Read Philippians 3:17-4:1.

For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ (Philippians 3:18a)

Enemies in the church! Idolators! Many of them! They worship their bellies or their treasures or their pleasures or their honor. Their mind is on earthly things and they are bound for destruction.

They are enemies of the cross. They object to notions that we should eat simple food and share what we have with others, or avoid accumulating treasures on earth, or seek first the kingdom of God, or turn the other cheek, or seek to be unknown, or embrace the suffering of the cross, or love our neighbors as ourselves.

Wait a minute. Don’t I sometimes do some of those things? Don’t I think it normal and natural and pleasant to go out for a nice meal, buy a nice piece of furniture or clothing, enjoy a sporting event or concert, be honored for the good work (or works) that I do, take pain meds when I’m suffering, defend my own rights?

Enemy of the cross—me! If I were a friend of the cross, I would regard these things as rubbish, as a loss, as a detriment. I would regard everything in this world as a loss compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Not only would I not seek them, I’d seek to avoid them. I’d sell all my possessions and give to the poor. Right?

What’s the place of asceticism in the authentic Christian spiritual life? We don’t create our own crosses—decide that we will avoid pizza covered in pineapple and chocolate bits on the third Thursday of every month, perhaps. That only feeds self. If we succeed, we may become proud and think we are saving ourselves. We may even come to believe that all those people out there who still eat pineapple and chocolate pizza on Third Thursdays (okay, well, the few) are inferior Christians.

We don’t create our own crosses. We embrace the cross of Christ. Our dear Lord will provide the crosses he wishes us to carry. And as we seek him with growing ardor we eventually forget about our love for pineapple and chocolate pizza. And if that love for pineapple and chocolate pizza gets in he way of our love for Christ, we choose the latter. He may call us to sell our possessions, or he may not.

And yet, our asceticism must be more profound than anything we might plan for ourselves. We follow Christ, we seek him in all things, in all situations. Every decision, every desire is to be turned toward him. We love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves. There is nothing more ascetic than dying to self entirely.
Let any exercise to which you are called, any time of fasting or praying or watching or contemplating, any act of simplifying or divesting or giving or serving, have one purpose: to remind you to turn every decision, every desire toward Jesus.

Someday, may we be able to pray honestly, with Paul, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV).


Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin College and the director of ccel.org and hymnary.org.