Fasting seems like a great idea until you feel hungry.
I’ve tried to fast more regularly over the last year or so. Jesus seems to expect it of his followers (Matthew 6:16-18), and I’ve heard many speak of it as a key part of their spiritual journey. And yet, while I’ve always understood fasting to be a spiritual discipline, I’ve tended to see it as lesser in importance than other disciplines. If I don’t devote daily time to Bible reading and prayer, I feel off. If I miss a few days of journaling, I can sometimes detect a shift in my perspective. But fasting? Sometimes fasting doesn’t even cross my mind.
So I followed a buddy’s recommendation and tried to set a time each week to practice this discipline. I placed a reminder on my phone’s calendar so I wouldn’t forget, making a choice to form a habit. And initially, I felt great.
Then I would get hungry. Or I would be invited to grab lunch with someone. Or I’d be given food of some kind. Often, the first challenge to my resolve would result in me eating, in a break of the fast. The plan that seemed so simple in theory became increasingly difficult to fulfill in practice.
Ultimately, this is to be expected. Fasting is a clear denial of the self, a deliberate choice to abstain from food in order to seek the Lord, to lay your requests before him, to abide in Christ. When you fast, you embrace temporary discomfort to press into eternal comfort, experiencing the emptiness of your stomach as you open your hands before the Lord. It’s an act of faith, of hope, and of love. And such acts aren’t always comfortable, nor should we expect them to be. Self-denial, even in small measure, may be deeply felt.
But the discomfort of self-denial teaches us. When I see how quickly I break a fast to be filled with food, I realize how deeply I depend upon what is seen and felt and how little I depend upon him who is not so immediately perceived. My failures in fasting reveal my misplaced priorities. But they also provide opportunities for growth. When I see my weakness, I learn to pray for deeper dependence upon the Lord, deeper faith in his provision, deeper love for him. I learn to seek contentment in Christ rather than in my circumstances. I learn to wait on the Lord rather than seeking the speedy fulfilment of my desires.
I’m still not good at fasting, but I want to develop the habit. I want to see more clearly my dependence on the Lord and better understand his provision. I want to grow in faith and hope and love, denying myself a meal to be more deeply satisfied in the Maker. And I pray the Lord would sanctify me in the process.
I don’t mean to suggest that God might fail to provide for his people, that he may somehow lack the power of sufficiency to be for us all we need. He possesses all power and glory, lacking nothing. Objectively, he is enough for us. I’m asking instead whether I recognize his sufficiency and rest in that truth. And the answer, sadly, is that I often don’t.
I’m reading Deuteronomy, and I found myself challenged by a thought I had when reading through chapter ten. After some description of Israel’s journey, Moses writes,
At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD to stand before the LORD to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers. The LORD is his inheritance, as the LORD your God said to him.
The tribe of Levi was given a special role, a particular ministry. God provided for them too, but he did so in a different way than he provided for the other tribes. He was Levi’s inheritance.
I realized as I read that I would have likely felt a bit discontent with my lot if I was a Levite. Instead of considering what might be meant by “The LORD is his inheritance,” my mind fixated on “Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers.” I focused more on what would be withheld than on what would be given, more on the difference in provision than in the provision itself. I read the words “The LORD is his inheritance” and thought, “Would that be enough for me?”
One great benefit of this year has been the shaking of every shakeable foundation. For so many of us, our sources of comfort have been exposed and lost, some for a time and some forever. What once kept us content and happy can do so no longer. And as we panic at the loss of security, we face afresh the question I returned to in my devotional time: Is the LORD enough for me?
I confess that I don’t trust him like I should. I don’t rest in him like I could. I look more to what he’s withheld or taken than to what he’s given. I cling to fleeting things in the face of the eternal. But he gives more grace, allowing further setbacks, further confusions, further losses. And with each new challenge, I’m given the opportunity to love him, trust him, wait for him, hope in him, rest in him, and live for him. He tests my faith that I might grow, shattering all insufficient idols out of love. I’m tired and I’m torn, but I’m thankful, and I pray that I’ll pass the test, that faithfulness will be my response no matter the trial. He is enough. Let me learn to trust him.
While many sayings of Jesus bring great comfort to our souls, some can deeply disturb us. Luke records one such saying.
And [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”
Jesus’s words here call to mind similar texts throughout Scripture. Paul calls believers to be living sacrifices, for example, and the author of Hebrews speaks of enduring in the struggle against sin (Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 12). But what does it mean to deny ourselves? What does it mean to take up the cross? What does following Jesus really entail?
