Friday, January 29, 2010

The Truth about the Pope's Self-Mortification

The Pope, according to the Roman Church, is the successor to Peter's apostolic office. As such, he is the supreme head of the church on earth, and is the Vicar of Christ. He can make infallible pronouncements. He is literally an example to millions. He ought to be able to convey the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ better than anyone, you would think. And yet, we find this:

At a news conference Tuesday, Oder defended John Paul's practice of self-mortification, which some faithful use to remind them of the suffering of Jesus on the cross.

"It's an instrument of Christian perfection," Oder said, responding to questions about how such a practice could be condoned considering Catholic teaching holds that the human body is a gift from God.

In the book, Oder wrote that John Paul frequently denied himself food - especially during the holy season of Lent - and "frequently spent the night on the bare floor," messing up his bed in the morning so he wouldn't draw attention to his act of penitence.

"But it wasn't limited to this. As some members of his close entourage in Poland and in the Vatican were able to hear with their own ears, John Paul flagellated himself. In his armoire, amid all the vestments and hanging on a hanger, was a belt which he used as a whip and which he always brought to Castel Gandolfo," the papal retreat where John Paul vacationed each summer.

While there had long been rumours that John Paul practiced self-mortification, the book provides the first confirmation and concludes John Paul did so as an example of his faith.
(Go here for the whole story.)

Let me be clear: self-mortification is neccessary. If by that you mean the putting to death of sin that remains in the flesh. However, beating yourself with a belt will not drive sin from your flesh. Nor will sleeping on a hard floor instead of in your bed. Indeed, the reason that we even strive to put the sinful flesh to death is so that people will see the glory of God's grace made manifest in our lives. The Pope's ideal of self-mortification only occassions boasting in the flesh and subtracts from the grace of Christ. Allow me to explain why I say that.

If you'll notice, Oder says that self-mortification is "an instrument of Christian perfection." There is, in fact, only one instrument of Christian perfection: the atonement of Jesus Christ. That is why the Pope's means of self-mortification is off the rails. I believe that his whipping himself is sort of like the opposite of the popular self-help movement. Self-help teaches: You are good. You are awesome. Believe that you are good and you will get even better. The Pope's way teaches: You are bad. You are evil. Punish yourself and you will get better. But this is what the cross teaches us: You are evil. You are sinful. Believe in me, and I will make you better. How does beating yourself with a belt teach anyone that Christ is sufficient? I am glad that the pope saw himself as a sinner. I am sad that he thought a personal whipping would cure it.

I want to say that the Christian way of self-mortification is more mortifying than the pope's, for his self-flagallation was not Christian in any sense. Here is why: the cross makes us utterly dependant upon Christ. That is, if I can come clean by beating myself, I am responsible for helping get myself out of this mess. However, the humiliation of the cross is that I can't do that. And since I can't do that, I can only believe that Jesus can. I would rather take a whipping than admit I am helpless. I would rather take a whipping than to make the Lord Jesus bear my shame. But bear my shame He must.

Peter saw this clearly when he said, "Lord, you will never wash my feet!" (John 13:8). Why? Because it was embarrassing to let the Lord wash off his grimy feet. Peter would rather do it himself than suffer the Lord Jesus to do it. But Jesus said, "If I do not wash you, you have no share with me."

In response to the cross of Jesus, we ought instead to say, "Lord, I hang up my belt. I expose to you my shame. Make me clean. Save me from my sin. Only you can do it." How embarrassing that is. How shameful. How glorious it is of Jesus to wash my feet. How marvelous that He would stoop to clean one so dirty as I and ask nothing in return. Indeed, what would I give to one such as He?

God deliver us from a gospel, which is really no gospel, that would require us to beat out our own sins. Deliver us from a kind of perfection that depends upon our piety or our works. Teach us a gospel that glorifies Christ alone as the only sin-cleanser. For the sake of your own glory, do it!


Herding Grasshoppers said...

Sorry, this is random and off-topic, but I clicked over to your blog from DJP's...

Did you realize, on your sidebar, where it says "Look Who's Looking" that when folks (like me) click on that to see what it is, it takes into your statcounter account... logged in?

I wouldn't mess with your settings or anything... just thought I'd mention it.

Anonymous said...

You misunderstand a key point about mortification.

Mortification is a form of at-one-ment with Christ who continues to suffer for your and my sins.

This is a common misunderstanding of Protestants and many Catholics.

Nothing Christ did had temporary, meager effects. His sacrifice continues to this day to save us.
All of his actions had supernatural and ongoing effects.

It's a mystery but it's true.

Mortification, if done for at-one-ment - if done for the love of God and others, it is a good thing.

We can't let anything, even body desires (giving in to lighter and more serious temptations, whether its' sleeping in too long, moving too leisurely, or lusting) get in the way of being at one with God.

Christ's suffering makes it possible for our suffering to have supernatural meaning if we draw closer to him during our trials, if our sufferings are offered to God with Christ's suffering.

Union with the Cross. Perfect At-One-ment.

Suffering cheerfully, willingly, with the intention of being unified with Christ, is a very good thing.

Our society sneers at this.

The Rayburns said...

Good post Brad. Looking forward to your answers to the above.