“Don’t give into some illusion and lose your power,This man freed India. What have you done?
but even if you have, if you’ve lost all will and control,
they come back when you fast,
like soldiers appearing out of the ground,
pennants flying above them.”


We live in a world as power-hungry as it is powerless. We are enslaved to our baser desires for salt, sugar, bleached flour, alcohol, sleep, sexual satisfaction, and money, and yet we dream of (and often imagines ourselves being) all-powerful arbiters of truth, justice and reality. The former desires are bestial; the latter are still bad, but they are at least human.

Leaving aside the desire for power for the moment, let us do as Evagrius of Pontus recommends, and use a bad vice to attack a worse vice. Let us attack our desires for food sleep and satisfaction by invigorating (for a time) our desire for mastery of ourselves, the world, and others.

Let us be global for a moment… How many of the world’s great leaders, activists, and thinkers, Gandhi, Washington, Thomas Aquinas, Maximos the Confessor, Anthony the Great, Paul of Tarsus, Jesus of Nazareth, Socrates, or Buddha, displayed in their lives a remarkable degree of ascetic effort? Further, is it conceivable that they were only able to accomplish such great words and deeds because they were masters of their bodily desires?

Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before starting his ministry, a ministry that made him (whether you love him or hate him) one of the most famous men in human history. Would he have succeeded in the trials of the ministry that followed if he succumbed to the temptations that preceded? Thomas Aquinas had to spend hours upon hours a day in deep thought in order to become one of the most influential and important (and, in modern day scholarship, I am told, one of the most-studied) thinkers of all time. He gave up many, many drinking parties in order to produce his introductory textbook we call the Summa Theologica. As for Gandhi, would India be free, would anyone know his name if he could not resist the overwhelming pleasure of an apple or a pear?

Without spelling out exactly the connection between the superhuman ability to not-eat and the ability to accomplish other superhuman tasks such as moral reform, intellectual insight, or the nonviolent love of your enemies, can we not at least pause to notice the unnaturally high degree of correlation?

Think of your favorite leader, your hero, your example, anyone. Your pastor, father, grandmother, best friend, former president, apostle, reformer… Anyone you want to be like. Could they tell their stomach what to do? Did it obey? Or did their stomach tell them what to do, and they obeyed? If the former, then be like them, as they are like Christ.

After we have mastered the belly, of course, we will have another fish to fry, the love of power, the deep desire to be glorified for our own achievements. But, hey, baby steps to Jesus.

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler


  1. I definitely agree that aestheticism has a strong place in religion, I cringed when I saw you wrote “baby steps to Jesus”. God’s grace obliterates any requirement that we master our flesh. Often people who I have known who have veered towards such self denial do not display great wisdom, but do display a huge amount of pride at being able to overcome their flesh.


  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I believe you meant “asceticism” (which literally means “exercise” or “work”, but usually connotes “training the body by vigorous self-denial”) and not “aestheticism” (which means “devotion to beauty”)

    Pride in the self is a worse sin that slavery to bodily urges. But to conquer the larger we must simulteneously conquer the smaller. I hold out hope for your friends, since, if they have actually overcome the flesh, then perhaps God or the Oversoul or the Superconscious Mind will help them overcome pride, too.

    As for God’s grace, what do you make of Romans 8:13? “[F]or if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” He is speaking to born-again Christ-followers here. If grace “obliterates” the requirement to master the flesh, does it also obliterate the freedom to do so? In other words, what if I don’t feel compelled to master the flesh, but I just want to, because I want to be like Jesus, Socrates, and Ghandi? Is that OK, in your opinion, or should I resist the urge?


  3. I cringe sometimes when I think of Jesus, too, but the question isn’t whether I like his way of life or not, it’s whether he is who he says he is. If so, then some awful things like “taking up my cross daily” become, well, obligatory. Where else can I go? He has the words of eternal life.


  4. Though I find fasting, and asceticism in general, vital to spiritual discipline, though I find self-control the most difficult virtue even to approximate, I am suspicious of your general injunction to pit vice against vice. I’m intrigued what you would say to Fred Sanders’ post from August 2006 on Middlebrow, arguing almost the opposite of what you do here: that there are those who have struggled with incontinence their whole lives, but who have in that found a grace that those who find within themselves the strength for self-mastery, which so easily gives birth to pride. Obviously, it’s not as if incontinent promises grace, and self-control precludes it, but to acknowledge that it is very often more sophisticated, colder hearted (Sayers’ language), societally approved vices that squelch the ignoble, warmer hearted, generally dismissed vices is incisive, but to commend that to Christians is worrisome indeed. Not to be pedantic, but the Pharisees had self-control; it was the incontinent low-lives who turned to Christ. God does want to draw us from our sloth and self-comfort, but by his power, not our own, especially not the power of our stronger sins.


