Posts Tagged With: fasting

Ash Wednesday: Rules or Relationship, Faith or Fellowship

I was a young Christian when I attended college in the mid-1980s. I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior following my freshman year, in the summer of 1984. During my senior year, 1986–87, a hall-mate in my dorm asked me once, “So, I hear that you’re a born-again Christian? What does that mean? Does that mean you’re not allowed to drink or smoke or have sex?”

Cross of ashes on a believer’s forehead. Photo by Jennifer Balaska (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

I replied, “Actually, I’m allowed to do everything that God allows you to do!” For a few brief seconds, I enjoyed the slightly confused look on his face.

“To be born again means to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” I continued, probably quoting John 3:3 while sharing some other details about the Gospel. “Because I have a relationship with Jesus, I want to know His will and do it. He has forgiven my sins and I want to honor Him by trying to be more like Him.”

God’s kingdom extends to all. The greatest difference between Christ’s followers and others is that Christians recognize that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. We are forgiven, and we follow Him.

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent in many churches. The season lasts 40 days, plus Sundays, culminating in Easter. Many Christians will receive ashes in a cross shape on their foreheads, as a reminder that “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those who observe Lent will fast during the 40 days: some may give up a favorite food, beverage, or activity. Catholics and some members of other churches may give up meat on Wednesdays and Fridays.

For those who are observing Lent: Do not let it become a season of “Does that mean you’re not allowed….” Let it be a season of renewal in your relationship with Jesus. Yes, give up those cookies, if that’s what you feel God is leading you to do. But, do not stop there. Figure out how you can use this time to enhance your relationship with Christ.

One of the ministries in my church is hosting a series of “Life in the Spirit” seminars during Lent. This made me think: How can I allow the Holy Spirit to more clearly direct me? How can Lent become a time when I become more in tune with the leading of the Holy Spirit and less driven by habit or routine? How can I hear more clearly from the Holy Spirit?

This leads me to one of my goals in Lent. I have developed a routine of praying at the computer: I have my online Bible open in one tab, the Book of Common Prayer open in another. It can be easy and convenient to have everything I need right in front of me.

Unfortunately, this convenience can lead to distraction. It is too easy to open another web browser that goes directly to Facebook. My email client will keep popping alerts onto my screen. This Lent, the computer stays in sleep mode during my prayer times. I still have a few “ancient” Bibles from the 20th century, printed on paper with actual covers and binding (OK, one or two have lost their covers!), along with an equally-old copy of the Book of Common Prayer. Neither of these artifacts from the last millennium give email alerts or social media links. This will avoid the temptation to allow my prayers to be distracted by less important things. It is rude to stare at your computer screen when a person in the same room is telling you something important. Could it be just as rude, perhaps, to wander off to Facebook and email while talking to God or, even worse, when He is trying to speak to you?

Lenten fasts and practices should be personally meaningful and relevant. God may be calling you to do something very different from what He is calling others to do. I have shared some advice regarding Lenten fasts here and here.

Ask God: “Is there anything I can try to do differently in Lent? Should I pray differently? Should I spend more time in Bible study? Should I find ways of serving You that might challenge me to step out of my comfort zone?”

Lent, like the rest of the Christian life, is not primarily about what you are allowed to do. It is about who God is in your life. May this be a time when you invite Him to claim a greater role in your life.

Copyright © 2020 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lent and Fasting

“Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it? Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in” (Isaiah 58:1‒12; all Scripture citations from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

For much of my adult life, I ignored Lent. It seemed to me like a legalistic ritual. I thought it provided nothing for salvation or spiritual growth. You get some ashes smeared on your head one Wednesday; for the next 40 days, you give up chocolate. What makes this spiritual? Where is God in all of this?

The truth is that some people will go through Lent and get nothing out of it. However, that is not because there is a problem with the season or the traditions associated with it. It is a problem with how that particular individual is approaching the situation. We can take legitimate ways of approaching and worshiping God and do them without His presence. Even the holiest acts can be worthlessly mundane if we merely go through the motions.

God is not impressed if we just go through the motions of Lent or fasting. The true worshipers of God will serve Him in Spirit and truth, not merely in outward rituals. What God says about fasting in the above passage is just as true about all spiritual disciplines and practices, including Bible study, prayer, praise, worship, and serving others.

