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This is not new. "Asceticism," trying to become holy through self-denial, grew out of pagan philosophies, but became popular among Christians; who bent their understanding of Scripture to fit pagan viewpoints (notably neo-Platonism). Ascetics believed that all human desires were evil because they believed that the physical world was evil. Only "spirit," "spiritual realities," and "ideals" were considered pure and holy. Therefore, the only way to be holy, in their understanding, was to deny and punish human desires. Ascetics denied themselves food, water, sleep, adequate clothing and housing, speech, human fellowship, and marriage, and sometimes purposely caused themselves pain in order to achieve their concept of "holiness." In thinking this way they ignored the teaching of Genesis that what God created is "good." They also ignored the teaching of Jesus that it is not physical substances but personal attitudes that "defile" (Matthew 15:10-20). Asceticism predominated in the Christian world until the time of the Protestant Reformation, when the Reformers pointed out that the ascetic practices of the monasteries and convents was inconsistent with Biblical teaching and did not produce true holiness.
Some of the confusion regarding this matter has to do with the terminology used in Scripture. The Greek word "epithumia" has a range of meanings and was used in various ways by the authors of the New Testament. This isn't the only term that is translated "desire" or "wish," but it is a major term and is used often in key passages. While it is often translated "lust" or "covet" in our English versions, and properly so in some contexts, it is also properly translated "desire" in other places. In fact, "desire" is always the underlying concept. We must, therefore, learn from the context the degree and type of desire. For example, it may describe "coveting," believing that what belongs to someone else should belong to us. It may also describe "lust." However, "covet" and "lust" are strong terms in our culture. We need to be sensitive to the fact that the desire described in some Scripture may not be accurately described as "coveting" or "lust." It may not seem to be a strong desire or to be obviously wrong.
Because we use different words to translate "epithumia" into English, the common factor in these passages is masked. There are distinctions to be made, and we must make them in order to discover what God is saying to us through the Scriptures. So the translators were correct in wanting to point out the meaning in each context. But before we make these distinctions, it is important to notice that all human desires must be the object of our attention. In this part of their thinking, the ascetics were correct. However, their partial understanding of Scripture caused them to draw the wrong conclusions and to seek the wrong answers.
In the New Testament there is broad agreement that desires are at the very heart of the evil of this world. Consider, for example, Paul's description of himself and the Ephesians before they came to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ: "Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest" (Ephesians 2:3). This is a condition Paul calls being "dead in your trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1), living "according to the course of this world," under the influence and encouragement of Satan (Ephesians 2:2).
This includes desires to do evil things, referred to as the "bad desire" or "evil desire" mentioned in Colossians 3:5 and the "worldly desires" of Titus 2:12. John described these as "the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life" (I John 2:16). But it can also include normal desires that are part of our day-to-day lives. Jesus spoke of those who ". . . have heard the word, and the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful" (Mark 4:18-19).
In his second letter, Peter describes "the corruption that is in the world by lust" (II Peter 1:4) where "lust" is epithumia. The "corruption" mentioned here can be thought of as "decay," the breakdown of something over time, in this case propelled by human desires; some of them evil, some of them not. When the desire isn't for something evil in itself, for instance, when it is a desire to meet a basic human need (food, water, and so on), then decay is brought when we seek to fulfill this need in a manner that is not consistent with God's holiness and will. For instance, if we steal food or lie to try to impress others, we are trying to meet legitimate desires for nutrition and social relationship through the wrong means.
This deterioration that results from wrong desires or wrongly satisfied desires affects not only the individual personality, but groups as well; so that families, communities, businesses, society as a whole, and even the church can experience degradation. The progressive nature of this corruption is the reason that those who deny God must eventually be excluded from His presence for eternity. In this regard, consider Paul's statement in II Timothy 3:13 and his argument in Romans 1. But consider as well that the lesson of all of Scripture is that even those who appear to fall short in only the most innocuous of ways have a condition that will progressively become worse, eventually resulting in more obvious corruption.
This must be of concern not only to those outside the Body of Christ, but to those who consider themselves to belong to Christ. As we mentioned earlier, the ascetics correctly recognized the problem, but chose to handle it in a manner not truly consistent with the teachings of Scripture. Their approach cannot work because God has created us with natural desires. These will not disappear if we try to pretend they do not exist. To deny legitimate human desires is to say that human beings, which God created, are less than good. But God pronounced His creation "good" in Genesis 1, and the fact of sin mars, but does not nullify, the goodness of what God created.
While there is a danger of asceticism in our own time, as we see most markedly in various cults, there is an even greater danger today of "deifying" our emotions. For Christians, this means believing that all of our desires have their origin in the indwelling Christ. However, putting our desires "in the driver's seat" of our lives takes us back to where we were before we were redeemed. Once we are governed by our desires, we are back to where our personalities can be corrupted and we can be influenced by Satan. This point is lost to us whenever we arrogantly take pleasure in meeting these desires, believing all along that we are being godly. Consider the rich man Jesus describes in Luke 16:19ff. This man undoubtedly felt no guilt about his greed and self-indulgence, taking great pleasure in satisfying his own desires. He was surprised when, after death, he was confronted with his failure to live according to the teaching of the Scriptures (the Law and the Prophets), which he wanted his brothers to listen to, but had himself ignored.
The sanctification that results from the grace of God addresses the issue of wicked desires in two ways. First, through sanctification at regeneration, through the cleansing of the inward tendency to sin that stems from original sin, and through the Spirit's progressive work in our lives, we are cleansed from the desire to do evil (Galatians 5:24). There is more than a cleansing of the desire to do what is wrong, however, because such desires are replaced with a desire to serve the Lord. Christians are not only those who avoid the corruption of this world, they are zealous to do good works (Titus 2:14, Ephesians 2:10). The author of Hebrews wrote that the blood of Christ would, "cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God" (Hebrews 9:14). Paul describes this as a new motivation, responding to the love of God for us, demonstrated in Christ, by the desire to serve Christ in return (II Corinthians 5:14-15). This is more than just a love of service, it is a love of Christ that results in service to Christ. A call to something less than what we have described here is short of the saving grace God provides to us and calls us to.
This does not remove the necessity for us to discipline our lives. Peter wrote, "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul" (I Peter 2:11). Paul warns that those who sow to the flesh will reap corruption (Galatians 6:8). These warnings were made to Christians, and are no less important for Christians in our own time. This discipline involves not only the avoidance of anything that might encourage an ungodly habit or appetite (such as immorality, gambling, or the abuse of drugs - including alcoholic beverages), it means a disciplined meeting of legitimate human needs (food, drink, clothing, shelter, social relationships, and so on); meeting them in such a manner that they are governed by us rather than that they govern us (I Corinthians 10:31, Philippians 3:19). Further, these should never be given undue prominence in our lives, because while not evil in themselves, they are part of a world that is passing away. Also, we must be especially careful when we believe that certain desires come from the Lord Himself. If we believe that God has placed within us a desire to do something in His service, we should carefully examine this, seeking counsel from mature Christians and consistency with the teachings of Scripture.
Finally, the Scriptures teach us to look ahead to the return of Christ for the meeting of our deepest spiritual needs (I Peter 1:13). Paul contrasts the person who lives for Christ's return with the person governed by physical appetites (Philippians 3:18-21) and John teaches that hope purifies our lives from wanting what is less than holy (I John 3:2-3). Indeed, Jesus taught us to seek treasure in heaven so that our hearts would be there (Matthew 6:19-21, Hebrews 12:1-2).
First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume V, Part 9, September 1997.
Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.
The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.
Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.
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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.