fasting: a breath of fresh air

Fasting is like a spiritual breath of fresh, cold, mountain air. It may sting your throat for a moment, but it widens your eyes, straightens your back, and clears your head. It feels so much better than the humid stuffiness of oppressively hot, dead air.

Fasting is a biblical discipline found in both Testaments. It is an important reminder that the human person is not merely body, not merely soul, but is both intertwined, and each part affects the other. Biblical saints practiced it as a context for prayer (Daniel 9:3, Acts 14:23), repentance (Joel 2:12-13), petition (Ezra 8:23), humbling (Psalm 69:10), and devotion (Luke 2:36-37). This verse from 2 Chronicles 7, when God confirmed to Solomon his acceptance of the temple, succinctly summarizes the layers of meaning in fasting:

…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14

Fasting is about humility

Humility, next to love, is probably the most fundamental Christian virtue, just as pride is the fundamental sin. There can be no faith without humility, no endurance, no self-sacrifice, no joy, no Christ-likeness. I can hardly think of a more beautiful or inspiring sight in the world than a truly humble man or woman.  How much love, peace, and joy those people have!

Fasting is useful, therefore, because it humbles us. Speaking from personal experience, fasting reminds me of how utterly dependent I am on God’s daily provision, both physical and spiritual; it reminds me of how pathetic I am on my own, and how weak my will”power” is; it reminds me of the luxury I live in everyday while so many millions in the world go hungry, prompting me to pray for them; it reminds me that just as I cannot live without food feeding my body, neither can I live in newness of life without the words of God feeding my soul. Fasting reminds me of my neediness, in every aspect, which only God satisfies.

Fasting is an outward expression of an inwardly humble heart; or, more likely, of a mostly proud heart that wishes to be humbled.

and prayer

Fasting cannot be separated from prayer. More often than not, in the Bible, the two are mentioned together. Along with a decluttered digestive tract comes a decluttered mind. With clarity of thought comes clarity in prayer.

Often in the Bible, fasting was a way to focus on praying for something really specific, such as a pressing need or a certain issue in the world. Fasting, like that breath of cold air, heightens the senses, physical and spiritual. It tunes you in to the world outside yourself; to which, in our self-absorption, we are all too often oblivious. It also tunes you in to the Holy Spirit, who speaks profoundly in scripture, and truly communes with the humbled heart in prayer.

A word of advice: do not bother fasting without setting aside a special time of prayer. In prayer, speak honestly, casting all your cares on God, confessing your sins to him, interceding for others. I often default to the Lord’s prayer or a familiar psalm for words. Remember that it is not about the number or piety of the words in a prayer, it is about the love and the honesty in the words.

and “seeking his face”

“Seeking God’s face” is a biblical expression used throughout scripture, and it means what it sounds like it means: to seek intimacy with God, longing to interact with him “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exodus 33:11).

As the body cries out for food during fasting, so the mind and spirit cry out for the living Bread, Jesus (John 6:51). Communion/the Lord’s Supper/the Eucharist vividly and regularly reminds us that Jesus himself is what satisfies the hunger in our souls. Fasting does the same thing, using the same metaphor.

Jesus said,

Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them, and then they will fast in that day. Matthew 9:19-20

Jesus is the bridegroom, we are the ones fasting while we wait for him. One day our fast will end forever, at the “wedding feast of the Lamb.” Meanwhile, we fast, seeing as through a glass darkly, anticipating the day when we will really see face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).

God’s “face” – his character and personality – is painted for us in scripture. Seeking his face mostly means seeking him in the Bible. Meditation is crucial. If the words of God are food, then meditation is digestion. Christian meditation is not mindless. It means engaging with the text in a personal, slow, thoughtful way, absorbing it into your head and heart. I would recommend meditating on one paragraph over skimming one chapter every time.

Fasting is useful because it eliminates distractions, making the way to God clearer.

and turning from our wicked ways.

 I think Joel says it best:

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Joel 2:12-13

There is something called “godly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:10) which Joel describes here. It means seeing sin for the ugliness it is and mourning for one’s commission of it. It exists under the beautiful truth that God is a God who gives grace, mercy, and unending forgiveness. That is its basis and its hope.

Here in the book of Joel, the prophet was also referring to mourning for the corporate sins of the Israelite nation. That kind of repentance (such as, on behalf of America) is real too. Things in this country would change if every disciple of Jesus living here regularly set aside days and times for fasting, praying, and repenting on behalf of America. Too often we “don’t have enough time” because we are too busy buying into the lies and sins of America along with the rest of America.

 “Yet even now” – even though your sin is piled to the sky – “return to me.” To fast is to repent; to turn from the vain things of the world and our petty concerns and turn again to the living God. It is a grace-filled thing.

As always, the motivation is much more important than the method. Look elsewhere on the Internet for suggestions of method; there are plenty of resources. However you choose to do it, do it wholeheartedly and humbly, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, knowing it is better by far to ignore the rewards of this world and to instead live Corum Deo – “before the face of God.”