I don’t think denying ourselves means we self-flagellate, depriving ourselves needlessly of joys that God gives. The Lord created a world filled with good things, things that fill us with wonder as we partake. Food, drink, fellowship, art, sport, work, travel—we can enjoy all these and more with thanksgiving. “So,” Paul writes, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). True, we live in a world broken by sin, and we feel in our own bodies the effects of the break. Good things may be twisted, good desires corrupted, good gifts turned to vices. But so long as we do not sin in our partaking, we may partake in worship.
At times, however, we must deny ourselves for the sake of Christ. Sometimes, we deny ourselves the enjoyment of some good thing in order to better serve a fellow Christian (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 10:23-33). At other times, we deny ourselves the pursuit of our own plans in order to submit to the will of the Lord (Proverbs 19:21; James 4:13-17). In these ways, we act out of love for the Lord and for people.
I find myself tending to think of self-denial as singular instances of action rather than as a lifestyle of surrender. In both of the above cases, for example, I can misread the text to pertain only to specific cases, to particular times and places where I have to give up my choice for that of another. But what if self-denial is more of a lifestyle, a settled conviction that the Lord reigns over every desire, every decision, and every direction of my life? How might that change the day to day journey?
Viewing self-denial as a way of life would change how I view persistent desires. The strength and the persistence of a desire may lead me to assume I am justified in pursing the desire’s fulfillment, but such a conclusion does not necessarily follow. Sin finds its root in our desires, growing toward death as we pursue our desire’s fulfillment apart from the Lord’s provision (James 1:13-18). At times, I’ve prayed for some desires to be taken from me, for me to be granted freedom from the struggle. I don’t believe such prayers are wrong. But the Lord may not answer such prayers for relief. Paul, for example, prayed three times for the thorn in the flesh to be removed, for the harassment he underwent to be withdrawn; but the Lord saw fit to leave the thorn, for his purpose was Paul’s sanctification (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). The Lord uses the struggle, our ongoing self-denial, for good, even if we can’t see or understand his purpose in the midst of the fight.
Viewing self-denial as a way of life would also change how I view allegiance to Christ. Relatively speaking, I have not had to sacrifice to the same extent as many other Christians. I stand amidst a mighty throng of martyrs and missionaries, of those who chose Christ over family, friends, health, safety, and life itself. Though all Christians bear crosses, some do seem to have a heavier weight, a fiercer struggle. And when the call of Christ requires your all, when devotion to the Lord means a greater denial than you ever realized you could make, you wonder if Christ is worth it. Ultimately, that’s the question we must answer: is Christ worthy of the greatest extent of self-denial? If pressed, will I surrender my deepest desires, my ties to family and friends, and my comforts and securities in this world for the sake of this Jewish teacher? Is he worth it? Jesus claims that he is: “whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). He even raises a challenge to those of us who doubt: “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:25). More than that, he walked the road before us, suffering on our behalf to save us from slavery to sin and death. His cross was heavier than any he calls us to bear. He can sympathize with us (Hebrews 4:14-16). But he doesn’t just sympathize with us; he changes us for good (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Admittedly, we could embrace our desires, follow our dreams, and live according to our plans. That option remains on the table. But what do we really gain, especially if we lose ourselves in the process? Furthermore, who has the Lord ever cheated? Who has the Lord ever failed? Who has come to the end of a life of faithful service and concluded, “The Lord was not enough”? If God has promised to provide for our needs as we seek his kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6), then, though we may feel a lack of some good thing, we will have all we truly need. He knows best, and his love and faithfulness have already been sufficiently proven (Romans 5:1-11; Romans 8).
Self-denial, if understood as a way of life, will require far more than we may be comfortable surrendering. And I think that’s part of the point. Jesus didn’t downplay the seriousness of the path of the kingdom because he knew the gain far outweighed the losses. Paul understood this point well, forsaking any earthly gain and rejoicing in any present weakness for the joy of knowing Christ (Philippians 3; 2 Corinthians 12). The twelve disciples faced persecution and death for their allegiance to Christ, and they rejoiced. The people of God are a people of peace, peace that surpasses any counterfeit offered by sin. So we need not fear self-denial for the sake of Christ. We may mourn the losses we experience in this life, but we may bear our crosses with joy. We are the followers of the Son of God, those called from death to life, those made sons and daughters of the King. Let us not fear the loss of this world; we stand to gain our souls.
Some hopes are dashed upon the throne of grace, Are lifted up in pray’r to be denied. And though it seems the Father hides his face, We need not fear that he will not provide. But his provision oft is of a kind Perceived unkind while in the midst of loss. What he deems “need” is diff’rently defined. Sometimes the crown is traded for the cross. But crosses borne in faith will always form Our souls as needed, so we need not fret. His grace suffices for the fiercest storm. None who trust full in him shall feel regret. But it is faith—not sight—that shows the way. God is our shepherd. We need ne’er dismay.
