Fatties and Flagellants: What place for self-discipline?

For the umpteenth time, recently, I climbed the Pilgrims’ Steps at St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall.

They are steep and very roughly cobbled—tough going even in my comfy trainers. I imagined the pilgrims of bygone days who climbed the same steps as a penance. They made the ascent barefoot, or even on their knees, believing that such pain and discomfort, imposed voluntarily on the body, would boost their spiritual credit-balance and free their spirit to soar to greater spiritual heights.

The Pilgrim's Steps, St Michael's MountBut these pilgrims were at the softer end of the ascetic scale. Others took the principle much further. They refused a mattress, choosing to sleep instead on a bare stone floor. They fasted to the point of sickness and emaciation. They wore hair shirts whose abrasive fibres irritated their skin, and if the shirt could be infested with fleas, so much the better: the fleas would bite, causing festering sores to remind the wearer of the mortality of the flesh.

Others went further still. They had their hands and feet nailed to boards in imitation of Christ’s crucifixion. They made hook-ended whips and beat their own backs till the bones were exposed and the blood ran to their ankles. They viewed with suspicion the body’s normal appetites for food, drink, sleep and sex, on the basis that to pander to them was to divert one’s focus from eternal and spiritual realities.

Things are different now. As the medieval has given way to the modern the pendulum in some Christian circles has swung to the opposite extreme. We have a ‘health and wealth’ gospel that encourages self-indulgence. On this view, the greatest good is your comfort and prosperity. The world’s mantra, ‘If it feels good, do it’, has infiltrated Christian thinking to the point where many believers can celebrate ‘God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment’[1], but know nothing about self-discipline, or how to cope with suffering and pain.

Time was when most Christians were teetotal; some now think it’s acceptable to get more than tipsy in sharing a few bottles of wine with friends. A bit of pornography or sexual indulgence, others will say, is ‘only human’.

Some who once ate to live now live to eat, always upgrading to a ‘large’ of everything at McDonald’s, stuffing themselves with chocolate and fries, downing high-calorie cola at every opportunity and then, instead of a brisk walk to work it all off, they drive everywhere in upholstered comfort, their backsides getting broader by the month. They would be hard pressed just to walk up the Pilgrims’ Steps, never mind do it on their knees.

Both the flagellants and the fatties fall short of authentic Christian living. Medieval asceticism was undoubtedly over the top. Much of it reflected notions more at home in Greek philosophy than in Scripture, like the notion that anything material was base and unclean, and had to be pushed to one side so that the spiritual could take precedence. On that view, the body is the prison of the soul. Ascetic practices like the ones we have described were the only way the prison’s walls could be breached and its bars burst open to free the soul into the realms of pure spirit, where God himself dwells.

We can’t go along with that. The Bible doesn’t make such a stark body/soul distinction. In line with its Hebrew anthropology it addresses us as whole people with both a material and non-material dimension, but it never drives a wedge between the two the way much medieval Christianity did. Jesus met people’s physical needs as much as their spiritual ones. What’s more, when he rose from the dead he did so not as pure spirit but with a body. And that, says Paul, indicates that when our own resurrection day arrives we, too, will have a body like his.[2] Yes, our eternal destiny is to be an embodied one.

So hair shirts and knee-walking are out. But self-indulgence is as bad as asceticism, and today’s fatties have missed the mark as much as yesterday’s flagellants. If our bodies are temples where the majestic Holy Spirit dwells [3], how dare we abuse them the way some Christians do? Enjoyment of God’s world and of his good gifts is one thing; over-indulgence is another, and God himself calls us to draw the line. There is a place for good old-fashioned self-control, exercised in Christ’s honour.

Self-control, in fact, is central to the gospel. At least Paul thought so. When he got the opportunity to speak to Felix and his wife Drusilla about ‘faith in Christ Jesus’ he enlarged upon three basic themes: ‘righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come’.[4] How many Christians today would include that middle element?

By including it Paul was only preaching what he himself practised. He likened Christian living to training for the public games of Roman times, where the athlete ‘goes into strict training’— disciplined living, early morning runs, press-ups, a controlled diet—to help him achieve his goal. Paul kept a tight rein on his own bodily demands: ‘I discipline my body,’ he said, ‘and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.’[5] He urged young Timothy to live the same way. ‘Train yourself to be godly’, he said,[6] using the verb gymnazo—from which we get our word ‘gymnastics’ and ‘gymnasium’—with all its implications of discipline and self-control.

This is practical stuff. And spiritual, too, because true spirituality refuses to stay behind the dyke of numinosity and insists on flowing into every corner of our material lives. Self-control will probably mean saying no to the third glass of wine. Ordering regular fries instead of large. Refusing to pollute the Spirit’s temple with tobacco smoke. Saying a polite ‘no thank you’ to the offer of a second helping of pavlova. Steering clear of the newsagent’s stand where the porno mags are displayed. Taking the stairs instead of the lift. Walking rather than driving to the park. Choosing to skip a meal from time to time. All this just to keep your body in its place, because if you don’t it will exceed its privileges and take control. The body is a useful slave but, given the chance, it can become a terrible master.

Some will, I know, cry ‘Legalism!’ here. But that is not Scripture’s message. Legalism means making rules where God’s Word itself does not. The Bible does not forbid wine, for example, so neither must I. If, however, I voluntarily choose to be teetotal, that is right and good—as long as I don’t foist my own standard on others or make them feel that by having a glass of beer they are second-class Christians. As for food, there is a place for feasting, as Scripture plainly testifies. But feasts are the exception, not the norm, and a degree of everyday self-control is vital in our over-stuffed Western world if we are to avoid sinful self-indulgence.

Christian leaders need to be especially careful here. Paul urged Timothy, ‘Watch your life and doctrine closely.’[7] Note the order. The pastor who stands before the congregation may be sound in his doctrine but if his belly is three times the size of his backside all I can hear him proclaiming is, ‘I’m weak and self-indulgent, a complete slave to food and drink. Yes, I know I say that Jesus is Lord, but my true lord is my appetite.’[8] It’s a shockingly bad advert for God and the gospel.

We’re on a sliding scale here, with the flagellant at one end and the obese at the other. Ecclesiastes has a word in season for us: ‘Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.’[9] None of us wants to revert to the madness of medieval asceticism. In today’s developed world it’s the other extreme that draws like a magnet. So do a Bible study on self-control.[10] Grasp its basic principles. Then ask the Holy Spirit to tell you clearly what temple maintenance will mean for you, here and now.

Take yourself in hand—for your health’s sake, for the sake of your Christian witness, and for the glory of God.


  1. 1 Timothy 6:17
  2. Philippians 3:21
  3. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
  4. Acts 24:24-25
  5. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 ESV. See also Proverbs 25:28
  6. 1 Timothy 4:7
  7. 1 Timothy 4:16
  8. In a few cases, of course, obesity can be caused by glandular problems, or by drugs used to treat certain conditions, and people in such situations need our understanding and sympathy. But in the vast majority of cases obesity is the result of lifestyle choices within the control of the individual, and the individual stands responsible.
  9. Ecclesiates 7:18
  10. You could start with the main NT Greek word for ‘self-control’, which is enkrateia (Strong’s G1466). You will find it, in one form or another, in Acts 24:25; Galatians 5:23; 2 Peter 1:6. Its opposite, meaning ‘lack of self-control’ is akrasia (Strong’s G192) and akrates (Strong’s G193) and these words appear in Matthew 23:25; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Timothy 3:3.

2 Responses to Fatties and Flagellants: What place for self-discipline?

  1. Bruce Stewart says:

    You are fortunate to be able to climb up (and down?) those steps.


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