Posts Tagged With: fasting

 
 

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).

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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: , , , | 2 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

Lent: A Time of Renewal

(This is a slightly updated version of post that I originally wrote in 2011.)

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Ash Wednesday, which falls on February 10 this year, begins the season of the church calendar known as Lent. Many Christians think of Lent as a time of fasting. We may give up a favorite food or hobby. In some churches, people give up eating meat on Fridays during Lent (some churches urge their members to give up meat on Wednesdays as well at this time). However, Lent is not just about fasting. It should not be a season for meaningless ritualized self-denial, but a time when we renew our dedication to Christ. This is a prime time for strengthening our devotion to Christ so that we can walk with him throughout the year.

In the early church, the 40 hours preceding dawn on Easter Sunday were set aside for fasting, to commemorate Jesus’ time in the tomb. This eventually led to the 40-day fast that we now know as Lent. This time period is associated with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, when he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:2).

In most Western churches (including the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches that observe Lent), the 40 days include only weekdays and Saturdays. Sundays are always considered “feast days” (in celebration of Christ’s resurrection), so fasting is not required on those days.

In the early church, new converts were usually baptized on Easter. Lent served as a time to prepare for baptism, and the Lenten fast was a significant part of that preparation. For mature believers, it is a good opportunity to renew our baptismal vows or reflect on the significance of our new life in Christ. So, even though Lent call us to reflect on our sinfulness, mortality, and need for a Savior, it should also remind us of our new life in Christ and the ways that we are being transformed from glory to glory.

Many Christians receive ashes, in the shape of a cross, on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. This reminds us that we are created from the dust of the earth, and that we will return to dust, since “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Ash Wednesday reminds us that we needed a Savior to take away the penalty for our sins. Lent reminds us to deny ourselves and take up our cross if we wish to follow Jesus (Matthew 16:34).

It is true that Lent can become a meaningless ritual for some people. Many people give up things that are not important to them. They may give up a food that they enjoy but will probably not miss. For example, I like potato chips…when they are around. However, since I do not buy them too often, I might go weeks without eating any. This would not be a real Lenten fast for me. That might not be as silly as giving up something you do not even like, but it still would not be a genuine fast. There should be some significant sacrifice involved.

On the other hand, we must be careful about legalism in this regard. Observing Lent does not save us, nor does it automatically make someone a better Christian. Although Lent can be a powerful way to seek personal revival and renewal in our walk with the Lord, it is by no means the only way. A Christian who goes on a radical fast during Lent, but neglects his relationship with Christ the rest of the year, is not going to achieve spiritual maturity. Lent is a great time to seek a closer relationship with the Lord, but we must continue to seek that relationship after Easter and throughout the year.

The following are a few suggestions for a meaningful Lent:

First, make your Lenten fast meaningful. Give up a food or activity that will be a real sacrifice. I drink a lot of coffee, so on several occasions I gave that up during Lent. A couch potato might give up watching television for 40 days. Perhaps it will become a permanent lifestyle change. That is not the main goal, though. The goal is to give something up so that we can follow Christ more closely. Ideally, the time that would be spent engaging in a favorite activity can be redirected towards prayer, Bible study, worship, or some other way of drawing closer to Christ.

A helpful Scripture verse in this regard is Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (ESV, emphasis added).

Note that this passage calls us to lay aside both weights and sin. These are two different things. Christians should always be ready to lay aside a sin. If it is a sin (disobedience to a clear command of God, especially spelled out in his Word), we should give it up immediately and permanently. That is not a fast; that is repentance. We should not wait until Ash Wednesday and start again after Easter. However, some things might be a weight on our walk with the Lord, even if they are not necessarily sinful. Many people watch too much television. The nature of the programs may not be bad. They may not be watching vulgar or ungodly programming. But, they might be watching too much television. Television might start to take priority over God and family for them. It weighs down their soul and enchains their time. If you have a weight on your relationship with him, maybe Lent would be a good time to see if you can live without that weight, and to find out what your life would be like if you spent that time serving Christ.

