If timeshares and resort vacations had been feasible in the first-century Roman world, the island of Crete would have been a fashionable destination of choice for the leisure class. Crete had become known as an environment of duplicity, consumption and sensuality. This was a place to live it up. Maybe they had their own Las Vegas-type motto: “What happens in Crete stays in Crete.”
No wonder Paul’s letter to Titus sounds a note of urgency that the Christ-followers in Crete must pursue a way of life counter to the indulgence of the surrounding culture. There are repeated calls to self-control, truthfulness, sobriety, kindness—in other words, a renunciation of worldly passions in order to pursue a new way of life, focused on the values of the kingdom of God.
Francis of Assisi is fascinating on this subject. I would never advocate his more extreme forms of ascetism, nor the problematic theology of the body that motivated such practices. But Francis’ idea that the desires of the flesh needed to be brought under discipline and into the service of the values of the spirit has solid basis in the teachings of Jesus.
When we read Francis, we learn about his family: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brothers Wind & Air, Sister Water. He celebrated the close relationship that human beings enjoyed with the natural creation where God had placed them. His tongue-in-cheek name for his body was “Brother Ass.” Like a wild donkey, the body and its appetites have to be brought under control. An untamed donkey will take its rider wherever the beast wishes to run, wreaking havoc as it goes. The rider, helpless to control the animal, gets battered & bruised on the wild ride. But when a donkey is subdued, it becomes a very useful animal—to ride, to carry loads, to pull a plow—serving the purposes of its master.
As a young man, Francis experienced how dangerous Brother Ass can be when he is allowed to run out of control. Francis indulged in wine, women and pleasures of every kind. He found himself being carried wherever Brother Ass wished to take him. But, when he became a troubadour for Christ, he was determined to tame the beast and make it serve the aims of spiritual growth and freedom. So he submitted to disciplines of service, simplicity, celibacy, fasting and others.
One can’t help but think about Jesus—the only time we read of him riding an animal was when he sat upon a donkey to enter the city of Jerusalem. The scriptures tell us it was a colt that no one had ever ridden. Unless you’re an expert in breaking & training donkeys, you definitely don’t want to be the first person to climb onto the back of a colt! But on the day the crowds hailed Jesus as King, the donkey was tame and harmless under the Lord’s control.
Since the early 1980s, spiritual disciplines have undergone a renaissance in some quarters of the evangelical church. The writings of Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Marva Dawn and others have shown the vital connection between embodied Christian practices and growth in holiness. Yet, the life-giving potential of spiritual disciplines remains unexplored territory for too many Christians. I recently challenged a group of young adults to share a three-month journey of prayer, fasting and shared reflection on passages of scripture. Check out this website https://castle-keepers.com. Most of the group members had grown up in a Christian environment and were leaders in age-level ministries in their church. To my surprise, several persons in the group confessed that it was the first time in their lives they had fasted from food for a spiritual purpose.
Why is it so important to rise above our animal instincts and learn “to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age.”? (2:12) Paul explains that this is part of our preparation for the return appearance of our great Savior, Jesus Christ.” This brief passage mentions two “appearings.” The first is in v. 11: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” These are forms of the Greek word, epiphaino, which can mean “to become visible, to show oneself or to become clearly known.” The word “Epiphany” also comes from this root. It’s the sudden and glorious revelation of something previously unseen or unknown. The light has shined in the darkness, the Good News has been announced, the kingdom of God has come near in Jesus Christ. But the kingdom in its fullness is still to come. This is the second appearing, described in v. 13: “We wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
We are living in the in-between times, what Paul calls, “the present age,” and those who receive the grace of God are called to a Jesus-shaped character and style of life. This grace is “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.” (v. 12)
In the age to come, our motives & desires will be only for the things that please God. But in the “present age,” we must train ourselves to be godly (1 Timothy 4:7). In this way, we not only prepare for his glorious appearing, but also fit ourselves to be the instruments of God’s saving, healing, reconciling purposes in this world. Christ “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” (2:14)