Thomas a’ Kempis put it this way: “We must be watchful, especially in the beginning of temptation, because then the enemy is more easily overcome
if he is not allowed to come in at all at the door of the soul, but is kept out and resisted at his first knock.” — The Imitation of Christ, I, 13
I then suggested to my friend that what might help him resist temptation is the ancient practice of spiritual detachment. Spiritual detachment is a process that frees us from whatever interferes with our spiritual growth. Detachment helps us avoid disordered inclinations and relationships with persons or things. Detachment can help us avoid negative memories and thoughts that keep us from God’s love.
In the Bible, much is written on spiritual detachment. For example, the story of Abraham shows his spiritual detachment when he is willing to obey God’s command to leave his country and sacrifice his son, Isaac. This same spiritual detachment is found in Jesus when he sacrifices his human life to fulfill his Father’s redemptive plan of salvation. Jesus calls each of us to spiritual detachment when he says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow to me” (Mt 16:24). In other words, in order to follow Jesus we must detach ourselves from all worldly attachments (deny yourself); and detach ourselves from any fear over what it might cost to be a disciple (take up your cross).
Jesus gave us an example of the cost of discipleship when he said to the rich official who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life: “Sell all you have and distribute it to the poor and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come follow me” (Lk 18:22). With spiritual detachment, we recognize the cost of discipleship but, at the same time, we acknowledge the promise of something greater, which might be freedom of heart, freedom to be one’s true self or freedom to love.
When we read the hard sayings of Jesus, we may wonder if he is too severe in his call for us to be detached from the world. We may even think of self-denial and mortification as a rejection of the goodness of God’s creation. But this is not the case. Jesus wants us to be free from the burden of attachments so that we might be happy and enjoy life. That is why he said: “I came so that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10b).
When Jesus said he wanted us to have life in abundance, he didn’t mean for us to indulge abundantly in disordered desire. We know what happens when, for instance, we overindulge in food or alcohol. The misuse of God’s abundance, because of disordered desire, results in sin and the consequent separation from the love of God, neighbor and self.
It’s important to note that there is nothing wrong with having natural desire. We must have desire in life or life will be empty. Some religious traditions teach that all evil comes from desire, and that one must empty oneself of desire. But to empty oneself of desire is itself a desire. Part of God’s creation was to hardwire us with desire, especially with the desire for God. An abundant life is a life that balances desire with self-discipline. Self-discipline requires one to maintain a constant attitude that “I am enough as I am. I am enough as God created me!” Self-discipline is a vigilant attitude of contentment with the providence of God, with what God has given us.
Without self-discipline, spiritual detachment cannot withstand temptation. Self-discipline keeps us from clinging to things and to people. But in being detached, we are not contemptuous toward material things. To possess things is not, in itself, a bad thing. Problems occur not because we possess things but because we come to base our self-esteem on what we have. Our identity can be based on ownership of property or other possessions, and not on the identity given to us by God, which is that we are God’s beloved children.
Here are five other common temptations and attachments that require self-discipline and detachment:
1. The lust for power and control over others.
2. The lust for power over nature.
3. The lust for knowledge to be used to manipulate others.
4. The lust for intense excitement or sensation.
5. The demand to have the last word.
These attachments might be summed up as one: Being attached to our will—to having our way.
To become detached from one’s will is perhaps the greatest detachment of all. But as we seek to become detached and self-disciplined, how do we know when we have achieved our goal? The greatest sign that detachment is working is that we feel a sense of peace about who we are and about the choices we make.
But to find this peace requires work. Self-discipline comes, for instance, when a controlling person makes the choice to “let go,” and trust in God. But the hard choice to let go is a choice that needs to be made over and over again. Thus, detachment requires self-discipline and self-discipline holds open the door to the fresh air of detachment. In a way, the two are one.
When we “let go” to detachment, we return to God to direct us to our destiny. As we surrender control to God, we release anxiety and fear. As we release anxiety and fear, we come home to ourselves, to that place in our hearts where we know we have all we need in the present moment, that all is well and that life is good. Spiritual detachment can help us find this holy place and self-discipline insures that we remain there for the remainder of this life and into eternity.