If you choose to fast from a particular food, choose something that will be a realistic sacrifice. OK, maybe you know you will fail if you try to give up coffee for Lent. Maybe chocolate or donuts are more realistic goals for you.

If you are healthy enough, maybe you can consider a more strict fast. Perhaps you may decide to abstain from all solid food for a 24-hour period. Or, you can consider giving up eating anything between breakfast and dinner once or twice per week. One option is a “Daniel fast,” named after the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. This fast involves abstaining from all animal products (no meat or dairy) and sweets, and drinking only water.

I would advise against going on a strict 40-day absolute fast without food. Jesus, Moses, and Elijah went on such fasts, but those were unique circumstances. Most of us are not preparing to die for the sins of humanity or begin writing the Bible. Unless you have received a clear word from the Lord that you should go on such a fast, do not do it. Even if you do receive such a word, seek counsel from a mature Christian leader (a pastor, or another mature believer who will have the wisdom to tell you whether or not you are hearing from God) and a health care practitioner.

Lent should not be just a time to give something up. During your fast, find ways to add spiritual disciplines or activities to your life. If you have never set aside a consistent time for daily prayer, Lent is an excellent time to begin. It would also be a good time to join a small-group Bible study.

During the Lenten fast, devote some time to self-examination and reflection. Pray that the Lord would point out to you areas where you need to grow. If he brings a certain sin to the surface (including either a sinful habitual activity, a bad habit, or an attitude that displeases him), bring it before him in repentance and confession. Seek God’s guidance and help to find victory over and deliverance from this problem area.

Whatever you do, remember that Lent is only a small fraction of the year, and it is not the sum total of your spiritual growth. Allow Lent to be a time to develop new, healthier habits and activities which will produce growth in your faith, and continue to put them into practice throughout the year. Let Lent be a time of new beginnings for you.

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

Categories: Christian Life | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

In Preparation for Lent

NHL's Stanley Cup.

Hockey players do not seem to complain about dead rituals when receiving the Stanley Cup. Why do Christians when we seek spiritual rewards? (Image via Wikipedia)

“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.  For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:5-8, ESV).

Ten days until Ash Wednesday. This is not exactly a season of the church year that excites a lot of people. Advent excites people, mainly because it has been secularized along with Christmas. While Advent should be a time of spiritual preparation (we await the celebration of Christ’s birth, and at the same time reflect on how we await His Second Coming), it has become for most Americans the “Christmas season,” when we invade department stores like hordes of barbarian raiders, go to Christmas parties, and rock out to songs about flying reindeer, talking snowmen, Santa Clause, etc.

Lent, however, has developed a bit of a gloomy reputation. After all, this is a season of self-sacrifice. For some, it is about eating meat on Fridays and giving up a favorite food and/or activity for 40 days: a joyless emphasis on sin and sacrifice. For others, it is a ritual without foundation in Scripture: a dead ritual.

I will address that second perspective first, before responding to the other one. Anybody who cares to observe life will notice that we humans are creatures of habit who gravitate towards rituals. This is true in all areas of life. Gravitating toward ritual is not the same as being ritualistic (if, by that term, one thinks of a person engaging in rituals mindlessly). The following is an example from the world of sports that illustrates this.

Hockey’s Stanley Cup Final is a classic example of ritual in action. We may not think of it as a religious ceremony, but it has many features of one. At the end of any Stanley Cup Finals series, when one team has won their fourth game, the two teams line up at center ice to shake hands. They skate down a line and shake hands with each of their opponents. Sometimes they embrace in a “man hug”; two guys who pummeled each other with their sticks and fists one period ago may suddenly look like the best friends in the world.

Next, a red carpet is rolled out onto the ice, and a pair of caretakers carry the Stanley Cup out for the award ceremony. The NHL’s Commissioner then presents the trophy to the winning team’s captain. He raises the Cup over his head, skates a lap around the ice, and usually kisses the side of the cup. Next, he hands it off to another player. The selection of “player #2” is usually quite significant: it may be a veteran leader who has finally won the Cup after many years in the NHL, or a player who made significant contributions to his team’s success in the series. He repeats the lap around the ice routine. This continues until every player on the team has had a chance to hoist the Cup, kiss it, and skate a lap around the ice.