(For those of you who believe fasting is a purely Old-Testament practice that Christians can ignore, I urge you to read my article, “Principles of Fasting,” at https://darkenedglassreflections.com/2011/12/04/principles-of-fasting/. Jesus assumed that His disciples will fast, and in Matthew 28:18‒20 He told them to teach later generations of disciples to obey ALL that He commanded them.)

It is helpful to remember that one goal of any fast is to give up something physical or natural so that we can devote our attention to things that are spiritual. Many people will give up meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, along with a favorite kind of food and/or hobby for the entire season. Others may be more ambitious (perhaps going on a full no-food fast for a day here and there), while others may do something simpler (perhaps giving up only one food). However, whether we give up a lot or a little, we need to fill the gap with something spiritual. If you give up food, without adding prayer or other spiritual disciplines, you are dieting—not fasting.

So, here are a few suggestions for those who observe Lent:

  • While giving up food, add prayer. The time devoted to preparing and eating food can be used for additional prayer and Bible reading.
  • While giving up a hobby or activity (television, Facebook, etc.), add praise and worship. The time you would normally spend on your hobby can be spent playing favorite worship songs on a musical instrument, or listening to favorite praise and worship music on a CD, Spotify, or Pandora. (Yes, this can include songs you actually enjoy listening to in your favorite musical genre. “Holy and spiritual” does not have to mean “boring, tedious, and painful.”)

Let us take it even further, as Isaiah advises in the above Bible passage:

  • Let us give up anger and develop a lifestyle of patience.
  • Let us give up greed and develop a lifestyle of generosity.
  • Let us give up selfishness and develop a lifestyle of compassion and love.

Okay, I admit: That last list may be a little less fun than perpetually streaming a playlist of your favorite Christian contemporary musicians. However, this is what God is really seeking. He is not interested in creating a club of people who eat fish on Fridays. His goal is to mold us to be more like Him.

Therefore, let Lent be a season of self-examination and reflection. Take some time in the coming weeks to read Galatians 5:19–23. Take a look at the deeds of the flesh: Which of these have the most impact on your life? Where are your weaknesses? Next, take a look at the fruit of the Spirit: Which are most abundant in your life? Which would benefit most by a season of growth.

At its core, Lent is not about meatless Wednesdays, fish on Fridays, or 40 days without chocolate, coffee, or donuts. Like every other day or season of the year, it is a time that the Lord has made for us to worship Him (Psalms 118:24). Let us devote this season to a searching and fearless moral inventory. Let us confess those parts of the carnal worldly life to which we continue to cling, release those defects to God, and yield to Him so that He may manifest His holiness within us. Then shall our light break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up speedily. Our righteousness shall go before us, and the glory of the Lord shall be our rear guard. We shall call, and the Lord will answer.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Man Does Not Live by Bread Alone

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3).

christ_in_the_wilderness_-_ivan_kramskoy_-_google_cultural_institute

Jesus fasting and praying: “Christ in the Wilderness,” by Ivan Kramskoi [1837-1887, Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Those who fast during Lent reflect on Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness for 40 days after His baptism in the Jordan River. As Jesus prepared to begin His public ministry, He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, and ate nothing for 40 days. At the end of those 40 days, Satan tempted Him to use His divine power for personal gain, daring Him to turn stones into bread. Jesus responded, as He would to each temptation, by quoting Deuteronomy, responding to the first challenge by saying “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).

That verse highlights one of the lessons learned during fasting, a lesson God taught the Israelites during their 40 years of wandering after they escaped from Egypt. Fasting calls our attention back to God, and reminds us of our need and His provision.

The wilderness wanderings were a time for the Israelites to learn how to live out their covenant relationship as the people of God. It did not start well. Even though God protected them during a series of plagues, until Pharaoh let them leave, they grew fearful as soon as they saw the Egyptian chariots chasing them at the Red Sea. Despite God’s previous signs, they would not believe that He would rescue them this time.

After God parted the Red Sea so they could escape, they complained at the waters of Marah, believing God would not provide clean drinking water. He provided it anyway (Exodus 15:22–27).

