Posts Tagged With: spiritual disciplines

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

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

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