My point in sharing this is twofold. First, it definitely shows all the marks of a ritual. You know what is about to happen. Second, I have never seen any NHL player complain about having to take part in this ritual. Not a single player who hoists the cup skates around nonchalantly, looking like he would rather go back to his hotel room before Leno comes on the air. Every player–no matter how bruised, beaten, and exhausted he may be–goes through this ritual with joy and enthusiasm. He has worked and waited for years to reach this moment, and he will relish it for a lifetime. They do not view it as an “obligation,” but as a dream come true.

The issue with any ritual is not whether it is a ritual or not. The problem is when we approach it with a negative attitude. Hockey players do not think of it as a ritual when they hoist the Cup. Newlyweds do not usually think of their honeymoon as a “dead ritual with no biblical foundation”; OK, I am sure somebody somewhere must have thought that, and I would be curious about how the marriage turned out.

We should apply this perspective to any ritual in the church. All churches have post-biblical rituals, even those who claim that they follow only the Bible. No matter what church you attend, I am sure you have an order of worship; most likely, that order is found nowhere in Scripture (you cannot find a passage that tells you the exact point in a service when the offering should be collected). Yet, if someone decides to revamp the order of worship, there is usually an outcry: “What is wrong with the way we did it before?”

The rituals are not bad in themselves, but they can become a problem when we focus on them instead of their meaning or purpose. NHL players do not mind the Cup ritual because they are not focused on the routine of carrying a 35-pound piece of metal around on the ice; they are focused on celebrating their achievement. Likewise, Lent can become a boring, tedious ritual of torture if our hearts are not in it.

So, in preparation for Lent, I offer the following suggestions to bring the joy of the Lord into the observance:

  • First, observe it as unto the Lord, not as a mere tradition or ritual. Observe Ash Wednesday, and every other day, as a day for the Lord. Abstain as a means of drawing closer to the Lord.
  • Recognize the purpose of Lent. This is a time when we reflect on our weakness and our need for a Savior. At the same time, it is an opportunity for us to rejoice that God has already given us a Savior, Jesus Christ. Those who have come to believe in Him are already forgiven.
  • Remember that Lent is not a matter of salvation. I have come to view it as a great way for the body of Christ to unite in fasting. Jesus did precede His teaching on fasting by saying “When you fast,” not if (see Matt. 6:16). However, He did not give specific dates that we must fast. Lent is a great, ready-made guideline. However, if you can find another meaningful way of working Lent into your walk with God, that is fine too.
  • Consider the purpose of fasting. Christians tend to fast for different reasons. While I try to schedule regular fasts, I often need a certain focus; “because it’s Friday” is the sort of reason-for-fasting that can easily become boring. One focus for me is based on 1 Corinthians 9:26-27: “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control,lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Although it is not the only reason for fasting, I find that it is helpful as a means of learning and practicing self-discipline.
  • Likewise, we should approach Lent from a perspective of spiritual liberty.
  • This is not an area for judging others. I am not a “better Christian” because I give something up for Lent. On the other hand, those who choose not to observe Lent are not “better Christians” because they forego it. Lent, properly practiced, can be a great means of growing spiritually. However, it is not the only means.

In 10 days, we will receive ashes on our foreheads and begin our Lenten fasts. What will you give up for 40 days? Which spiritual disciplines will you take up or increase for those 40 days? Most importantly, what changes do you hope to see in your relationship with Christ as a result of this 40-day journey?

Categories: Bible meditations | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Prayer, Fasting, and Spiritual Warfare

And He said to them, ‘Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting'” (Matthew 17:20-21, NASB).

“Our Lord here taught us that a life of faith requires both prayer and fasting. That is, prayer grasps the power of heaven, and fasting loosens the hold on earthly pleasure” [Andrew Murray, January 21 reading in Andrew Murray Devotional (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2006), p. 52].