Soon thereafter, they complained that they did not have enough food, and accused Moses of leading them into the wilderness to starve. God provided bread from heaven, “manna” (Exodus 16). Before long, a miraculous (and free) supply of bread was not good for them; they demanded meat, so God provided quail (Numbers 11:1–15, 31–35). However, the quail came with divine discipline, as God sent a plague among the people while they were eating.

Much of this was probably on Jesus’ mind as Satan tempted Him. Jesus answered all three temptations by quoting from chapters 6 or 8 of Deuteronomy. He probably spent a lot of time during those 40 days meditating on the first few chapters of that book.

God had tested the Israelites, to give them a chance to trust Him. They failed each test. Every time, God provided opportunities to remember how He had provided for them in the past. Every time, they failed.

Many Christians can relate. How often do we immediately worry when a problem arises? Do we have faith to cast all of our cares upon the Lord, knowing that He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7)? Do we remember the times He has been faithful in the past: the times He answered our prayers, healed our illnesses, or provided for our needs? Or, do we anticipate a catastrophe and forget that He even exists?

God wanted His people to learn to look to Him for all their needs, and to recognize that every good and perfect gift comes from Him (James 1:17). The testing was designed to prepare them to remain grateful all of their days (Deuteronomy 8:11–18), so that they would remember to thank Him for all that He provides.

Yet, they failed the gratitude test. Manna was not good enough for them; they demanded meat. God’s provision was not sufficient: It was too boring, the same thing day after day. They wanted something exciting, something new, a change of pace. So, they told Moses that God could do better.

Ingratitude, distrust, and disbelief showed they were not ready to claim the promised land. God extended a trip that should have taken less than two weeks and forced them to wander for 40 years.

As Jesus prepared for His ministry, He must have reflected on these lessons. He had to remember who He was, why the Father had sent Him, and what He would do. He would look to the Father to protect, provide, and direct over the next few years. Every step in His ministry would be guided by the Father and would bring Him glory. At no point could Jesus afford to grow impatient or seek an easy way out.

For those of us who participate in a Lenten fast as we follow Jesus, the following questions are significant. Let us each reflect on them:

  • When difficulties arise, do I trust God or gravitate towards doubt, unbelief, fear, distrust, and anxiety?
  • When has God met my needs in the past?
  • Are the things He provides sufficient for me, or do I crave more? Do I demand more from God than He provides?
  • What mission, passion, ministry, or calling has God placed on my life? How can I pursue it His way, rather than trying to do things in my own strength?
  • Will I be grateful for His goodness?
  • Will I remember God’s mercy in good times, or will I forget about Him when life gets easy or comfortable?

Not long after His season of fasting and temptation, Jesus would travel with His disciples through Samaria, where He would minister to a woman with a troubled past and, most likely, a questionable reputation (John 4). When His disciples arrived with food, He did not have much of an appetite. It was as if He had already enjoyed a feast. He knew a satisfaction in the soul that natural food could not meet.

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

As Jesus’ soul was nourished by doing the work that His Father required, may we be satisfied in His blessings, provision, and the joy of serving Him.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ash Wednesday: Fasting to Celebrate Christ

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, ESV).

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (from the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, from the Book of Common Prayer).

I have posted several articles about Ash Wednesday and Lent on this blog over the years. I find this season helpful in my spiritual journey. It is easy to grow complacent and just go through the motions of the Christian life: go to church, read the Bible, pray every day, and try not to get caught doing anything too bad.

Lent is a season of fasting with a purpose. The ceremony of imposing ashes on a believer’s forehead imitates the ancient Jewish custom of covering oneself in sackcloth and ashes as a sign of mourning or penance (Jonah 3:6; Job 42:6). While using the ashes to mark a cross on the forehead, the priest or minister will usually say, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This statement reminds us that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and the wages of sin is death.

That soul-destroying sin is washed away through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and death is conquered in His resurrection. While Lent begins with acknowledgment of our sin and need of forgiveness, it ends with Good Friday and Easter, when we celebrate our new life in Christ. From repentance to rejoicing; from sin to salvation; from death to new life.

I expect Lent to take a slightly new angle in 2017. I can get into a rut with spiritual disciplines and lose focus on a greater goal. I have pretty much done the same things every Lent over the last few years, but in addition to “more prayer” and things like that, I hope to renew some aspects of my relationship with God that may have been pushed aside by busyness in recent years.