  5. Amie,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, as always.

    Suspicion is OK. It’s a suspect idea. I have had the pleasure and privilege of thinking it over for awhile, and indeed testing it, so I don’t expect readers to buy it whole-clothe, but to consider it. I myself have come to tentatively accept it, and I’ll tell you the arguments that did it for me.

    1. There is a danger in “fighting sin with sin,” yes. In the words of Sheldon Van Auken, there is a precipice before and a precipice behind. The danger of inaction is great. That danger is high or higher than the danger of ineffective action. All the while that I am pining away for some ideal model of sanctification, I am soaking in my sins and festering in my wounds and wasting away in my sickness.

    2. Pride is not actually the “solution” for gluttony, but (to be more precise than I was in the post), the anger we feel at being a slave may help overcome gluttony, and indeed may help overcome both.

    3. It works. The argument to pit vice against vice is not essentially theoretical, it is essentially practical. Thus its merits as an ‘argument’, or rather, a plan, is not primarily its truth-value, but whether or not it ‘works.’ I have tried it. It works. Don’t you want something that works, given point 1…?

    4. You said “God wants to draw us from our sloth.. by his power.” Every breath I take and decision I make are indebted to his enabling power. Assuming that I am a “co-laborer” with Christ who must “work out my salvation with fear and trembling,” I am speaking here, by definition, of those actions which are my responsibility, not God’s.

    5. The low-lifes who turned to Christ developed it. Were Peter or Matthew or Mary Magdalene slaves to the flesh by the end of their lives?


  6. 1. You say “the danger of inaction…is high or higher than the danger of ineffective action.” Again, I disagree, or at least want to remind you of the possibility of action that is not only ineffective, but debilitating. I think we are a culture for which decisive action is always privileged over circumspection. No one wants to fester in their sin, but sitting in the pain of this body of death is, I have found, crucial to that turn to “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord [that] there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”! Apathy can be treacherous, but so can wildly darting to solve ourselves: I think it may be that we do ourselves more harm using one of our sinful impulses to feed and enforce another than to dwell in awareness of those sins, much less than to exercise fledgling virtue against them.

    2. This is more nuanced. I don’t think anger at being a slave is a sin: it seems to me to be at least amoral, at most a right awakening of truly human emotion. If this is all you are saying, then I agree.

    3. This is something of an argument, but not much. Restricting all blood flow to your arm may keep a cut finger from bleeding and hurting, but is undeniably the more damaging thing to do. There are some extreme situations in which a tourniquet is useful to save a life, but most of the time it is inadvisable. I agree that it works to pit one vice against another. We have the immediate, or at least evident, effect of squelching appetites by self-mastery. Whether this is good in the long term, however, or in light of character development, is what I wonder.

    I suppose it may be that I simply disagree with you and Evagrius that the appetites are a worse vice than the desire for power. You call the appetites bestial, and power-hunger “at least human.” I see the appetites as lowly, and power-hunger as at the heart of the fall, and Satan’s towering sin. It is by far the more dangerous.

    The lowly, whose problem was that they loved too much their drink, their women, their things, saw something better satisfying in Christ and turned. The mighty, whose problem was that they controlled their love to the point that they killed it, turned away from this doctor to the sick: they were healthy. Perhaps, then, I agree with your general idea that, in certain contexts, a lesser undesirable action or willing can save from a greater undesirable one, I just exactly flip the example you use. It is probably not good to fill my mind with daily frivolities, but if it distracts me from filling my mind with lust after the possessions of others, when I cannot yet fill my mind with Christ, then it serves a purpose. I still say, however, that just because one vice can manifestly kill another, this is no proof that this does not merely make that other vice stronger.

    4. I agree that we participate in our own sanctification, but hesitate to say we do so by systematically choosing some sins over others. Theresa of Avila talks of the painful, painful discipline of sitting in the garden of her heart, among the weeds, and not striving to pull them, but waiting for the Gardener to pluck them when and as He chooses. I so often make myself frantic and desperately unhappy with the futility of my efforts against sin. I am terrified to leave anything to God, afraid He will not hold up his promises of perfecting me for the day of Judgment. I am confident, however, that he has has promised to purify his people, and perhaps I am simply in a place where I need to learn what it means to submit my participation to God’s orchestration, rather than my own. In which case, your advice may be sound, and I am simply too weak to take it.

