“Our Father, Abba Anthony, said he had never put his own personal advantage before the good of a brother.” John the Eunuch from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers
There is a story of Abba Macarius receiving some fresh grapes. He wanted to eat them. But, he chose not to and knew another monk who was sick and really liked grapes. He sent them to the monk who, upon receiving them, chose not to eat them as a means of practicing self control and humility. He sent them to another monk who did the same and another after him. After some time, a monk gave the grapes back to Macarius himself. Recognizing what had happened, he praised God for living among such a community of brothers with such self control. Even he didn’t eat the grapes.*
Fast forward to 1663; three communities along the Poropotank and York Rivers sought freedom from the Virginia Colony’s system of indentured servitude. English indentured, probable vagabonds and enemies of the royalist interest, and Africans saw they may be enslaved for life rather than given freedom after serving a 10 or so year term on colonial plantations. Some local Natives wanted to stop further encroachment of land promised to them by a treaty. A handful of mostly white servants developed a plot to rise up against the plantations in Gloucester County. The plan, according to a historian at that time, was very well thought out and would have caused many problems in the young colony.
One of the conspirators understood that giving away the plan to his “master” could win him freedom from his indenture and be considered a hero rather than a criminal and slave. After revealing the plan to him, it was made known to the colonial government which raised up a militia to crush the revolt on the planned date. As a result, the servant was freed and given a gift from the colonial government. The rebel ring leaders were executed. Natives continued to lose land, indentured servitude of English prisoners went on, but would decline as Africans would be used as chattle slaves after Bacon’s Rebellion.
There is nothing inherently wrong with looking out for one’s self interest. Everyone should try to better themselves through education, wise money management, learning a trade, or starting a business. But, when that interest is done at the expense of the good of someone else, or an overall community, it becomes self indulgence. This is a betrayal that ends that poisons relationships, destroys communities, and rots nations. Drug dealers and pimps advance their own incomes at the expense of people who also safe communities. Cheating spouses enjoy intimate pleasures of others while risking the stability of their families. Corrupt clergy and politicians take temporary gifts and sell out the hope and faith of those who look to them for a better existence.
Self indulgence is dangerous internally as well. Our passions and sins may grant us instant gratification and something that looks like relief. But such pleasure doesn’t last long, the suffering is increased, and it may take longer and more effort to rid ourselves of the consequences of our choices. Gluttony is the cause of many, if not most, poor health conditions. Lust is a hindrance to healthy relationships. Pride blinds us to our flaws and need for God’s grace. Delicious food, physical attraction, confidence; these things are neither good nor bad on their own. When we seek to indulge in these things at the expense of seeking holy virtues, we separate ourselves from the God who is holy and requires us to be holy.**
Self indulgence is a great traitor of a body of people and the individual soul. To struggle against this sin is a great step in spiritual growth and one that I also am in the process of making. Yes, this is a confession that I haven’t arrived at the place of achievement. And maybe that confession is something we should all keep in mind. We should never assume that we have gained victory over this adversary. Abba Anthony instructs us; “This is the great work of a man; always to take blame for his own sins and to expect temptation to his last breath.”***
*Lives of the Desert Fathers, pg. 109
** Matthew 5:48
***Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pg. 2