The Supreme Court of the United States handed down one of its most historic and controversial ruling 39 years ago today in Roe v. Wade. This ruling forced legalized abortion on all 50 states in our country, without regard for the will of voters, a plain reading of the Constitution (see the Tenth Amendment, for example), or the revealed will of God.

While many people think we should just accept “a woman’s right to choose” as a fundamental human right according to the laws of the land, a true Christian cannot do that. Fifty million Americans have been killed in the womb since 1973; when one recognizes that life begins at conception, it becomes obvious that this is a Holocaust that far exceeds anything Adolf Hitler dreamed of. As we have done every year since 1973, hundreds of thousands of people will be in Washington, DC tomorrow for the March for Life, speaking out for those who are killed before they have a voice. I, along with a large contingent from my church, will be there.

Pro-Life, March For Life 2008 US Capitol, US S...

March for Life 2006. Image via Wikipedia

Many Christians from diverse denominations will agree that this is the great social cause of our generation. However, many of them will seek the “easy” way of battling abortion. They will vote for a candidate who claims to be “pro-life” (without actually checking his track record to see if his actions line up with his campaign promises), in hopes that he will become the savior of the preborn. Sadly, this has been a failed effort for nearly 40 years, as supposedly “pro-life” politicians have sold out after their elections, compromised their values, and left us hoping for better luck at the next election cycle.

Scripture tells us that many of our conflicts are actually manifestations of a spiritual battle. Ephesians 6:12 tells us that we are wrestling not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual rulers, powers, world forces of darkness, and spiritual forces of wickedness. As a result, we do not rely on natural weapons of warfare, but spiritual ones, while defended by the whole armor of God (2 Cor. 10:4; Eph. 6:13).

This is especially true when we see our society turning further from its Judeo-Christian heritage to a value system that disregards God, religious faith, and traditional morality. Paul wrote his admonitions in 2 Corinthians and Ephesians to Christians living in a hostile culture. While we have not been fed to lions lately, hostility against Christianity has been skyrocketing in recent years in our society.

The simple fact about abortion is this: We cannot trust the government to overturn Roe v. Wade. While some people may think we are only one or two Supreme Court justices away from overturning that ruling, I believe we need three more pro-life justices. Elected officials have failed us before, and they will continue to do so. Even if Roe v. Wade were overturned, that would simply move the abortion battle back to the states.

Until people’s hearts and minds are changed about abortion, it will remain the law of the land. This is where spiritual warfare comes in. We need to begin with the simple weapons of spiritual warfare: prayer, Scripture, proclamation of biblical truth, etc. (For any pro-choice advocates who are reading this, abortion clinic bombings and other forms of violence are NOT forms of spiritual warfare. One cannot be pro-life if he actively seeks to kill or maim his ideological opponents.)

So, I encourage my friends and fellow laborers in the pro-life movement to saturate their efforts with prayer. I believe God is calling us back to a spiritual emphasis in the battle to defend life, and away from a politically-oriented approach. We have spent nearly 40 years wandering in a wilderness of choice and the culture of death. That time period is significant throughout Scripture, and it may apply to America as well. If we are willing to seek spiritual revival in our nation, we can see the hearts of Americans turned back toward a culture of life. Then, political change will follow spiritual and social transformation.

This is, after all, a spiritual battle. Legalized abortion reigns in this land because we have cast aside God’s values for self-centered goals. We cherish comfort, material goods, and freedom of choice. We value individualism (“be your own man”; “follow your heart”) and have rejected the call to follow Jesus. Sadly, this is true within the Church as well as among those who acknowledge that they do not believe in Christ.

So, we need to pray that people’s hearts will be turned to Christ. We need to ask God to change people’s hearts and minds about human life and dignity. We need to take a stand spiritually against the lying demons who have deceived millions into believing that life begins at birth and not at conception.

As we pray, we should be prepared to fast for spiritual renewal. As Andrew Murray noted, “fasting loosens the hold on earthly pleasure.” Perhaps we have been too committed to the gods of our society that we are unable to have any impact on the resulting abortion holocaust. We are not fully devoted to Christ and His call to advance His Kingdom, because we are too tied to the things of this life.

