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 videos or movies. Entitlement is a destructive mental illness because it is the excuse keeping us from saying no to ourselves.
Denial of Self
Jesus said that unless we deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow him we cannot be his disciples. Christianity at the present time follows consumer culture by presenting a Christ who wants to boost my sagging self-esteem, and enable my sense of entitlement by providing me with anything and everything I 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, italics added). 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, as Jesus himself. This is not some self-interested demand. The only way to get to the place where I am asking like the Son of God is to become like my Lord, and the only way to get there is to deny myself and be filled with the Spirit of Christ.
Denial of self is a cognitive process which involves seeing myself differently. I must realize a mysterious metaphysical reality: “I have been crucified with Christ, and no longer do I live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This is more than a theoretical understanding. The Apostle Paul affirmed, “I die daily.” Thus, it is a regular, moment-by-moment, recognition that the old person of mere flesh and blood is dead.
Self-denial requires faith that results in self-discipline. Without faith I will fail to continue with discipline. After all, why should I deny myself what I desire? Moreover, without assistance from outside myself I remain captive to the tyranny of “me,” even while seeking to deny certain desires or perceived needs. Therefore, faith in Christ is essential to self-denial, both as the reason and the power to deny self. This is much stronger than mere “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 Jesus has died on the cross, risen from the dead and sent His Spirit to live within me. The Holy Spirit connects me to Christ’s death and resurrection. Now the spiritual reality is: I have died; my old life is buried; a new creation has been resurrected. 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 practices may help.
For thousands of years people in many different religious traditions have practiced fasting. Consider the following examples of people who fasted: Confucius, Plato, Aristotle and Hippocrates (father of medicine). In the Old Testament Bible we find Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel and Esther fasting. In the Mosaic Law Israel was commanded to fast once per year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27). In the New Testament Jesus and the Apostle Paul fasted; church leaders fasted prior to making important decisions (Acts 13:3, 14:23). In church history eminent Christian leaders as Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards also 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 self. It is denying something that I need, usually food, in order to focus on what I need more: God and his truth. Jesus was tempted by the devil to end his 40 day inaugural fast miraculously by turning rocks into loaves of bread. The Lord quoted Deuteronomy: “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 this world than me.
Eating is essential for physical life to continue. Unlike air, or even water, food is something we can limit or go without for an extended period of time without serious health risks. In fact, if done correctly, 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 an interesting fast by 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. Further along in the passage we see that Daniel 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 (Daniel 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 the temptations that may result from a lack of self-control (see 1 Corinthians 7:5). During the Christian season of Lent it is common for people choose an activity or indulgence to give up in keeping with the self-denial aspect of fasting.
Seven Reasons to Fast
1. DEDICATION. Fast as an Act of Dedication (Matthew 4:1-2) – After his baptism, Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit where he fasted for 40 days to prepare for entry into his ministry. During this time Jesus was tested by the devil. Perhaps fasting offered Jesus clarity as he intensely focused on His Father. The time of testing provided confirmation that He was the Son of God who had come to save the world. You may fast as an act of dedication to the Lord, and to seek confirmation about his calling in your life.
2. DISCIPLINE. Fast as an Exercise of Self-Discipline (Matthew 4:3-4) – Learn to say no to self. All of the temptations Jesus endured were aimed at getting him to act egotistically and expediently. If the Lord had given in it would not have been an exercise of faith, but an effort at overcoming self-doubt with presumption. Our consumer culture is about self-indulgence, not self-discipline. It is about pursuing passion, pleasure and satisfying desire. This is why so many people are overweight and in debt. It is also the source of drug and alcohol addiction. It is important to set limits for your time, money, eating and drinking. Fasting is a good tool to discipline yourself so that you may also say no in areas other than eating.
3. DEPENDENCE. Fast as an Affirmation of Dependence upon God- 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). When I give up something I truly want, I will need God’s help to persevere. The third affirmation of the AA 12 Steps recognizes the need to do this. “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God…” This is essential if you are going to overcome a particularly stubborn habit or addiction. Jesus affirmed, We need a deep faith, which relies entirely upon God, and fasting may help promote such a dependent faith.
