Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:2-5)
I will not go into detail on the exact nature of the heresy in Ephesus, except to say it was multifaceted. There was a dash of Gnosticism, which believed matter was evil, Judaism, which sought to bind people to rules and regulations, and various forms of ascetic lifestyles.
I would like to spend a moment on the last of these three: ascetic lifestyles. Those who practice asceticism do so to separate themselves from the normal trappings of life in an effort to connect to something higher or deeper as the case may be. In a sense, when we go for a hike in a national forest, we are practicing asceticism. We walk when we could drive, sweat when we could be sitting in an air-conditioned home, and endure gnats, mosquitoes and a number of others pesky woodland residents.
Why do we do it? Because walking down a forest trail clears our mind. It enables us, for however short a period of time, to separate ourselves from the cares of life and think about God’s creative genius.
Beyond this common experience, there is absolutely nothing wrong with more zealous forms of asceticism, such as the choice not to marry in order to wed one’s self to a holy cause, fast, or do without anything for the purpose of obtaining something else. Jesus also never married, was accustomed to fasting, and even gave up His body on a cross for our salvation.
I probably should mention there are some bizarre and fruitless forms of asceticism that tend to focus more attention on the individual than on a greater purpose. But what spiritual value is there in enduring pain so others will praise us? This is why Jesus said we should try to look as normal as possible when we are fasting.
Yet, in Ephesus, there were those who used ascetic practices for all the wrong reasons. They likely attempted to disconnect earthly matter from spirit by denying their bodies. They also pressed their practices on others.
This is why Paul makes an important point about God’s creation. It isn’t that there is anything wrong with abstaining, or even that some foods truly aren’t bad for us, especially in excess. The point is, rather, that the use of ascetic practices for the purpose of attaining spiritual status with God is ungodly. If we are fasting to focus on God, that is fine. But if we think our fasting will impress God and others, we are sinning.
It is strange that something can be both good and bad depending on how we use it. But such is the case with so much of what God has made. That’s why He gave us His Word as an instruction manual. But for some reason, we are much better at giving instructions than following them.
Dear God, help me do things for the right reasons. In Jesus’ name, Amen.