As we draw to God in prayer and fasting, He will give us strength to do spiritual warfare. He will give us a spirit of perseverance, so that we will not lose heart and give up. He will give us direction, so that we will know how to stand steadfast. Finally, He will turn people’s hearts and minds to Him, that they may acknowledge His will, repent of their self-centered values, and follow His Son.

Categories: Bible meditations, Current events, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Principles of Fasting

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that you fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And you Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18, ESV).

Fasting is probably the spiritual discipline that Christians are most likely to avoid. Many of us are willing to begin our day with a “quiet time,” or to set aside time for prayer, Bible reading, worship, or fellowship. Fasting meets resistance, though. If you invite people to join in a fast, there is a strong likelihood that you will hear some creative excuses for not participating. In fact, many churches completely avoid the subject or present it as little more than a noble exercise for Old Testament prophets, New Testament apostles, Jesus, or some wildly ascetic monks. They think that the ordinary Christian is not supposed to fast.

It is important to note, though, that Jesus expects His disciples to fast. In the passage at the top of this article, Jesus did not say, “If you fast.” He clearly said, “When you fast.” For a true disciple, the question is not whether you will fast or not. It is when and how you will fast.

What, exactly, is fasting? A simple definition is: fasting is to abstain from food and/or drink for spiritual purposes. It is not merely to skip a meal, but to consciously commit yourself to self-sacrifice so that you can more fully devote yourself to seeking the Lord.

When we fast, we subdue our physical urges so that our spiritual nature may grow stronger. All humans have several parts to our nature (body, soul, and spirit). We often nourish one part over the others. For example, I might sometimes devote so much attention to caring for my physical well-being that my spiritual life does not get the attention it serves. In fact, human nature being what it is, most of us are much more prone to cherishing our fleshly sides instead of the spiritual. When we fast, though, we put our spiritual needs first. This may be what Paul was speaking of when he wrote, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Some translations substitute words like “buffet,” “beat,” or “subdue” instead of discipline here.

The emphasis during a fast, then, is on spiritual growth, not on weight loss or other physical benefits. During a fast, a Christian should concentrate more attention on his spiritual and moral concerns, giving them higher priority in his life. The person who is fasting chooses to pray, study Scripture, or otherwise connect with the Lord at times when he or she would otherwise be eating. We sacrifice physical strength to learn how to lean on God’s spiritual strength. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:10, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Frequently, when people think of fasts, they envision 40 days and nights in the wilderness. Although it is true that Moses (Exodus 34:28), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), and Jesus (Luke 4:1-2) all fasted in this way, they are the only people in Scripture to do so. None of them made a regular habit of such extensive fasts, either. Jesus went on only one 40-day fast, at the beginning of His public ministry. Elijah went on a 40-day fast at a crisis moment in his ministry and the history of Israel. Moses was the only one who went on two 40-day fasts, both of which were centered around receiving the Law from God. All of these fasts occurred under very unusual circumstances, during true crisis moments in salvation history. Most fasts in Scripture were of a much shorter duration, usually only one or two days.

Many, perhaps most, fasts in the Bible were performed by an entire group, such as the nation of Israel, an army, or a local church. It was not unusual for a spiritual leader to proclaim a fast, and for everybody under his authority to join in.

In addition to the different lengths of time for fasts, there are also different degrees of fasting in the Bible. Some were quite thorough. In many cases, people had only water; in other cases, they had neither food nor drink of any kind. Occasionally, a person or group would abstain from solid foods and drink only liquids.

In Daniel 10:2-3, we read how the prophet fasted for 21 days, abstaining from any “tasty food, meat, or wine. At that time, Daniel probably went on a strict diet of fruit, vegetables, grains, and water. This passage, along with Daniel 1:8-16, provides the biblical foundation for what is known as “the Daniel fast.” [For more information about the Daniel fast, see: Susan Gregory, The Daniel Fast (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2010), or visit her website at www.daniel-fast.com. You can find other excellent resources by searching for “Daniel fast” on any search engine.]

