Most Christians today rarely question the notion that material wellbeing is a goal worth pursuing. Particularly to those of us in the affluent West it appears peculiar that people would voluntarily choose poverty as a way of life. Here at the end of the twentieth century we find the ancient practice of asceticism a strange phenomenon; to us it often looks as much like self-torture as self-discipline.

Who were these Christians who shunned the world’s comforts in order to pursue holiness? Did they not believe—as we do—that the Christian life can be pursued while still living a reasonably conventional life? Their answer was a definite “no,” and they found their reasons why in what they considered the mandate of Jesus in the New Testament.

Biblical Roots

The early Church took root within Judaism, which is not an ascetic religion. The Jews believed that creation was a good gift of God, given to man to enjoy. To deliberately deny oneself the pleasures that come from prosperity was to appear ungrateful. King Solomon was remembered as much for his wealth as for his wisdom, and Abraham and Job were archetypes of the wealthy man who is a friend of God.

Jesus was not an ascetic. His critics contrasted his lifestyle with John the Baptist’s, who lived on wilderness food and wore crude clothing. They accused Jesus, by contrast, of being a glutton and a “wine-bibber.” Not that he was such, but his behavior was conventional enough to contrast with John’s. Still, Jesus had harsh words for the rich who worshiped their possessions. He claimed it was “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” On at least one occasion he told a rich man to sell all he had and give the money to the ...

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