Yesterday, I began the spiritual exercise Exodus 90 with a cohort of local men. There’s quite a few disciplines involved, such as extra prayers, intense physical exercise, fasting, and cold showers to name a few. It isn’t easy—but in the big picture of human suffering, most of the sacrifices required are relatively small.
Exodus 90 disciplines aren’t going to kill anyone, and yet, they still sting. They reveal how soft and complacent most of our lives really are. We surround ourselves with dozens of creature comforts that help us cope with the stresses and challenges of life. Social media, eating, Netflix, music, and a host of other diversions serve as buffers between us and any form of suffering—or even discomfort.
Most of these things are harmless in and of themselves. But we come to depend on them; need them, even. And this subtle reliance is insidious because we don’t even notice it is happening until our comforts are taken away.
These pleasures can numb us and drain our vital energy, lulling us into a complacent stupor. We never do anything really bad, but then again, we never do anything heroically good either. For all practical purposes, we have been neutralized in the great spiritual battle in which we are engaged. And the enemy of our souls laughs at our weakness.
Struggle to Enter the Narrow Gate
Properly understood, spiritual disciplines like fasting and self-denial strip away our crutches of comfort. They wake us up to the reality of our love of the world and drive us back to prayer and reliance on God. They are salutary forms of suffering that place us in contact with what is essential.
Asceticism is not optional to the spiritual life. The idea that it is optional is a lie of the devil. The Master says in the Gospel of Luke that we are strive and struggle to enter through the narrow gate . The way to destruction is broad and easy, much like modern American life. After all, does not our consumeristic promise a paradise of material goods and endless diversions? Is this not the dream promised in every advertisement?
But the way to heaven and the kingdom of God requires struggle. It is not optional. “Where there is no prayer and fasting, there are the demons,” said St. Theophan the Recluse.
This is not to deny the grace of God in any way. But our Lord wants us to grow more than he wants us to be comfortable. And it is a spiritual law that the maturity of the human soul can only come through suffering and sacrifice. We avoid these things with all our strength most of the time, and yet they are the very things that deepen and strengthen us. And this is what God wants.
Yes, struggle is necessary, for lukewarmness slowly poisons us and renders us useless. One of the most damning indictments in scripture are the words of Christ to the Church of Laodicea:
I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. (Revelation 3:5-17)
Let us so live that this never be said of us. Examine yourself. Have you been lulled to sleep by the pleasures and comforts of the world? Have you surrendered to the spirit of complacency? Is comfort an idol that you preserve at all costs?
These are dangers that threaten everyone living today. And they are all the more perilous because of their silent subtlety. There is only one way to avoid them, and the Master makes it known to us:
And he said to all, If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.