Saturday, May 13, 2023

Ascetic Disciplines: Are They Necessary for Salvation?

Ascetic practices are essential. The Orthodox way of life involves ascetic practices that include regular participation in Sacraments and worship, daily prayer, fasting, reading Scripture and other spiritual books. These are seen as necessary to become like Christ and prepare for eternal life with Him. From the time of Christ and the Apostles this has been the constant teaching of the Church. Even after being taught the necessity of these practices, many Orthodox Christians fail to fully embrace them. Why is this? Why do some Christians lack the motivation or discipline to follow these traditional teachings?

Worldly lifestyle. It may be that many people are accustomed to indulgent or worldly lifestyles, unwilling to take the time or limit their actions by self-imposed spiritual disciplines. Society's emphasis on material possessions and consumerism reinforces the belief that pleasure-seeking and material gain are the primary goals in life. This perspective ignores the reality of Christ's teaching that we need to perfect ourselves to live by all He taught so we will be prepared to enter into His eternal kingdom. There is a widely held idea that it is not necessary to limit actions that may restrain instant, short lived worldly pleasures. Many live a life steadfastly attached to worldly things and pleasures, ignoring any thought about an eternal life. This way of thinking lacks the perspective that comes with remembrance of death and the promise of eternal joy in a life with Christ for those who are prepared.

Ignorant of lives of Saints. It is clear from the lives of the saints that these spiritual disciplines can be incredibly rewarding. By intentionally limiting their impulses and desires, individuals can develop a greater sense of self-control and discipline, becoming better able to control their emotions as well as  their physical actions. They can learn to align their self-will with the will of Christ, cultivating a deeper sense of spiritual fulfillment and inner peace. If they make this effort they receive the ever increasing help of God's grace and overcome any fear of death. 

Limited view of God. Another possible reason why many fail to engage in ascetic disciplines is because they have a limited view of God. They lack an understand of Him as our creator, One who is all powerful, Who created us in His image as Scripture teaches. If we embrace the view of God as our loving creator, we will seek to know Him intimately, not just intellectually. We will want to do what he commands for us out of our love for Him because of His love for us. This proper understanding will cultivate a strong desire to perfect ourselves through a spiritually disciplined life so we will be united with Him out of love. Becoming united with Him will become our aim in life.  

Lack of understanding of full Gospel story. There are many people who do not understand or accept the full reality of the Gospel story, seeing parts of it only symbolically, or even ignoring parts they do not believe. Some minimize the reality of miracles, even the virginal birth in the Incarnation of Jesus as God’s only begotten Son. Rather than seeing Him as fully God and man, they see Him only as a super good man. They may also resist accepting the reality of the Resurrection of Christ, or the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in sustaining life and giving us power to change our way of life in the form of grace. Since the time of the Enlightenment, the role of Holy Spirit has been replaced with reason and science. This has led us to believe that we have the power independent of God to control all aspects of our life. The rise of medical science has furthered this view, leading us to believe that we can avoid death with drugs and medical procedures. As a result, we have buried any thought of death. Even many common rituals after death involving cremation as an expedient and economical way to dispose of the body, followed by a gathering to celebrate life, shelters us from the reality of death as a transition to a new life. For many, the idea of eternal life has lost its meaning, is not in their daily consciousness or their aim. Therefore, the thought of death fails to motivate many to alter their way of life or seeing the necessity for engaging in ascetic disciplines.

Aim of life is eternal life. The Orthodox Church teaches that our ultimate goal is to prepare for eternal life by becoming united with God through a life of virtue and spiritual discipline. It is a life emphasizing ascetic practices that helps us control our self-centered desires, overcome our sole focus on pleasure seeking, and instead align our will with God's. A life lived in unity with God enables us to perfect ourselves for a future eternal life in His divine kingdom. Preparing for the life after death becomes our aim.

Commitment necessary. It is true that not everyone may be ready or willing to make this commitment. Ultimately, the decision to follow the teachings of the Orthodox Church requires a personal understanding of God's fullness, a mystical experience of His love, and a recognition of our need to prepare for eternal life with Him in His kingdom. Only with this view will one be willing to give up self-centered and materialistic thinking and pleasure seeking and be willing to commit time and effort for spiritual disciplines, self-reflection, and spiritual growth. For those who do, the rewards are significant, life-changing, and lead us to salvation and a joyful eternal life.

Reference: Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

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