Fasting works best when it goes beyond denying oneself of food or pleasure and opens one up to drawing closer to God. I will cut back significantly on Facebook (I spend too much time online these days, and it has become a virtual wasteland). I will also add some activities that have slipped by the wayside: My guitar and bass have been collecting dust lately, so I plan to spend some time worshipping the Lord through song. Instead of focusing only on things to give up for 40 days, I will also look for renewed ways to spend time with my Lord during this season.

If you have never observed Lent before, I urge you to give it a try. For 40 days (not counting Sundays—most traditional churches recognize Sunday as a day to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, not to fast) between March 1 and Easter Sunday, make the following simple commitments:

  • Give up one food-related pleasure. In the past, I have given up coffee (that was a tough one!), Snicker’s bars, or other favorite snacks.
  • Perhaps devote one or two days per week to a more intense fast. Many Catholics abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. You can go that route, or choose one or two days a week for a more extensive fast that works for you.
  • Give up a hobby, or an activity that really has become an unproductive waste of time for 40 days. Most of us have something that weighs us down. I mentioned Facebook. Some people may benefit from giving up sports, or television. If you are willing to be honest, you will think of something that you would benefit from giving up for a while.
  • Do it in communion with others. If your church does not observe Lent, perhaps you can find some friends (such as a Bible study or prayer group) to embark on the fast together. Accountability and camaraderie have a way of strengthening us.
  • Most importantly, in the midst of “giving stuff up,” fill the empty space with more of God’s presence. As you abstain from physical bread, feast upon the bread of life, which is Jesus Himself. Spend extra time in prayer and Scripture reading. Read some of the devotional classic writings that will renew your zeal for the Lord. Find new ways to worship and serve God.

If you are thinking that it’s too late to commit to Lent: do it anyway. The Ash-Wednesday-to-Easter schedule is purely traditional. Feel free to do a 40-day (or whatever length) Lenten-type fast whenever the Spirit moves you. God is not bound by the calendar, but we are freed to experience His blessings and power when we surrender our hearts, souls, minds, strength, and time to Him.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Scripture Sabbath Challenge—James 1:26–27

“If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:26–27, NASB).

Beginning Lent, I am reminded that the traditions, rituals, and liturgy of the Church are valuable only to the extent that they bring us closer to Jesus. The best way to know whether we are close to Jesus is to measure how much we are reflecting His love to the world.

I have found that there are, essentially, four kinds of Christians.  One kind prays only for themselves and makes no pretext that they care about the needs of others. The second group will say they will pray for you, but they probably will not. The third group will pray for you. The fourth group will seek to be God’s answer to your prayers.

The passage above does not tell us that “pure and undefiled” religion is praying for widows and orphans, but rather actually visiting them. It is easy to pray for for those who are hurting. It is a lot harder to join them in their pain, to become the first pair of ears all week to listen to their sorrows. It is not easy to help them.

This should be the challenge of Lent. Prayer and fasting are wonderful things. They can bring us closer to Christ. However, if they have accomplished that goal, you will go beyond prayer and fasting to active spiritual service.

We see this throughout Scripture. In the first chapter of Isaiah, God says through the prophet, “‘What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?’ Says the LORD. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats'” (Isaiah 1:11). He calls  their sacrifices—many of which were commanded in the Torah—”worthless” and “abominations.” Instead, what is the “fast” that He desires? “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16–17).

It is easy to pray for the downtrodden, and to hope that somebody else will minister to them. But, God is calling each of us to a mission field. It is not enough to pray for the orphans and widows. Each of us must reach out to them.

Placing it in a more contemporary environment, it is not enough for us to pray for the salvation of “those people” from the wrong side of the tracks. We are called to share the love and mercy of Jesus directly with them.

As I was reflecting on this week’s post, I heard the song, “Jesus is a Friend of Mine,” by Aaron Neville. His testimony is amazing: His lengthy music career was interrupted by struggles with drug addiction (including a few prison sentences) before he found deliverance through his faith in Christ. A few thoughts come to me as I listen to this song: remember that God has saved me from sin; remember that “those people” need to hear that same message of grace that saved me; and remember to reach out to them with the love of God. You can find that song at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rN05ClD3vA.

This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Character and Values, Christian Life, Scripture Sabbath | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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