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 that 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” (John 15:7). He also instructed his followers to ask in His 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 to deny the self (stronger than so called “will-power”).
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, rose 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). During the Christian season of Lent some people come up with an activity or indulgence in their lives to give up, which is a kind of fasting.
Lent is a venerable tradition within the church, going back many hundreds of years. Primarily, Catholics and those in other liturgically oriented denominations practice it. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. In his Lenten message for 2009, Pope Benedict XVI taught, “Lent recalls the forty days of our Lord’s fasting in the desert, which He undertook before entering into His public ministry.” The time period is actually a bit longer than 40 days, but this is the precedent given for the season.
Benedict also addressed the ambivalence of the skeptic and the consumer with the following statement:
“We might wonder what value and meaning there is for us Christians in depriving ourselves of something that in itself is good and useful for our bodily sustenance. The Sacred Scriptures and the entire Christian tradition teach that fasting is a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it.”
In the same message, Benedict supports the assertion we’ve made above that fasting assists us in saying “no” to ourselves with the following statements.
“…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.”
(All quotes above are from the Pope’s Lenten message for 2009, which may be found many places online. The quotes I’ve used were pasted from http://vultus.stblogs.org/2009/02/the-holy-fathers-message-for-l.html )
At Lifewell Pastor D is encouraging us to observe Lent as we are led to do so. If you are not yet convinced or would like more reasons, here are five. We should fast…
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.
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.
Fast as an Affirmation of Dependence– Learn to rely on the power of God. Jesus’ first statement in response to Satan’s temptation. “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).
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).
Fast as an Act of Desperation– Cry out to God in repentance (Joel & Israel, Jonah and Ninevah). A need to hear from God at all costs (Daniel 10 & 21 days of prayer).
Below are some practical guidelines and suggestions for possible fasts.
Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, February 18th and extends until Easter Sunday, which is April 5th this year. Whatever you decide to do, remember the following principles. 1) If you make a vow, keep it. 2) Choose something that will really require discipline to give up. 3) Giving up what you shouldn’t be doing to begin with is not fasting, it’s obedience.
Here is what Pastor D is challenging Lifewell Church to consider.
- Fast every Thursday from 6pm until Friday at 3pm through Easter weekend.
- Why? You are fasting to remind yourself of Jesus’ suffering, which started the night before his crucifixion and ended when he died.
- If you are unable to fast completely, do a juice fast during this time. That is, only drink pure fruit or vegetable juice (not artificially sweetened).
- Pick a legitimate pleasurable food or activity and deny yourself this until Easter Sunday.
- Why? You are learning to discipline yourself for the sake of Christ.
- For example eliminate: candy, soda, dessert, coffee, alcohol, TV, watching or listening to sports, secular music, talk radio, movies, video games, Facebook, texting.
- Eat no flesh. Abstain from eating meat until Easter Sunday.
- Why? You are abstaining from literal flesh as a reminder to reckon yourself dead to your carnal nature and alive in the Spirit. This will give you no power over the flesh. Only realizing that you have died with Christ can do that.
- You may take Sundays off.
Combine all of the three.