Although not strictly biblical, many traditional churches permit a lighter version of fasting wherein a person abstains from a specific food type during a period of fasting. For example, the Roman Catholic church urges its members to abstain from eating meat on Fridays; fish is permitted, however. During Lent, members may be encouraged to give up one food item. This can be a very good habit to pursue, especially for those who are otherwise uncomfortable or inexperienced with fasting.

When choosing this option of giving up a specific food item, I would urge three specific guidelines: (1) It should be food that you really enjoy. (2) It should be one that you will notice giving up. Do not “give up” something that you rarely eat and will not notice is missing from your diet. (3) Set a goal that is both realistic yet challenging. You should give up a food that you can realistically abstain from for a specific period of time, while ensuring that it involves at least a noticeable (not torturous) sacrifice.

Fasting should be distinguished from other forms of abstinence, which often serve as alternatives to fasting. Such form of abstinence have biblical foundation. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:5, Paul gave instructions for married couples who decide to abstain from sexual relations for a mutually acceptable period of time, so that they may devote themselves to prayer. This advice could easily be extended to other kinds of leisure activities. Most American Christians would profit immeasurably from a television “fast”!

Finally, I believe that fasting should be a lifestyle choice for all Christians. Early Christians fasted to some degree on Wednesday and Friday, which contributed to the development of the season of fasting known as Lent. Although the New Testament never commands a specific time to fast, the principle of regular fasting is scriptural. Such practices, including both regular weekly fasts and periodic longer ones, would be a blessing to any Christian’s spiritual growth.

All Christians should commit themselves to this challenging means of spiritual growth. If you have a specific medical condition (such as diabetes), you should check with your doctor first. Even if you are unable to commit to an intensive fast, you can at least commit to a Daniel fast or a simple abstaining-from-one-food fast that a medical professional would approve.  (Note: A hearty appetite or lack of self-control is not a “specific medical condition”!)

It may also prove helpful to abstain from a favorite activity during your fast days. That way, you can dedicate much more of your time and energy to the Lord. Spend you free time studying God’s Word and praying. Fasting is a challenge, but for those who persevere, it is also a pathway to greater spiritual growth.

Categories: Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Lent: A Time of Renewal

Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 9 this year, begins the season of the church calendar known as Lent. Many Christians think of Lent as a time of fasting. We may give up a favorite food or hobby. In some churches, people give up eating meat on Fridays during Lent (some churches urge their members to give up meat on Wednesdays as well at this time). However, Lent is not just about fasting. It should not be a season for meaningless ritualized self-denial, but a time when we renew our dedication to Christ. This is a prime time for strengthening our devotion to Christ so that we can walk with him throughout the year.

In the early church, the 40 hours preceding dawn on Easter Sunday were set aside for fasting, to commemorate Jesus’ time in the tomb. This eventually led to the 40-day fast that we now know as Lent. This time period is associated with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, when he had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:2).

In most Western churches (including the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches that observe Lent), the 40 days include only weekdays and Saturdays. Sundays are always considered “feast days” (in celebration of Christ’s resurrection), so fasting is not required on those days.

Easter has traditionally been a prime date for the church to baptize new believers. In earlier centuries, new converts were usually baptized on Easter. Lent served as a time to prepare for baptism, and the Lenten fast was a significant part of that preparation. For mature believers, it is a good opportunity to renew our baptismal vows or reflect on the significance of our new life in Christ. So, even though it focuses on our sinfulness, mortality, and need for a Savior, it should remind us of our new life in Christ and the ways that we are being transformed from glory to glory.

Since the second century, many Christians on Ash Wednesday have received ashes, in the shape of a cross, on their foreheads. This reminds us that we are created from the dust of the earth, and that we will return to dust, since “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Ash Wednesday reminds us that we needed a savior to take away the penalty for our sins. Lent reminds us to deny ourselves and take up our cross if we wish to follow Jesus (Matthew 16:34).

