Beware of Man-Made Disciplines: Col. 2:18-23

 Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at Colossians 2, where Paul addresses several ways Satan attempts to distract us from the preeminence of Christ, and he also provides us with the keys to combating these attacks.  This week we will look at the third attack Paul addresses—man-made disciplines.

The man-made disciplines Paul was addressing have been common in human history and found in some form in most every religion worldwide.  These disciplines, though they may take on different forms in different times, have been collectively referred to as asceticism.  Asceticism is the idea that greater spirituality may be achieved through rigorous self-denial or even self-mortification (abuse of the body).  It is important to note that Paul was not referring to practices such as fasting in times of prayer.  What Paul was referring to were legalistic rituals of self-denial done to earn God’s favor or gain a greater spiritual reputation.  But what about now?  Do Christians struggle with asceticism in the modern Church?

The short answer is yes. And, while we may be able to point to some extreme examples of asceticism in the modern Church that resemble those from ancient times (flogging, hair shirts), modern asceticism can be much more nuanced than that.  So, how do we distinguish between modern spiritual discipline and asceticism?

  1. What is the source of the discipline?  If the rule you are following is found in Scripture (i.e. prayer and fasting, gathering together with other believers, giving), then that’s a spiritual discipline.  If the rule is not found in Scripture, then it may be ascetic legalism.
  2. What is the motive behind the discipline?  Are you seeking God’s favor through this discipline?  Do you think it makes you more spiritual than others?  If so, then you are wandering into asceticism, and this is where things can get really nuanced.  For example, if I abstain from ice cream because I’m convicted that it’s a danger to me and my family, that’s not asceticism.  If I abstain from ice cream because I have friends who struggle with ice cream and I want to show compassion to them, that’s not asceticism.  However, the moment I abstain from ice cream because I think it makes me a better Christian and I judge your faith because you don’t abstain from ice cream, then I’ve wandered into asceticism.
  3. Who is the focus of the discipline?  Is the focus of the discipline glorifying me or God?  Asceticism, though appearing to be a form of deep spirituality is really quite the opposite.  It is at its core self-focused.  I’m focused on what I’m giving up for God, which carries an expectation that God owes me something in return.  And this is where asceticism can be so insidious: it creeps into even good disciplines and perverts them into self-glorification.  For example, rising early to study God’s word is a laudable endeavor.  But when rising early to study becomes about me (look at what I do for God, look at the revelation God gave me, look at what I sacrifice to learn more about God), then I’ve wandered into asceticism.
  4. What is the root of the discipline?  The key difference between spiritual discipline and asceticism is that spiritual discipline is rooted in repentance—the desire to respond to God’s scandalous love and grace with a change of heart and life.  On the other hand, asceticism is rooted in shame—the desire to avoid the consequences of my sin by changing my behavior in an effort to appease God.  Repentance is focused on the offended (God), while shame is focused on the offender (me) and the avoidance of punishment.


  1. Review the 4 distinguishers between spiritual discipline and asceticism. Are there any areas of your life where asceticism may have creeped in?  How do we combat this?
  2. Review the comparison between shame and repentance. Where do you tend to fall (shame or repentance)?  If you operate in shame, what’s the key to moving to repentance? (Hint: what/who is the focus?)