Renouncing Me: Learning from John Climacus’ “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”

I have recently been doing a lot of reading of Christian classics for my Masters degree. It is fascinating how many of these writings have upheld and stood the tests of time. Reading through The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus, I am amazed that this book is still the go-to book for the life of ascetic monasticism in Christianity today. While this book was written around 600 CE for ascetic monks, there is still many truths to be gleaned from this for lay-believers today. The first three chapters deal with how we are to break from the world, and I am going to discuss these three ideas the next few days.

While John’s “ladder” is made up of 30 “rungs,” it is important that one does not need to “climb” the ladder numerically. However, I do believe that the first three rungs are vital for believers to seek from the beginning.

The first step for the believer to reach is to renounce his own life. This is the first thing for all believers in faith, because we must die to ourselves to be able to live in Christ. We cannot serve two masters, and we must choose to put to death the things of ourselves.

We do not renounce ourselves the same way a monk may in such an extreme and separated lifestyle, but we do no longer put ourselves first. Those who are real servants and disciples of Jesus will “make every effort to select a place, a way of life, an abode, and the exercises that suit them” in community and discernment to renounce the things of this world. Now practically speaking, what does this look like?

We see this renouncing of life perfectly in Jesus Christ himself.

Jesus renounced himself and emptied himself of his equality with God to become a human and a servant of others (Phil 2). Jesus submitted to others and served them continuously, such as when he lowered himself to the position of a household slave and washed feet. However, we see this most clearly in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus prays before God and asks him to remove the cup from before him if there is another way. Jesus prays these things and gets up and finds the disciples sleeping before he continues his prayer again a second time. After one more time of finding the disciples sleeping, Jesus prays for a third time “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matt 26:42, NRSV). Three times Jesus pleads for another way if possible, before submitting to God’s will ultimately.

In this submission, we see how it looks to truly renounce oneself to God.

We will never fully attain this. Each day we must put to death our flesh and live in Christ. But as John Climacus says, the wise one is who keeps the warmth of the fire burning, adding to it fire, zeal, and love daily. So, add to this fire daily. Add to the zeal. Add to the love.

As Paul tells the church in Galatia:

It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20

This is what it means to renounce oneself. This is not just a central thing for monks in 600 CE, or even monks today. This is a central thing which all believers today must seek as we chase after Christ.

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