It is true that Lent can become a meaningless ritual for some people. Many people give up things that are not important to them. They may give up a food that they enjoy but will probably not miss. For example, I like potato chips…when they are around. However, since I do not buy them too often, I might go weeks without eating any. This would not be a real Lenten fast for me. That might not be as silly as giving up something you do not even like, but it still would not be a genuine fast. There should be some significant sacrifice involved.

On the other hand, we must be careful about legalism in this regard. We are not saved by observing Lent, and Lent does not in and of itself make one Christian better than another. Although Lent can be a powerful way to seek personal revival and renewal in our walk with the Lord, it is not the only way by any means. A Christian who goes on a radical fast during Lent, but neglects his relationship with Christ the rest of the year, is not going to achieve spiritual maturity. Lent is a great time to seek a closer relationship with the Lord, but we must continue to seek that relationship after Easter and throughout the year.

The following are a few suggestions for a meaningful Lent:

First, make your Lenten fast meaningful. Give up a food or activity that will be a real sacrifice. I drink a lot of coffee, so on several occasions I gave that up during Lent. A couch potato might give up watching television for 40 days. Perhaps it will become a permanent lifestyle change. That is not the main goal, though. The goal is to give something up so that we can follow Christ more closely.

A helpful Scripture verse in this regard is Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (ESV, emphasis added).

Note that this passage calls us to lay aside both weights and sin. These are two different things. Christians should always be ready to lay aside a sin. If it is a sin (disobedience to a clear command of God, especially spelled out in his Word), we should give it up immediately and permanently. That is not a fast; that is repentance. We should not wait until Ash Wednesday and start again after Easter. However, some things might be a weight on our walk with the Lord, even if they are not necessarily sinful. Many people watch too much television. The nature of the programs may not be bad. They may not be watching vulgar or ungodly programming. But, they might be watching too much television. Television might start to take priority over God and family for them. It is a weight on their walk with Christ. If you have a weight on your relationship with him, maybe Lent would be a good time to see if you can live without that weight, and to find out what your life would be like if you spent that time serving Christ.

If you choose to fast from a particular food, choose something that will be some sort of realistic sacrifice. OK, maybe you know you will fail if you try to give up coffee for Lent. Maybe chocolate or donuts are more realistic goals for you.

If you are healthy enough, maybe you can consider a more strict fast. Perhaps you may decide to abstain from all solid food for a 24-hour period. Or, you can consider giving up eating anything between breakfast and dinner once or twice per week. One option is a “Daniel fast,” named after the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. While not an absolute “no-food” fast, a Daniel fast involves abstaining from all animal products (no meat or dairy) and sweets, and drinking only water.

I would personally advise against going on a straight 40-day absolute fast without food. Yes, I know Jesus, Moses, and Elijah went on such fasts, but those were unique circumstances. Most of us are not preparing to die for the sins of humanity or begin writing the Bible. Unless you have received a clear word from the Lord that you should go on such a fast, do not do it. Even if you do receive such a word, seek counsel from a mature Christian leader (a pastor, or another mature believer who will have the wisdom to tell you whether or not you are hearing from God) and a health care practitioner.

Lent should not be just a time to give something up. During your fast, find ways to add spiritual disciplines or activities to your life. If you have never set aside a consistent time for daily prayer, Lent is an excellent time to begin. It would also be a good time to join a small-group Bible study.

During the Lenten fast, devote some time to self-examination and reflection. Pray that the Lord would point out to you areas where you need to grow. If he brings a certain sin to the surface (including either a sinful habitual activity, a bad habit, or an attitude that displeases him), bring it before him in repentance and confession. Seek God’s guidance and help to find victory over and deliverance from this problem area.

Whatever you do, remember that Lent is only a small fraction of the year, and it is not the sum total of your spiritual growth. Allow Lent to be a time to develop new, healthier habits and activities which will produce growth in your faith, and continue to put them into practice throughout the year. Let Lent be a time of new beginnings for you.

Categories: Spiritual disciplines, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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