Fasting and Self-Denial

The truth is everyone has thoughts or desires, which, if acted upon, would be destructive to self and others. If we do not learn to say no to these inborn incessant urges when we are young, then we wind up dead, in debt or in prison before too long. We are conditioned to say yes to our whims from the time we are tiny via an array convincing consumer ads. Our economy surges when we splurge and buy what we are persuaded we want. In addition to this, we are taught that virtually nothing we do is really our fault. We are victims of time and chance and genetics, to say nothing of the people who have scarred us emotionally and psychologically. I need to eat comfort food to feel better; I need to buy myself something; I need to escape by playing my video games, trolling the internet for ever more interesting porn, watching countless hours of television or movies. Entitlement is a destructive mental illness because it is the excuse keeping us from saying no to ourselves.

Jesus said unless we deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow him we cannot be his disciples. Christianity in our time has followed the consumer culture by presenting a Jesus who wants to boost our sagging self-esteem, and enable our sense of entitlement by providing us with anything and everything we ask for in prayer. We are promised that we can receive whatever we ask for, but Jesus said, “if you abide in me and my word abides in you, then ask whatever you will and it will be done for you. He also said to ask “in my name,” which means asking by proxy for the kinds of things and with the kind of faith Jesus himself would. This is not self-interested asking. The only way to get to the place where we are asking like the Son of God is to become like the Son of God, and the only way to get there is to deny ourselves and be filled with the Spirit of Christ.

This denial of self is a cognitive process that involves seeing ourselves differently. It involves realizing a mysterious metaphysical reality: I have been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20). This cannot be a theoretical understanding only, or even a remarkable personal revelation into the teaching of Scripture. The Apostle said, “I die daily.” Thus, it is a daily, even moment-by-moment recognition that the old person of mere flesh and blood is dead.

Self-denial requires both faith and a resulting self-discipline. Without faith we likely will fail to continue in the discipline. After all, why should we deny ourselves what we want? Moreover, without assistance from outside the self we remain captive to the tyranny of “me,” even though denying certain desires or perceived needs. Therefore, faith in Christ is essential to self-denial, both as the reason and the power (stronger than so called “will power”) to deny the self.

I confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and the Lord has commanded that I deny self. In fact, he stated plainly that I couldn’t follow him until I do this (Mark 10:34, Luke 14:26-27).  To assist me in keeping this command Christ has died on the cross, raised from the dead and sent His Spirit to live within me. His Spirit connects me to this death and resurrection. Therefore, the truth is I have died; I have been raised. In order to make this truth a reality in my experience I must believe and continually discipline myself to act upon that faith. Certain spiritual disciplines may aid in this practice.

People in many different religious traditions for thousands of years have practiced fasting. Consider the following extra-biblical examples of people who fasted: Confucius, Plato, Aristotle and Hippocrates (father of medicine). Within the canon of Scripture the Law

proscribed what is believed to be a fast once per year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27).  In the Bible we find Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel and Esther fasting in the Old Testament, and Paul the apostle and Jesus himself fasting in the New Testament. Such eminent Christian leaders as Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards all fasted. Why?

There are many reasons and benefits, but in keeping with the teaching above I have observed the following truth. Fasting teaches me to say, “no” to me. It is denying something that I need, usually food, in order to focus on what I need more: God and his truth. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy when being tempted by the devil to end his fast miraculously by turning rocks into loaves of bread. “Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4 & Deut. 8:3). There is something, or rather Someone, more important in life than me.

Eating is essential for physical life to continue. Unlike air, or even water, food is something I can limit or go without for an extended period of time without serious health risks. In fact, if done correctly and not recklessly, fasting may actually be healthy for the body. For example, recent studies done with both animals and humans indicate that eating 30% fewer calories results in a longer and healthier life.

Fasting doesn’t have to be limited to food, however. Scripture records this interesting fast of the prophet Daniel during a period of serious prayer and mourning: “ I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks” (Daniel 10:3, ESV). So, Daniel kept himself from self indulgence during this time. Later in the passage we see that he had chosen this kind of fast as a way of humbling himself before God to seek understanding into the future plight of his people Israel (ibid. 10:12). The Apostle Paul observed that married couples might abstain from sexual activity in order to focus on prayer. However, he encourages such couples to come back together after a limited time to avoid temptations, which may result from a lack of self-control (see 1 Corinthians 7:5).

This is posted during the Christian season of Lent, which is closely tied to the discipline of fasting.  Some people come up with an activity or indulgence in their lives to give up during this time. Common choices are: coffee, soda, alcohol, TV, social media, secular music and so forth.

The previous Pope, Benedict XVI, in his Lenten message of 2009 observed:

“…fasting represents an important ascetical practice, a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person.”

Perhaps you can become a participant in fasting during this Lenten season.

The season of Lent is a time many Christians choose to fast. The following are some reasons for fasting, and not just for Lent. Fasting may be beneficial at any time.

1. Fast as an Act of Dedication–  Jesus went into the wilderness and fasted after his baptism and prior to entering into his ministry. Perhaps he did this to gain confirmation and clarity by intensely focusing on God.

2. Fast as an Exercise of Discipline–  Learn to say no to “me.” All of the temptations were for Jesus to act expediently and egotistically. If Jesus had given in it would not have been an exercise of faith, but, rather, the wildly alternating swings between self-doubt and presumption.

3. Fast as an Affirmation of Dependence–  Learn to rely on the power of God. Jesus’ first statement in response to Satan’s temptation demonstrates this. “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3 as quoted in Matthew 4:4, also John 4:34).

4. Fast to Establish Determination–  Learn to have a tenacious and unshakeable faith. “This kind can only come out by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29, Matthew 17:21).

5. Fast as an Act of Desperation–  Cry out to God in repentance (Joel & Israel, Jonah and Ninevah). “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” (Joel 2:12 NIV). A need to hear from God at all costs (Daniel 10 & 21 days of prayer), David seeking the healing of his 1st child by Bathsheba.

6. Fast as a means of Detoxification– Because of constant exposure to an impure environment your body collects all sorts of toxic and destructive substances. Consider Daniel and his friends who would not eat the meat and rich food offered them by their Babylonian overlords. Instead they ate only vegetables and drank only water. They were healthier as the result. A vegan diet that allows only organic foods can be a healthy way to rid your body of toxins. When you fast, especially for longer periods, the digestive system and liver can rid you of accumulated poison. The same applies to your mind. When you remove TV, movies, video games, godless music, social media, you give your mind the opportunity to rest. Replace these things with worship and saturation in Scripture.

7. Fast regularly to Diet– Limiting the amount of food you eat is a means of controlling calorie intake. Most of us eat too much. We take in more calories than we burn off, so we gain unneeded fat. Periodic fasting if done in moderation and balanced with a healthy, calorie controlled diet, is an effective tool in losing fat and maintaining a lean body.

Whatever you decide to do, remember the following principles.

If you make a commitment, keep it. Consistency is important for any discipline.

Choose something that will really require discipline to give up.

Giving up what you shouldn’t be doing to begin with is not fasting, it’s obedience.

It is not a good idea to make promises to God, better to rely on his promises for you. So, you aren’t fasting to get God to do something for you. Trust him to help you through.

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