4. DETERMINATION. Fast to Establish Determination- Faith is more than a feeling. Belieiving is an act of the will. If I truly believe I am willing to do something about it. Faith must also endure or it’s worthless. I must learn to have a tenacious and unshakeable faith. Not everything happens instantly. In fact, many issues require determination and tenacity to overcome. Jesus’ disciples encountered a boy whom they could not help. After Jesus cast out the spirit afflicting the child, his disciples asked him why they were powerless to do so. Jesus replied, “This kind can only come out by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29, Matthew 17:21).
Remember, although faith is an act of the will, it is not about willpower. It is about trust. I must be determined to continue to trust God, no matter the circumstances. This is fasting for a breakthrough. Nothing is helping. Nothing is changing. I can give up and give in, or I can resolve to focus all my attention on God and persevere in asking and seeking and knocking. Consider Jesus’ parable of the importunate widow: the woman kept coming to the judge for justice until he finally gave her fair relief (Luke 18:1-8). In the end, you will find it is not God who is withholding your rights; rather you are limited by a lack of faith. Fasting may lead you to a breakthrough.
5. DESPERATION. Fast as an Act of Desperation (Joel 2:17-21) – Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired? Do you realize that you have nothing to offer God? You must repent and come to an end of self if you want to be filled with God’s Holy Spirit. We must realize how truly sinful we are, and how depraved we can become without God’s help. We must take sin seriously. Let us cry out to God in repentance. “‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.'” (Joel 2:12 NIV). “God will hear the prayer of the destitute” (Psa. 102:17). We need to hear from God at all costs. Our nation and our lives are filled with rebellion, perversion and lawlessness. How many more tragedies must occur until we realize the need to return to the Lord in heart and mind and body? “for the LORD will rebuild Zion; he will appear in his glory” (Psa. 102:16).
6. DETOXIFICATION. Fast as a means of Detoxification (Daniel 1:8-16) – 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 a result. They asked to be tested for 10 days. You can perform the same test on yourself: Eat only vegetables and drink only water for 10 days and discover a healthier you. A vegan or even vegetarian diet that allows only organic foods is a healthy way to rid your body of toxins. When you abstain from food altogether, drinking only water, especially for longer periods, the digestive system and liver and kidneys can be cleansed of accumulated poison.
The same principle 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. DIET. Fast regularly to lose excess body fat- 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, so we gain unneeded fat. Regular fasting, if done in moderation and balanced with a healthy, calorie controlled diet, is an effective tool for losing fat and maintaining a leaner physique. Additionally, many people eat too often, and this adversely affects health by raising insulin resistance. Intermittent fasting throughout the week can help resolve this health problem. Stop eating at sundown and don’t eat again until sunrise. Several days per week, don’t eat until lunchtime. Periods of at least 13 hours without food will help your body to reduce the amount of insulin it is releasing and help your cells to become more sensitive.
The following are some principles to follow when fasting. 1) If you make a commitment, 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.
Consider one or several of the following fasts for Lent.
- Pick a legitimate pleasurable food or activity to cease.
- Why? You are learning to discipline yourself for the sake of Christ.
- Examples: eliminate candy, soda, dessert, coffee, alcohol, TV, watching or listening to sports, secular music, talk radio, movies, video games, social media, texting.
- Fast from sundown Thursday to sundown Friday for each of the six weeks of Lent. Eat a healthy dinner immediately before sundown on Thursday, skip breakfast and lunch, and break the fast right after sundown Friday. Although, this is a 24 hour fast, you will have only skipped two meals.
- Juice fast for 24 hours. Drink only pure vegetable juice.
- Eat no flesh. Abstain from eating meat during the entirety of Lent. Consider doing a vegan fast, which would exclude eating eggs or milk products as well as meat.
Remember, Lent is actually 46 days long. This is so because Sunday is considered a feast day, and there are six Sundays during the period. Therefore, it is acceptable to “take Sunday off” during Lent, which results in a 40 fast.