Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Raising the Floor: On the Value of Asceticism

February 14th, 2024 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Sometimes, a person has to hit rock bottom before they will change. 

This bit of folk-wisdom has deep roots in the American psyche, where we love to read and consume spectacular conversion narratives. We know the kinds of stories that the phrase sums up: a person takes to the bottle, loses their job and family, and ends up crying out to God from a ditch somewhere outside Tulsa. Or, more commonly, a young man finds himself alone in jail after a bit of stupid fun goes wrong, weeping at the prospect of being cut off from their family, work, and friends.

The latter type of case is especially instructive. Many people who enter prison are in a peculiarly vulnerable condition, which makes them uniquely open to change. They have been stripped of their agency, leaving them feeling destitute and hopeless. They enter into a genuine crisis, which my friend Dustin Benac describes as a point at which we reach the end of our resources, where we come up short for the task ahead of us and are compelled to discover new resources to face the obstacles ahead. People are inclined to convert when they hit “rock bottom” because they finally realize that they are no longer content with their current resources. In that moment, the burden of their sin has become “intolerable” to them—it is both too heavy for them and they are no longer willing to carry it. 

Everyone is in danger of hitting “rock bottom” at some point in their lives, I think—but we also do not do so at the same point. If it takes being thrown into prison to make one person aware that their life stands in need of drastic change, it might only take a particularly disappointed look from a parent for another. To switch the metaphors, we all have a different “floor” for our lives—a bottom level of (dis)functioning where we begin to look around for help. If we imagine the ceiling of our lives as those moments where we feel competent and secure, the floor are those times when we are adrift and overwhelmed, when we no longer seem up to the task of living in the way we ought—when our resources seem to come up short for the life we want to lead. 

So much of our happiness depends upon having resources at hand, which is why abstaining from food or drink can initially make us seem surly and irritable. Sometimes people have told me that they gave up fasting because it was hard to be happy—when, dear reader, the difficulty is the point. As we temporarily renounce the goods of this world, we should expect our lives to get worse before they get better, as removing the resources we usually rely on to get through a day with good cheer exposes how few resources for joy we really have. Deprivation causes a crises, in other words, which means we have to look for new resources to overcome the obstacles of anger and irritation before us. 

This is the aim of a season like Lent, it seems to me—to shift the “floor” of our lives, such that we hit “rock bottom” at a point where it is safe for us and everyone around us to do so. The person who commits to abstaining from food two days a week during Lent will doubtlessly feel tempted regularly to satisfy their cravings. If they give in, though, they have—enjoyed the good gifts of creation. They fail, but upward, as it were, into a good. They will doubtlessly feel the failure as a real one, as violating one’s commitments is a serious and grave wrong. But the fast raises their “floor” for their lives, such that they hit “rock bottom” at a point at which no one is harmed besides themselves (even if others are not benefited by their lack of abstinence). Better to set the “bar” for temptation at ice cream after dinner than telling secrets to join the inner ring. Both people might experience temptation the same way, but one’s floor will be much higher than the other—and will be more equipped to deal with real temptations to sin than the other. 

All of this explains why suggestions that Christians give up racism or sexism instead of chocolate—which happen every year about this time—so badly misunderstand the nature of the Christian life and the indispensable role asceticism plays within it. One gives up chocolate or alcohol or meat in order to become more alive to the weaknesses of will that allows denigrating thoughts and attitudes to persist. 

The aim of ascetical practices, then, is to induce a crisis in our lives before a crisis comes upon us. We renounce goods that we depend upon in order to discover the limits of our resources, so that we are induced to cry out to God for His sustaining help and nourishment. This is why fasting from food and drink is peculiarly powerful, and why Lenten fasts that do not include abstention from it in some respect will fail to bring the transformation we might hope for. For we are nowhere so acutely dependent upon the world than in what we eat and drink; food is our primary and fundamental resource for life itself. To say “no” to food induces a crisis that encompasses the whole of who we are and demands a comprehensive reorientation of our lives toward God.

(originally published at The Path Before Us)

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.