The reason we need a self-denial comeback

March 1, 2019

Through happenstance, I recently found myself touring the exhibit hall at a kitchen and bath expo. It was in a large hall, filled with booths displaying everything from faucets to flooring, countertops to bathtubs, sinks, and plumbing supplies. In one booth, I was astonished to see portable camping stoves with ovens. Now that’s living the dream: baking a cake in the forest.

I also saw the coolest bathtubs, many of them with unique shapes, and a display of beautiful vessel sinks in various shapes and colors. Suddenly I realized how much I had always wanted a sleek rectangular bathtub and a green leaf-shaped vessel sink. Had I known my bathroom sinks were boring? I suppose I had. And had it ever mattered? Not much. They had always gotten the job done. But now, staring at that sink, it was hard to imagine ever again washing my hands in a plain old sink. A new desire had taken root—not truly based in dissatisfaction with what I had, but in simply wanting to own something I didn’t.

So what was wrong with wanting an upgrade to my bathroom? At face value, probably nothing, especially since I ultimately did nothing more that acknowledge the desire, admit it was outside my means, and wash my hands of it (in my plain old sink). But I still wanted to pause and examine the feeling I had when I saw that stupid sink.

Longing to possess

This was more than a passing admiration for something beautiful; this was full-on desperation to possess—just for the sake of possession. And with it came cruel aspiration, luring me toward the possibility that possession could make me into someone I admire.

I find it discouraging to clearly recognize such forces at work in me. I supposed they’re with me all the time, motivating more of my actions than I could ever see. But I don’t always notice that sudden surge of desire for an object I never would have wanted if I hadn’t seen it. I’m not talking about a desire to meet a need, have a comfortable home, or even keep up with the Joneses. This was just the urge to acquire and own not only the object, but what I perceived it could provide my ego.

Aspiration breeds discontent. We know that; so do advertisers and entrepreneurs. That’s why, in the fourth grade, my daughter told me she needed some clothes from Justice. And not just any clothes from Justice, but specifically clothes that had the Justice logo prominently displayed. These clothes were no better than the ones she had (maybe they were worse), but they were the only palliative for an appetite she had acquired in seeing the logo on what “everyone else” was wearing to school. When I was her age, I felt the same way about Guess jeans. I never got any, but I was certain that just one pair would give me what I longed for—comfort in my own skin and in the crowd.

It’s deeply embedded in the American way. Early in life, we start chasing after the next big thing, like donkeys chasing carrots on sticks they can actually reach with a little work, devouring one after the other. And the more carrots we eat, the more we want—so we chase other donkeys’ carrots, too. We’re surrounded by carrots, each one of which looks like it might be the last carrot we’ll ever want. But instead of satiated, we grow more and more greedy.

The self-denial solution

We are deceived when we think the next thing will satisfy us rather than leave us emptier than we are now. We know, somehow, this is true—yet we keep trying. It’s so tempting to believe our longings will be satisfied by something new, sitting right in front of us; so easy to believe that possessing what we desire will change reality. Owning that dress will make me the kind of person who owns a dress like that. Driving that car will make me the kind of person I can feel proud of. Buying that music will make me fit in with the other people who pretend they don’t care what music other people buy. It’s pathetic, really.

Most devotional books would tell me the solution is to find satisfaction in Jesus. That people are only trying to fill that “God-shaped vacuum” in their souls. But what if this vacuum has a different shape? What if there’s no such thing as satisfaction for this kind of desire? What if this is not a soul-deep longing but an ugly fissure that only widens when we try to fill it?

“For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave” (1 John 2:16-17).

What if the solution is not to turn those desires toward Jesus, asking him to satisfy our cravings, but instead, to exercise actual old-fashioned self-denial? Rejection of indulgence and our “need” to indulge. What if Jesus doesn’t mean to satisfy us here and now? I believe he has something better (although, perhaps harder) in mind for us. If you’re curious about this, read my book Blessed Are the Unsatisfied.

There is no such thing as satisfaction for these desires; we will always want more. Maybe that’s why many super-rich people appear so deeply troubled. After all, if satisfaction is possible, they should be able to achieve it—but they can’t. The closer we think we are to finally getting what we want, the more money and effort we pour into the quest, the more devastated we are when satisfaction remains elusive. Like the ghost-sailors in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” we drink and still feel thirsty. We eat our fill and only feel emptier. Like the people of ancient Israel, we have dug for ourselves “cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all” (Jer. 2:13).

In these days when so many of us can’t afford to live as we do, maybe it’s time for self-denial to make a comeback—for us to not only embrace gratitude for what God has given us, but actually say no to more. Maybe it’s time for some serious discipline aimed not only at our behavior, but also limiting our exposure to messages designed to capitalize on our appetites and our efforts to find a kind of satisfaction we can never achieve. Stay home from the mall. Turn off the TV. Upgrade to the ad-free app or subscription, because some desires really are bad for your soul.

Self-denial is difficult, requiring not only strenuous discipline but also courageous counterculturalism. It means ignoring the chanting voices telling us we don’t have enough. It means refusing to believe the next thing will make us happy when we know it will make us hollow. It calls for letting go of the rush of acquisition, the fleeting pleasure of possession. And it requires us to risk looking like plain old, everyday, ordinary people in a world where image is everything. If the media are right, it also means forgoing an economic boom, another heady surge forward, another bubble we can pretend (for a while) won’t burst. But in the long term, wouldn’t it be OK to live with less if it means we get our souls back? After all, “what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” (Mark 8:36).

Amy Simpson

Amy Simpson is the award-winning author of Blessed Are the Unsatisfied: Finding Spiritual Freedom in an Imperfect World, Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry and Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (both InterVarsity Press). She’s also an editor for Moody Publishing, a leadership coach, and a … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24