What Is Asceticism?

Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas
Reynold Mainse / Design Pics / Getty Images

Asceticism is the practice of self-denial in an attempt to draw closer to God. It may include such disciplines as fasting, celibacy, wearing simple or uncomfortable clothing, poverty, sleep deprivation, and in extreme forms, flagellation, and self-mutilation.

The term comes from the Greek word askḗsis, which means training, practice, or bodily exercise.

Asceticism's Roots in Church History

Asceticism was common in the early Church when Christians pooled their money and practiced a simple, humble lifestyle. It took on more severe forms in the lives of the desert fathers, anchorite hermits who lived apart from others in the North African desert in the third and fourth centuries. They modeled their lives on John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness, wore a camel hair garment and subsisted on locusts and wild honey.

This practice of strict self-denial received an endorsement from the early church father Augustine (354-430 AD), bishop of Hippo in North Africa, who wrote a rule or set of instructions for monks and nuns in his diocese.

Before he converted to Christianity, Augustine spent nine years as a Manichee, a religion that practiced poverty and celibacy. He was also influenced by the deprivations of the desert fathers.

Arguments for and Against Asceticism

In theory, asceticism is supposed to remove worldly obstacles between the believer and God. Doing away with greed, ambition, pride, sex, and pleasurable food are intended to help subdue the animal nature and develop the spiritual nature.

However, many Christians made the leap that the human body is evil and must be violently controlled. They drew on Romans 7:18-25:

"For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. ‎So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." (ESV)

And 1 Peter 2:11:

"Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul." (ESV)

Contradicting this belief is the fact that Jesus Christ was incarnated in a human body. When people in the early church tried to promote the idea of fleshly corruption, it spawned a variety of heresies that Christ was not fully man and fully God.

Besides the proof of Jesus' incarnation, the Apostle Paul set the record straight in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20:

"Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies." (NIV)

Through the centuries, asceticism became a staple of monasticism, the practice of isolating one's self from society to focus on God. Even today, many Eastern Orthodox monks and Roman Catholic monks and nuns such as Trappist monks practice obedience, celibacy, eat plain food and wear simple robes. Some even take a vow of silence.

Many Amish communities also practice a form of asceticism, denying themselves such things as electricity, cars, and modern clothing to discourage pride and worldly desires.


uh SET ih siz um


Asceticism is intended to remove distractions between the believer and God.

(Sources:,,,, and

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Zavada, Jack. "Asceticism." Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, Zavada, Jack. (2021, December 6). Asceticism. Retrieved from Zavada, Jack. "Asceticism." Learn Religions. (accessed March 22, 2023).