism aimed at in trying to achieve the righteousness through ordering one’s life according to Law. However, Paul wants the Christians in Rome to see being led by the Spirit as the basis for our sanctification (spiritual growth). Sure, personal discipline has its place, but only to the degree that it finds its launching pad firmly entrenched in the grace of God that expresses trust in Jesus alone producing a hope/reliance on the strength of the Spirit (via the truth of God’s Word).
Glorification (the eternal condition of all Christians)
- provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Notice that how we think of the future directly relates to how we view our lives right now. If we have a poor view of what is to come we will find less strength in living now since hope is to give us spiritual vitality. The spiritual vitality is not reliant on us conjuring it up through self-abuse but in a response of gratitude for what God has provided and promises for us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Implications for our Sanctification in Light of our Future Hope
- 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Rom. 8:1-25
Again, no mention of self-flagellation as a means of receiving God’s grace. This would be the last chance for the Apostle Paul to recommend self-inflicted pain or self-denial as a means of grace and he does not. As a matter of fact, Paul actually asks God to remove his pain in his writing to the Christians at Corinth:
- I know a man [Paul speaking of himself] in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven… 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
2 Co 12:2,7-9 (emphasis mine).
Notice what Paul was concerned about in this passage: God’s grace being sufficient to produce in Paul what he needed – dependence on Christ. I find this passage a perfect application in regard to Paul’s previous teaching in Romans 8. While discipline is a necessary part of growing in our faith it can never be the basis or inspiration for that growth. The Holy Spirit will only energize and bless a Gospel-centered living (including Gospel-centered discipline) since this is precisely what the Spirit of God was commissioned to do (c.f. John 16:13-14).
In conclusion, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa (assuming they adhered to the official teaching of the RCC) saw their observance of whipping and using the cilice as a means to justify themselves (not as the basis for their faith but as a means to merit grace on which their salvation relied). Protestants would see the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ as our only hope of salvation. Anyone who has abandoned trusting their own goodness and is trusting in Christ alone for their salvation must reject the “spiritual disciplines” envisioned in the article. Furthermore, personal discipline is not the basis for our spiritual vitality, but a way to put us in the position to partake of the means of grace God has provided for Christians (reading the Bible, prayer, fasting, etc.) to grow spiritually.