    5. I wonder. There is a church tradition that said Peter fled martyrdom, and then was met by a vision of Christ who called him to return to Rome, after which he went gladly to imitate his Lord in death. If this is true, then even at the end, he struggled with the same impulses he had always had to deny and abandon his discipleship to Christ. He was receptive to the guidance of God as he grew, however, and submitted to being turned as he had not before.

    Thanks for the thoughts.


  7. Amie,

    It’s never an easy conversation with you… Which means it’s always a good conversation.

    Let us begin this segment as is fitting, with prayer:

    Lord Jesus Christ, at this time receive our prayer and direct our lives according to Your will. Bless our souls and bodies. Correct our thoughts and purify our minds. Protect us from all evil and distress. Surround us with Your holy angels, that guided and guarded by them, we may attain the unity of the faith and the knowledge of Your unapproachable glory, for you are blessed forever and ever. Amen.

    Amie, my main point is contained in 3, so I’ll start there and work backwards.

    3. Let me say it clearly: I am not making an argument. I am sharing a recipe. I am sketching a work out. I am writing a formula. It is absolutely nothing unless cooked, exercised, concocted. If you don’t “agree” with it, if you do not agree with the philosophical foundation of the recipe, then don’t do it. If you find yourself so stuck in sin, if you find that God is standing by very intentionally not withdrawing you on his own effort but working within to strengthen your free will as you slowly co-operatively mutually conquer vices, then think back to this little conversation. I am not your spiritual director, so who knows, but perhaps give it a try.

    This is the end of the conversation. The rest of the following is just filler, to stimulate any remaining idle curiosity and my idle tongue:

    1. The hypothetical scenario simply does not scare me. I don’t care. Why? I already know I am entrenched in the sin of pride, which is the greatest sin, which is demonic, inhuman, and bestial. I have been convicted of this dozens of times, maybe hundreds of times, (and I’m a little proud to say that!) There is no where lower to go than the pit of hell. There you would see me, if the doors of perception were cleansed, being munched-on like Judas. Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ. Let us walk as children of light. He who loves God does not sin.

    I agree that, in reality, angelic sins are worse than bestial ones. But, in reality, they are all organically linked. The taming of the flesh is the part of the process that (I opine) I am most called on to do with my own free will. But you’ve heard this before: The Cardinal Virtues can be attained even by the unregenerate. The Theological Virtues are those for which I wait, and faith and love are in the waiting.

    Any progress that God makes on my sin(s) will necessarily be a blow both to pride and to the particular manifestation of it, such as gluttony (which is pridefully seeking in self and creation for the sustainance which God alone can provide). So I get busy fighting gluttony, calling as auxiliary motivations a) my desire for holiness, b) my pride and desire for self mastery, c) my fear of a bad reputation for being a glutton, d) my fear of being overweight when I hit thirty, e) my desire to be healthy and take care of my body, f) my admiration for moderate, self-controlled fellows, g) my horror at the images of the gluttons in Dante’s Purgatorio, h) my desire for the bread of heaven, which is wisdom, i) my hatred of sinners, j) my hatred of myself. In other words, ANY motivation is good enough, for a time, to help me conquer sin. Mixed motives, they’re just unavoidable. We submit those to God, and keep trying. Dear God, I want to be humble. Help me to be humble. Also, I want to be moderate. My desire to be moderate is (in part) motivated by my desire to be exalted above all creatures and even above you. Help me to want moderation for the right reasons (in other words, “help me to be humble” part II). Help me to be humble, and moderate, and loving, and entirely Christlike. Amen.  For us there is only the trying.

    2. This is mostly what I am saying. I am still trying to figure out exactly what Evagrius means by “pitting sin against sin,” but I think a lot of it has to do with understanding that sins are organically linked to one another, so starting with gluttony and pride first rather than, say, lust or greed is not a mere matter of preference, but practical wisdom according to nature.

    4. St Teresa is, well, a saint. May she pray for us. When you talk about the practice of sitting with your weeds and cultivating (painful) awareness of self, I am in total agreement. This is an invaluable and I might even say necessary part of conviction, which is (definitely) a necessary part of repentence, sanctification, and holiness. Let me modify what I’ve said, modify the “recipe,” so as not to seem to downplay or supercede this essential practice: Co-operation and co-laboring with God indeed includes a) convicting, (Search my heart O God), b) repenting (Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, c) practicing virtue (Walk as he walked) and d) pure prayer and holiness (May they be one as you and I are one). Yes yes yes.

    5. Struggled, overcame. God’s grace.


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