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.
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.
Have you ever been discontent with your own discontentment?
Many life experiences can bring about discontentment. Maybe it’s your job situation. You can’t seem to find a position that fits, you aren’t being compensated for the extra work you’ve been given, or you were let go in spite of hopes to continue on. Or maybe it’s your relationship status. The relationship in which you invested has come to an end, or maybe the relationship you now have doesn’t fulfill you like you’d hoped. Or maybe it’s your church. You find division where there should be unity, arrogance where there should be humility, distractions where there should be devotion. You can fill in the blank with almost anything. Discontentment isn’t rare.
A strange thing can occur in some cases, however. As time passes, you may find yourself becoming discontent with your own discontentment. You know the Lord is your provider, that he gives peace and joy in abundance. Yet you can’t seem to shake the feelings of discontentment, and you feel ashamed. You feel as if you should be past this, as if your struggle shouldn’t last so long. You feel weak for still feeling so helpless.
True, we shouldn’t grow content with discontentment. A healthy dissatisfaction with the state of mind is right and good. However, we needn’t hold ourselves to unhealthily high standards. I sometimes feel as if I ought to stifle any emotions that have overstayed their welcome, denying or overlooking any feelings that persist beyond a comfortable time frame. But such an approach is unrealistic. We progress at different paces, adjust to new seasons in various ways, and heal more slowly than we’d like sometimes. Because of this, feelings of discontentment may indeed last longer than we think they should, and such extended seasons can humble us.
Thankfully, the solution to discontentment remains the same: the power of Christ. As Paul expressed by his personal testimonies in 2 Corinthians 12 and Philippians 4, the power of Christ enabled him to face any situation with contentment, even extended suffering. In all seasons, Paul understood that the Lord was his shepherd, his provider, his protector. Faith in this truth freed Paul from looking to anything else as a source of contentment.
Finding contentment in Christ doesn’t necessarily mean seasons will pass more quickly. It won’t make life easier. You’ll still be bummed sometimes, still be hurt sometimes, still struggle to feel okay sometimes. And I think that’s part of the point. As we feel deeply the strangeness of this world, we see clearly its inability to be for us all we’d like it to be. The insufficiency of the world reminds us of the sufficiency of Christ. So look to Christ. No matter the circumstance, look up to the Savior. In your weakness, he is strong.
When I consider pain in relation to theology, my mind often runs to James 1:2-4. There, James calls Christians to “count it all joy” when tests of faith arise, for such tests produce steadfastness leading to maturity. Closely related to James’s words there are Paul’s words in Romans 5:3-5, where Paul traces the process from suffering to endurance to character to hope. In short, God works all things for good, even difficult things (Romans 8:28).
Until recently, my understanding of this process has been somewhat simplistic. Pain arises, faith is tested, and we respond, either passing the test and growing in maturity or failing the test and remaining where we are. In theory, the process shouldn’t take too long.
But what do we do when the season doesn’t end? What happens when uncertainty or sadness or pain last longer than anticipated? What might God be doing in extended periods of difficulty?
I don’t claim to hold every answer to such questions. The answers may well vary based on the specifics of each situation. But I think I’m starting to see a piece of God’s purpose for ongoing seasons of difficulty and discomfort. I think God, in part, uses such times to redirect our hopes.
I’ve noticed, for example, that distress drives me to seek comfort somewhere, often in a person or a place or a thing that makes me feel safe. At times, however, God removes such sources of comfort from my life and, in their absence, leaves me with only my pain and with himself. Then, and perhaps only then, I begin to understand the sufficiency of his grace, his provision, his comfort. By removing my earthly securities, he reveals my over-reliance on them, disciplining me as he leads me to rest in him alone. He lovingly tests my faith to show my faith’s weakness. Then he begins to strengthen it. But the process takes time. As James highlights steadfastness, so Paul highlights endurance, both emphasizing the ongoing nature of the lessons.
It isn’t just that God knows what is best and has a better plan for us than any we can conceive, though those statements are true; it’s that God himself is best. When the Lord’s work includes the death of a dream, the loss of a hope, or the absence of a security, his goal isn’t merely to shift our gaze from a good earthly thing to a better earthly thing; his goal is to get us to shift our gaze to himself. He is the best thing, the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:16-17), the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3). Our needs and our desires ultimately find their true fulfillment in him. And our hearts may not learn this lesson quickly. So he makes us wait, working through the suffering and the waiting to produce character and hope. “And hope,” Paul writes, “does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
C. S. Lewis wrote of the way the Lord uses pain to show us our weakness as well as to show us the insufficiency of any earthly thing to satisfy us (see his books The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed). Furthermore, because God is good, he will not stop until his work is finished. Though painful, the work will result in healing. Though extended, the suffering will be proven worthwhile. Through the testing of our faith, the Lord makes us more like Christ and draws us closer to himself, doing us a greater good by far than if he simply granted our wishes or met our demands. His is a work of love, deeper and truer than we may presently understand. So hope in him. Trust in him. And find comfort in him.
Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!
The topics of peace and division have been on my mind lately. In part, this is due to some of my research along those lines this semester (see last week’s post for more on that). But the themes are present outside of the classroom as well. Online interactions show us that division is prevalent in our world, and the bitterness with which people divide makes peace seen almost a myth. And sadly, the church isn’t immune from such struggles to live in unity.