If I was to ask any Christian what is more detrimental to your spiritual life, asceticism or pleasure, I think the answer would be asceticism. Pleasure is good, it is what God wants for us, right? Let us look at two examples from the Bible, the first is Solomon, who said about himself that, “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure.” (Ecc 2: 10)
He simply lived the life of ultimate pleasure, and this life lead him to marrying foreign women and worshipping other Gods. On the other hand, we have the example of Job. When he lost everything he had—his family, possessions, and health—all in one day. Yet his reaction was very different. He said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1: 20)
We need to remember here that before all these disasters happened to Job, he was a rich man. He also enjoyed good fortune of wealth. So why is it that he could cope with this disaster the way he did but many others struggle? This is an important question for us today, who live in first world countries. The words of Solomon are very tempting to us that anything we see we are able to have.
When we are raised up having everything at our fingertips, we don’t learn the ability to be in need of something that we can’t have. Eventually, one day, something that is out of our control, such as death of a loved one or a failed relationship will come to plague us. These situations happen to everyone, rich and poor. But will we have the coping mechanism to deal with the challenge?
The secret to Job’s coping mechanism was that just because he wanted something and could afford it, that did not mean he should get it. Job said about himself, “If I have made gold my hope, or said to fine gold, ‘You are my confidence’,” (Job 31: 24) then he would be deserving judgment. He also says about himself, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; Why then should I look upon a young woman?” (Job 31: 1) So while Solomon used his riches to fulfill all his desires, Job was very strict with himself not to let the life of pleasure destroy him.
In other words, we need to exercise voluntary asceticism in our personal lives in order to teach ourselves that there are things in this world we can’t have. As one of the Desert Fathers puts it, “The mouth that does not drink water will not ask for wine, and the mouth that does not eat bread does not ask for meat.”