All love, all devotion, all commitments whatsoever involve asceticism. Whenever we embrace one thing, we cannot help but not embrace a multitude of others. Self-denial is the hallmark of commitment. Whether one is committed to learning to play the piano, running a 5K, or marriage, self-denial will be involved.
Self-denial has been touted as an abominable heresy by our modern culture (mostly by those who incite us to be consumers.) “To scandalize anyone today, it suffices to suggest to him that he renounce something.”¹ But we all seem to innately desire to show our allegiance to one by denying another.
It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.
G.K. Chesterton, “A Defence of Rash Vows” from The Defendant
While me may all agree that marriage is an exclusive relationship, and therefore has an ascetical demand to “forsake all others,” we seem to have more trouble with the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” God commands exclusive rights to our affections and attentions, yet many seem to balk at any sort of spiritual discipline as some attempt at “works righteousness.” Why would I consider skipping a meal or television show to spend time with God? Am I trying to “buy” God’s favor?
Yet if I tell someone that instead of watching television, my wife and I take a walk together every night and talk, I can often see a hint of envy — after the initial shocked look wears off — especially if I am speaking to a female. I know of no greater way to communicate love than to set aside everything else for the beloved. Whether it is turning off the cell phone and giving total attention to someone I am counseling, or taking my wife on a short getaway, it says, “You are my priority and there is nothing more important than you right now.”
God certainly deserves such affection from us. The difference is that we do not often get tangible feedback from our Lord. I receive no hug or kiss if I take an afternoon to read and pray, but that does not mean it goes unnoticed.
Giving such devotion to God also shapes us. It affirms within us that we love God and desire to serve and please him. It is a discipline for us to grow in our affection and obedience. It is a way for us to bind ourselves to God.
Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them around your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
Proverbs 3:3 (ESV)
¹Dávila, Nicolás Gómez Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección, p. 392