And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:18

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pride and humility

In reality there is perhaps not one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself… For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility. -Benjamin Franklin

Pride. It’s what we notice first and hate most in other people, but notice last and defend most fiercely in ourselves. Pride is the chief spiritual sin from which all the others come because it dethrones God in our hearts, replacing love of God with love of self, glorification of God with glorification of self. Pride insists on its own way, listens only to voices that affirm what it wants to hear, feels entitled to things from others and God, baulks at submission, gets bored with compassion, loves only when its easy.

Want to get a grip on the nature of pride? Read Matthew chapter 23. In the margins of my Bible I have privately titled this chapter the “anti-pride chapter.” In it, Jesus blasts the pride of the scribes and Pharisees (i.e. the ultra religious people of his day). On the one hand it is a fun chapter to read because Jesus comes across as being so obviously superior to his petty adversaries. On the other hand, reading it is almost painful because of the intensity with which it exposes and condemns my false humility and religiosity, both of which are manifestations of the pride in my heart. There is no escaping it, if you’re honest with yourself. As Mr. Franklin noted, apart from Jesus and submission to him, pride rules our hearts exclusively.

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:5-7

The opposite of pride is humility. People often misunderstand humility, confusing it with distortions of the real thing. Humility is not self-deprecation, false modesty, an inferiority-complex, or being a doormat to whoever wants to take advantage. “It is not pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools,” as C. S. Lewis said. Stirring up false humility in this way simply serves to turn a person’s attention back to himself or herself, just in a more subtle way. On the contrary – real humility means, simply, self-forgetfulness.

If you want to see what humility looks like, read Philippians 2:1-11 and John 13:1-20. Note Paul’s wording in Philippians 2:3. He does not say “in humility count yourselves as less significant than others,” but rather, “in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” The focus is outward. Note also the reason for Jesus’ breathtaking humility in John 13:3 – “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper…” Jesus acted in humility and love in that instance and in every other because he knew his identity. He knew his relationship with the Father was certain and immovable; therefore he did not need to assert or exalt himself with other people. God was enough for him.

The same is true of us when we as Christians recognize who we are. We know, first, that we did not create ourselves; all our talents and abilities are gifts from God. Second, we know we are sinners who do not go a day without needing forgiveness. We know, third, that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are completely sufficient for saving us and there is nothing we can add or take away. When this head-knowledge begins to creep into our hearts, lives change. Real, healthy humility begins to take root.

Even in secular estimation, Jesus was a man of amazing humility. It did not make him passive or fearful – he spoke the truth boldly. He also served, boldly and constantly, outcasts and lawbreakers. His humility expressed itself in tangible acts of love and generosity. He did not live for the attention and praise of other people, but only for the pleasure and glory of God and for the joy of serving his Father.

It sounds backward, but God is good to let us fail or suffer if genuine humility results. It is so beautiful, and so free, to live humbly. In a life of humility there is freedom from those gnawing desires for attention, success, admiration, or whatever else, that make our lives so unnecessarily miserable and so perpetually sinful. There is frank and honest joy in the good things in life, whether or not we get the credit, and sadness in the sad things in life, whether or not they directly affect us. There is unobstructed worship of the King and love for people – and people always notice when they are being loved without an agenda, served without needing to be thanked. Humble love is so distinctively beautiful, and so incredibly rare, that it is impossible to fake.

bondslaves of Christ Jesus

God’s law for the ancient Israelites contained this clause:

When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever. Exodus 21:2-6

Voluntary slavery, for love of the master. That is the Christian life.

The New Testament authors frequently called themselves “bondslaves,” a word often translated as “servants.” Many of the epistles start with something like “Paul, a servant (bondslave) of Christ Jesus” or “James, a servant (bondslave) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” In ancient Roman society, a bondslave was a person subjected in every way to the will of his master, without rights or authority of his own. He spoke what his master wanted him to speak, did what his master wanted him to do.

Paul said, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1). Like the slave in Exodus 21, he was a voluntary slave, subjected in every way to the will of God, all for love of the Master. Servanthood is a way of life. It is at the core of Jesus’ ethic for all who would be his disciples: “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44). It means putting the needs and desires of other people ahead of your own, doing what no one else wants to do for the good of loved ones and strangers. It means following God’s agenda in everything.

I learned something about servanthood this past week during a mission trip to Rosarito, Mexico. Our group of forty people did street evangelism and built two houses. I believe there is nothing better or more worthwhile in life than serving God by serving other people, giving everything you have and everything in yourself for the sake of demonstrating Jesus’ love, all done out of gratitude for the marvel of God’s grace. It is a beautiful and holy way of life. It is Christ-likeness defined:

“…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (bondslave), being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:6-8

It hurts to be a servant of Christ. It is a lifestyle which requires extreme humility and extreme joy in God, daily surrender to his Spirit and daily war waged against the self-exalting desires by which we live and die. We want to be kings. Jesus says, “Yes, I’ll make you kings like you cannot imagine. Be servants first.”

My prayer tonight is: I hear you, Lord. Help me to want what you want, to care about what you care about, to make decisions, big and small, that follow your pattern of love and purity. I know of nothing better than life as your servant, your slave. Take me to the cross, God, set me apart as yours forever: bore me through the ear like the slave, sprinkle me with blood like the priest, anoint me with oil like the king, baptize me with fire like the apostles, do whatever you wish. I am yours. Thank you Jesus for serving me first, unbelievable as it is.