Sometimes God directs us to think about things and do things that are, to say the least, not high on our list of favorite spiritual subjects. This is one of those times. Today we’re going to resist the enticing urges to address one of the common New Year’s themes that encourage self-improvement. We all want to reinvent ourselves and transform our lives at some point, and that desire is commonplace this time of year. But that’s not where we’re going today, at least not in the way we normally think about it. Today we’re going to consider the practice of “fasting”.
A Challenging Way to Begin ~
Every year, our church begins with an encouragement to engage together, as a church body, in a period of fasting and prayer – a commitment to set aside those things that our appetites are naturally drawn to, in order to seek a deeper relationship with God as the year begins. Fasting has been a spiritual exercise that God’s people have done throughout history, so the concept is not new. Jesus mentioned it specifically in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Interestingly, in referring to it, He didn’t say if you engage in fasting, He said when. Here’s how Matthew records it:
Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. (Matthew 6:16–18 NKJV)
Multitudes have testified that fasting has enhanced their relationship with God, that they have grown closer to Him, or that they achieved resolution to some daunting problem they struggled with. Many credit a time of fasting and prayer as having been a key element in gaining victory over some compulsion, or being freed from some overwhelming burden. There’s no shortage of positive benefits to that specific spiritual discipline, but in spite of all that encouragement, I must admit that I struggle with it every time.
An Entertainment Alternative ~
Food was always a special source of enjoyment in my early days and my Pillsbury Dough-Boy physique made it evident that I didn’t miss many meals. But in my defense, we didn’t have a lot of entertaining gadgets on the little family farm where I grew up, but we did have fried chicken! Electric scooters and dirt bikes didn’t exist, but we had mashed potatoes and gravy, string beans, and turnip greens. Game consoles and virtual reality headgear were decades away, but we had hot buttered biscuits and fried apples. TV only had three channels, and there were no streaming movies, but there was blackberry cobbler and homemade ice cream. Things are different now, but the influence of those days lives on.
Because of that, when the subject of fasting comes up, I’ve discovered that there’s a subtle voice that creeps up from deep inside and puts rebellious thoughts in my head. It says things like, “Go ahead, Gallagher. Cancel my streaming movies, and turn off my notifications, but don’t be messin’ with my fried chicken. Disconnect my wifi router if you must, and lock up my laptop, but don’t touch my mashed potatoes and gravy – and keep away from my corn pudding! Go ahead and put duct tape over Siri’s mouth, kidnap Alexa, and drown my smartphone in the toilet, but keep your grubby hands off my biscuits!”
Not Very Spiritual ~
I know what you’re thinking. “That’s not very spiritual, and Jesus wouldn’t approve.” I agree, but when I said fasting is challenging for me, I wasn’t kidding. But isn’t that where the power really lies? Isn’t overcoming our resistance and connecting with power we don’t have the whole point? It’s like a Bible teacher that Diane and I greatly admire pointed out in a message recently, “The treasure you seek is waiting in the cave you’re most afraid to enter.”
Fasting challenges us to park our drive toward accumulating acquisitions for a while and focus instead on things that we’re willing to relinquish. Here are some simple questions that offer a perspective that may be helpful:
Is the crying need of our country that we have better things, more advanced gadgets, faster internet, and more money? Or isn’t the cry of our heart that we become better people? Does acquiring all those material things ever make us better people? Do cars and houses and high-tech electronics give us stronger, more stable families? Do they make our neighborhoods safer? If gadgets and money made us better people, then America would be the most truthful, just, upright, stable, peaceful, safe, and prosperous nation in the history of the world. But – that’s hardly the case.
A Different Way Forward ~
We are far more likely to become our best by what we’re willing to relinquish than what we manage to acquire. As we juggle all the self-improvement suggestions that fill the airways this time of year, maybe engaging in a time of fasting and some focused one-on-one time with God would be the best place to start. God’s desire is always to make us better. He doesn’t do that by taking from us those things that He knows we need. He does it by relieving us of the attitudes and behaviors that inflict pain on everyone around us and weigh us down with shame and regret.
Fasting can help us draw nearer to God, and His Spirit will guide us, both in recognizing those things we need to relinquish – and in empowering us to do it. Our country is not awash in pain and confusion because we need more money and better things. It’s because we need to be better people.
The Apostle Paul offered insight into specific things that should be left behind. That might be a good place to start toward achieving this objective. To the Colossian church he wrote:
Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: Fornication [sexual sins], Uncleanness [moral impropriety], Passion [inordinate affection], Evil desire, And covetousness, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)
And the list continues . . .
But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him. (Colossians 3:8–10)
To the Ephesians, he added:
Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.
Finally, he admonished adding this in place of those relinquishments:
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31–32)
Jesus said, “when” you fast, not if. While fasting isn’t easy, there are great rewards to be gained – and that may be the spiritual fitness exercise we’re most in need of right now. And lest we be discouraged, God isn’t likely to take our biscuits away forever. And I’m confident there will be fried chicken waiting for us, too … even better than Chick-fil-A!
“TWEETABLES” ~ Click to tweet and share from the pull quotes below. Each one links directly back to this article through Twitter . . .
- “God’s desire is always to make us better, not by taking from us those things He knows we need, but by relieving us of the attitudes and behaviors that inflict pain on everyone around us and that weigh us down with shame and regret.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “Fasting can help us draw nearer to God, and His Spirit will guide and empower us to do that. Our country is not awash in pain and confusion because we need more money and better things. It’s because we need to be better people.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “Jesus said, “when” you fast, not “if”. Fasting isn’t easy, but there are great rewards to be gained – and that may be the spiritual fitness exercise we’re most in need of right now.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
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