You submit your request to God, trusting that he knows best but hoping he’ll fulfill your desire. But he doesn’t.
I’ve wondered before if he doesn’t grant my requests because I’m asking wrongly. James wrote of this problem, defining the error as asking “to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). So I’ve prayed for the Lord to help me to ask rightly, to purify my desires. I’ve been convicted of sins and have repented of idolatry. I’ve begun to think about prayer differently, reevaluating my intentions and goals as I bring my requests to the Lord. But sometimes his answer remains “No.”
I’ve also wondered if he doesn’t grant my requests because of my lack of faith. Maybe I’m just not trusting him enough. Maybe I’m failing to exhibit the faith spoken of in Hebrews 11. Maybe I give up too quickly and simply need to be persistent in prayer like the widow in Luke 18. So I’ve prayed more boldly, more persistently, more hopefully. I’ve begun to consider what praying in faith might mean, how long persistent prayer should typically last, what the Lord had in mind when he taught on prayer. But sometimes his answer remains “No.”
I rarely understand the reason for his “No.” I’ve questioned, sought, wondered, and cried, but I don’t have many answers. But I have a history of experiences that testify to the goodness and faithfulness and love of God. Though I often didn’t understand his purposes in such seasons, I can look back and see how every “no” was for good reason. I also have a deeper love of the Lord and trust in him borne from extended seasons of unfulfilled desires. As I waited on him, he shaped my soul, humbled my heart, and renewed my mind.
I haven’t risen above the fear and worry that often come when God withholds what I request of him. I’m far from perfect faithfulness. But I think, by the grace of God, I’m growing. I reflect on his work in my life thus far, and I am comforted. His answer may be “No,” but his purpose remains good. So I have hope for all present and future circumstances, hope grounded not in what I can see or feel in the moment but in what I know to be eternally true: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1).
I believe reading the Bible is important, but I don’t always devote the time to read it well. Granted, I’ve gotten better over the years, generally improving as I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work for me. But I still feel like I could be doing more.
Ideally, I spend some time in the early morning reading through a couple of chapters, underlining things that stand out and making notes. This helps me process what I’m reading, working it into my mind and heart. And while this is good, I sometimes abbreviate the process for time. I’ll just read one chapter, moving quickly through it without making any marks on the page. I’ll try to find a thought to keep chewing on as I go, but I’m often not really focused. I’m checking my Bible reading off of my daily to do list rather than truly seeking communion with the Lord of hosts.
Sometimes schedules can’t be helped. While the uncertainties of life and the irregularity of schedules make the prioritization of time with the Lord all the more important, these realities can also lead us to get creative with our approach to Scripture. I’ve found two approaches to be particularly helpful.
Scripture memory Some friends from college used to memorize Scripture while they worked out, reciting verses between reps. Seeing them internalize the Bible encouraged me to pursue Scripture memory more intentionally, something I hadn’t done consistently since high school. While I’m still not good at it, I’ve found that memorization is a profoundly meaningful discipline. No matter where I am, I can think through a memorized passage of Scripture, repeating it in my mind and chewing on its meaning and implications. The more you go over a passage, the more you see in the text. You’ll spot connections you hadn’t noticed before, find encouragement you didn’t realize you needed, and be challenged to trust in all circumstances. Memorization can be a daunting exercise, but it doesn’t have to be. Chances are you’ve already got some lines of Scripture committed to memory simply by way of repeatedly coming across them over the years. Pick a favorite passage and read over it often, working it into your mind and heart as you do.
Listening I’ve recently been enjoying the Dwell Bible app. Dwell collects passages of Scripture on various subjects into playlists of varying lengths, making it easy to spend some focused time on a specific biblical theme or story. It also offers listening plans for working through larger sections of Scripture. By allowing you to jump into any chapter in the Bible, Dwell makes consuming the Bible easy. I usually put a few playlists or passages on a queue to listen to as I fall asleep, allowing me to focus on the Bible at the end of the day. I tend to get more from physically reading the Bible than from listening to the Bible, but I’ve still found listening to be a tremendous help to my spiritual life.
The Lord is faithful to use his Word in our lives, whether we approach it through the physical page, the memorized passage, or the audible playlist. In each case, as we turn our attention to the Bible, we meet the truth and are changed. So don’t beat yourself up if you can’t seem to maintain the consistency you’d like in your devotional readings. Keep pursuing faithfulness, adjusting your schedule as you can to make time for what is of utmost importance. And don’t be afraid to incorporate some fresh ways of ingesting the Bible into your daily life.