Self-denial is at at the heart of the Christian life of discipleship. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16.24). Images and stories of self-sacrifice can be incredibly moving, as they embed moral ideas that bring a sense of hope by reminding us of our better values. Listen to this quote about self-denial:
We set out on the road to freedom when we no longer let our compulsions or passions govern us. We are freed when we begin to put justice, heartfelt relationships, and the service of others and of truth over and above our own needs for love and success or our fears of failure and of relationships.
Sounds good and wonderful, correct? This quote so many ideas, both explicit and inferred, that give it a raw, emotional, evocative power that language often gives us.’
What if I were to tell you, however, that these words were written by Catholic philosopher Jean Vanier, who has just recently been accused of sexually abusing six women between 1970 and 2005? What initially sounded so good now seems to reeks of hypocrisy. In the words of my friend Jeremy Rios on his Facebook page (from whom I pulled Vanier’s quote), “I’d say this has aged like milk.”
Where did it all go wrong? Was Vanier just a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Or did he goes astray somewhere along the way? These are complex questions that we can not hope to answer without a detailed investigation, but there is something I want to point out in the problem with Vanier’s quote and why it appears to be self-denial, but it is not the self-denial of the cross. Undergirding this problem lays down the foundation of a ‘false narrative of redemption’ (I don’t want to say false Gospel as I don’t think if someone believes what is said above that it means one does not know and follow Christ) that leads to the powerlessness over human sin.
What is undergird the implicit narrative of this form of self-denial? It is this: that one frees themselves by their attempts at self-control. Self-control is the route to freedom, redemption, and transformation. To any student of ancient philosophy, they would hear the echoes of Stoicism. At the heart of this form of self-denial is that there is some comprehensible pattern of truth, goodness, reasons, etc. understandable and knowable by rational reflection that can free us simply by giving ourselves over to this pattern. We are aware of two paths: one that our impulses present to us and one that our reason gives to us, and we in our strength give ourselves to the path of reason. We can refers to this as cognitive self-denial.
Now, self-control is not a bad thing. It is a very good thing in its appropriate place. If someone makes you angry, having self-control to not immediately react in the throes of passion is a good thing. But this is not a rational, reflective form of self-control, but it is an reactive form of self-control. This form of self-control allows us to act appropriately in individual situations when our emotions spike, for whatever reason.
However, here comes the problem. Cognitive self-denial according to our rational choices does not alone produce reactive form of self-control. It can contribute to it as a mental form of simulated practice that can help strengthen the muscles of reactive self-control, but all the exercise in the world will produce nothing if you don’t have the necessary food to sustain those muscles in the first place. But, as most of us has experienced, simply thinking of the right way to address something does not make it happen when the situation arrives. This is because our sense of reflective reason and our more reactive thinking processes are not actually the same. But, when we believe in the powers of our cognitive reflection to give us *direct* control over our more reactive, instinctual behaviors, we can be brought into a illusion that we are actually in control of ourselves when we aren’t, or at least we aren’t in as much control as we like to think we are.
The seductive power of what I colloquially refer to as Stoic self-denial (because it dovetails with my research in 1 Corinthians and Stoicism) is that it has all the appearances of self-control, but it is ultimately ignorant of (1) the reasons that such self-control can successfully occur over the long-haul and (2) why self-control is important. It will be successful some of the time, but a life lived under self-control is more like a marathon than a sprint. It doesn’t simply work some of the time, but it is successful most of the time and even when one loses control, the actual problems are minimal compared to what could occur.
In the case of sexual exploitation, as in Vanier’s case, one could be in control of one’s faculties 99% of the time, but the difference between 99% and 100% over the course of over three decades can lead to multiple victims.
However, it needs to be said though that this form of self-control does not turn people into a Vanier. We don’t need to see people who endorse this model of self-denial as dangerous. There are a host of other factors that go into why people do what they do, not simply one belief. In some cases, this form of self-denial can turn people phobic towards their desires, pushing them into avoidance mode. Even as there is no damage to others, the combination of rational self-control and avoidance can create the what I refer to as a broken righteousness, where a person is successfully diligent but with great costs to their own well-being. While preferable to a self-control with occasional lapses, it still belongs to the same form of self-denial.
But even in cases that don’t revolve around the sexual instinct and less dangerous ‘vices,’ but for other things like money, food, health, etc., etc, images of self-control seduce us into thinking we have the power to accomplish what we wish, only to discover that that form of self-control is an illusion that we maintain in our minds by either denying the problems or by avoiding the problems. We try to eat healthy, while denying to ourselves that that midnight snack is going to be a problem or by avoiding anything that might remind us of food (again, self-control and avoidance is usually more preferable to self-control and splurging).
You want to know why people are successful at controlling themselves? While they have the capacity to exercise their self-control muscles through cognitive reflection, they themselves are the type of people’s whose desires match the goals for their life. They do not experience the sharp divergence between heart and mind, but their hearts and minds are closer together. For them, cognitive self-control is more like housekeeping, making sure they keep their houses clean of clutter rather than the source of their power. In other words, self-control is more successful at preventing people from letting that specific desire have place in their world when it arises rather than freeing themselves from that desire.
How then do we become the type of people who have self-control? Worship and imitation. We become who or what we worship. What we believe and know about who or what we worship begins to define our hearts and our desires. If we ‘worship’ money rather than simply instrumentalize it, then our knowledge of money and how it operates begins to control how we think and desire money. However, worshipping of objects, or abstracted, cognitive objects known as ideas, essentially leads to the reinforcement of our own selves, as our cognition about objects is controlled by the way we use those objects. It means that most worship becomes a projection and amplification of some parts of our selves.
It can become very different, however, if we worship a ‘who’ rather than a ‘what.’ To truly worship a who means that we have to get outside of ourselves to understand someone else. While this is always a messy process created by the epistemic gap from one person to another, in regular, on-going worship we are given the place to begin to percieve and understand the one who we worship. Through that process, we are given the ‘raw materials’ of wanting and desiring something else other than what we desire, as our emotional draw to the object of our worship is more powerful than the other desires we have.
However, even this worship is not enough. We can worship but go nowhere, because worship as provides a potential way of life and thinking to us and offers it, but worship by itself doesn’t make that native to us. We also need imitation of who we worship. Not some woodenly slavish imitation in which we do things in some exact repetition of what our object of worship did, but rather a form of imitation that seek to accomplish what the object or worship accomplish but in our own contexts. Through the combination of worship and creatively inspired imitation, we embark in a journey where we are freed not from our desires, but from the wrong form of those desires, to have our desires rightly ordered.
It is here, then, that we have the ingredients for a Christian form of self-denial. Christian form of self-denial is not some cognitive self-control of our desires in accordance to some abstracted form of reason, which in fact becomes a worship of some part of our own projected selves, no matter how hidden we are1 from the self whom we worship.2 The Christian form of self-denial is rooted in the worship of the crucified Christ and imitation of His cross through the Spirit who guides us to put to death the deeds of the flesh to put an end to the desires that go with them and to pursue the good that God desires for us and for others. It is not a self-denial that is empower by abstraction, reason, and reflection, but it is a self-denial of redemption that is narrativized, embodied, and enacted. This is the spiritual food that gives us the foundaton and strength so that our life and desires can be transformed so that our cognitive self-control can be relied upon to keep the house clean, but not to lay the foundation, build the house, or renovate the interior.