Hippies, monks, and Lent

Hippies, monks, and Lent
SurFeRGiRL30, Flickr

Here we are in the middle of Lent and I’m stuck on hippies.

I’ve always been fascinated by the 1960s. These were wild and momentous years, populated by colorful and absurd characters whose impact far outstripped their usefulness. But drop the whole psychedelic mess into the period of the Great Fast and a compelling comparison of cultures emerges, one that might change how we see ourselves.

Self-indulgence and self-actualization characterized hippie culture, values perhaps best exemplified by the advocacy of free love and psychedelic drugs. Any behavior that promised to fulfill or advance these twin virtues was permitted and promoted. Odd and even destructive modes of behavior and lifestyle unsurprisingly flourished as a result.

This hippie approach to life stands in stark contrast to a Christian approach. The Christian is not so much interested in self-actualization. The Christian is rather interested in a sort of self-marginalization. We say with John the Baptist that Christ must increase while we decrease.

If the hippie represents sixties’ culture and values, the monk serves as his Christian counterpart. The monk lives a life of self-denial for the purpose of growing in union with God and laying down his life for the world, for which he ceaselessly prays. He promotes the needs of others, not his own.

But it’s not just the monk. The true ascetic comes draped in a million different robes. The spouse who denies his or her needs for the good of the family, the independent teenager who patiently obeys his parents, the coworker who helps a colleague — these are all pictures at variance with the culture of indulgence and endless self-actualization.

And that variance reflects the life we’re called to.

We are created in the image of God, but God desires that we grow evermore into the likeness of Christ. None of us bears that likeness fully or perfectly. We all have shortcomings and failures and places to improve. That means we have a job of perpetual growth and maturation. This requires us to lay down our lives and take up Jesus.

This laying down stands counter to the culture of indulgence and appears to many like an empty exercise in self-denial. Not really. It’s inescapably a denial of self because it involves pursuing Christ’s interests rather than our own: We must decrease so that he can increase. But it goes one step beyond mere denial.

Ultimately, the daily acts of renunciation — which are heightened in the Lenten season — that characterize the Christian life are acts of affirmation. We deny the world and its lusts to become more like our truest self, the Lord Christ.

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  • Self-actualization vs. Self-marginalization. Humm. Very interesting. The only way to realize my true self is to become one with One who created me. By becoming more like Christ, I become more myself. Great post.

    • I like that way of putting it: “By becoming more like Christ, I become more myself.” Exactly. That’s what Paul is getting at in Hebrews when he says, “[W]e are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ….” Christlikeness is the goal of human life.

  • The Daily Saint

    Joel, I think you’re on to something here- part of being human is taking in and giving out; if all we do is consume and expand and collect, we are missing something. Sacrifice is often an act of love and I can’t imagine anyone arguing that love is part of the very heart of the Gospel.

    • I think you’re right. I’ve written a bit more about this idea here, “Dying to live.” The upshot is that it is by giving that we gain, by losing that we win — the very model that Christ provides for us.

  • At first I sort of disagreed with this post, then I agreed with it. One of the problems I have with monasticism is the strong influence of Platonism/Gnosticism which essentially turns all Paul’s use of “flesh” in the NT into real flesh, so that physical asceticism is the holier route. But you did acknowledge the importance of the non-monastic life. The other problem in this whole realm of discussion is that so much of our ethics, particularly Christian ethics, have been infected by Kant’s idea of disinterestedness–that the most ethical actions are the most altruistic. This leads me to wonder if “self-denial” has become so loaded that it’s no longer a useful term. When I hear the phrase I wonder sometimes if we’re being asked to engage in some sort of spiritual annihilation (I’m not saying that’s your argument). I guess I would take the approach of Lewis and Piper–that our truest happiness (indulgence) is found in Christ, and that we come to our truest selves in Him (which is what I think you are saying at the end. 

    I guess I’d almost like to say “sin-denial” rather than “self-denial”, because living for Christ is actually the most self-interested decision one could ever make (“What does it profit a man”….)

    Anyway, sorry for this ramble. Just thinking out loud. But very thought provoking piece.

    • “Sin denial” makes for an interesting concept. Framed the way you’ve done it, it seems to provide a useful distinction. 

      It’s important to insist that asceticism is not about self destruction; it’s about weakening the Old Nature. It’s training in holiness. 

      • You make a good point. If all asceticism were evil, then Jesus would not call us to fast (a physical denial which points to a spiritual reality). I guess it’s more about understanding how we speak about it so as to avoid extremes and understand things in a creation-affirming way, rather than a neo-Platonic/Gnostic way.

  • BillintheBlank

    Excellent points all. But I also sense in Christians an over emphasis on self-marginalization as the end in itself. Your point about “he must increase” is a key one. Many Christians are contented merely with self-castigation as a sign of true spirituality.

    • Agreed. We don’t pick up the cross for the sake of picking up crosses. We pick up the cross to follow Jesus. If we’re not pursuing Christ in our labors, our labors are for nothing.

  • Joel, great post. Great provocation. Thank you.

    Alexander Schemman spoke of fasting as a path to freedom. As I lay down my “right” to certain foods (activities, passions,etc…), they cease to own me. I learn to find identity, comfort, sustenance in God alone. This does not mean emptiness or self- punishment, but freedom from habits or thoughts that have held me captive. This is gift.

    • Shelia, that’s a helpful insight. It’s funny that we wouldn’t object to that line of thought when it comes to fitness or our finances, but because it’s spiritual it’s easy to be suspicious. Fasting and other sorts of asceticism are essentially about freedom; they are about laying down encumbrances to more freely pursue Christ.