As I write these words, the liturgical season of fasting is two days away. Traditionally, this 40-day prelude to Easter Sunday served as a period of intense prayer and fasting for converts to the Christian faith. Over the centuries, both Byzantine and Roman churches formalized liturgical calendars and added ecclesiastical rules and traditions – including mandatory fasting, ritualized worship and alms-giving.
However, it should be noted that gloom and deprivation have never been fasting in the fast – repentance, growing in holiness and an appreciation of grace have always been central themes. An Orthodox Vespers hymn declares, “Let us begin fasting time with joy … let us fast from passions, when we fast from food and rejoice in the good words of the Spirit … now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the time for repentance. “
Romans 14 argument
Of course, the Reformed or Baptist contradiction to such practices is that we are biblically called to live that way continually. Throughout the Bible, we are encouraged to live lives worthy of the call we have received (Ephesians 4: 1), to be attentive and self-controlled (1 Thessalonians 5: 6) and to walk in continual repentance (“keep short accounts”). with God, ”as my pastor would say). We need to exercise self-control and the other fruits of the Spirit all year long and not just in the six weeks between Mardi Gras and Easter. In no other church do you find emphasis on daily scripture reading and private devotional prayer (the ubiquitous “quiet time”) that we evangelists do. In fact, many non-liturgical churches do not worship on Good Friday – the meaning of the cross is a daily reality in life. Isn’t every day considered equal (Romans 14: 5)? Therefore, the spirit of fasting (repentance; reflection on the cross; spiritual discipline) is one that we should continually live by.
In addition, does not compulsory spiritual practice lapse all purpose behind them? Isn’t that what the Pharisees did? If you force someone to fast or abstain from meat by telling them that they are in sin if they “break the rules”, haven’t you just put them under another bondage? Furthermore, we are free from all dietary restrictions under the new covenant. And we Protestants might argue that personal conversion and solemnity are something we practice every time we observe the Lord’s Supper, which is often reduced to an empty ritual in a more liturgical setting. We do not have to devote just 40 days a year to “act holy”.
In theory, of course, this is true. Despite these arguments, there is an unpleasant truth that sits a lot in modern American evangelism: what used to be known as “Discipline” is now referred to as “Legalism”.
Christian Liberty is not a license to sin, so ….
Among other things, Paul Washer has been slowly discussing our general spiritual ease. As the demographic group that legitimized the wearing of flip-flops to the church, we evangelists collectively miss the “reverence” badge. In general, so much emphasis is placed on it Grace over the past two generations, little talked about sanctification in the modern church. In the early 20th century, Deitrich Bonhoffer fulfilled the concept “cheap grace” to describe the apathetic lack of conviction among the “how-much-can-I-get-away-with-and-still-come-to-heaven” crowd. Many of us really want to live for Christ, and although we may be quite sweet, we do not deny that we have become soft. Hence the term “Evan-jellybean” – and no; I did that does not make it up.
To put it bluntly, we Evangelicals (even of the more Reformed sort) are not notoriously good at self-discipline, perhaps because we have had verses like Romans 14:17, Ephesians 2: 8-9 and Galatians 5: 1a drummed into us ever since we first walked down the aisle in another call. But we tend to downplay the other half of the verse just quoted: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be burdened again by the yoke of slavery. “ (Galatians 5: 1; emphasis on mine). Repeatedly Paul says that the believer is not to be “mastered” by anything but to live a life in it self-monitoring. This is a theme that comes up again and again when counseling Christians struggling with addiction.
Produces fruit by staying the other way around – Matt. 3: 8 (… and self-control is a fruit of the Spirit)
So what does this have to do with fasting? For starters, we are human beings. Developing or “putting on” god-loving practices is something we develop through repeated, conscious practice (Ephesians 4:22). It makes sense to pursue a deeper relationship with Christ (which requires obedience to Him) both separately and company with the rest of the body (Hebrews 10: 24-25). I suppose Lenten observations partially caught on because most Christians in the early European church were illiterate, and therefore small Bible studies were out of the question. Believers who had limited access logos, God’s word, didn’t have much to go on in terms of ‘personal conviction’ (another of our favorite concepts). Necessity probably dictated a standardized, corporate means of practicing the spiritual disciplines. (Maintenance agriculture may also have played a practical role). While Ordinance of fasting is not biblical principle it is decided.
Make it personal….
Okay, I have those 5 suns down and I’m digging Spurgeon. So why should a colored-in-wool, Calvinist-inclined Baptist like myself consider the potential spiritual benefits of fasting this year? To answer this question, let me quote the (very reformed) Jerry Bridges in “Respectable sins”:
“What is self-control? It is a governance or careful control of one’s desires, cravings, impulses, feelings and passions. It says no when we say no. It is moderation in legitimate desires and activities and absolute restraint in areas that completely clearly is sinful …. Biblical self-control is not a product of one’s own natural willpower. Biblical self-control … covers every area of life and requires an incessant conflict with the passions of the flesh that wage war on our souls (see 1 Peter 2 : 11). This self-control is dependent on the influence and enabling of the Holy Spirit. It requires continual exposure of our minds to the Word of God and continuous prayer for the Holy Spirit to give us both the desire and the power to exercise self-control. ”
Discipline in time management
Bridges touch on two disciplines necessary for self-control: prayer and Biblical reading. These are usually to some degree disciplines lacking in the Christian life (including mine). Obviously, developing a commitment to one’s devotion need not happen during fasting. However, reflection and prayer are the whole purpose behind tradition, so the discipline of time management seems to be a logical area to surrender to God during this period. If you have slack in your prayer life, you will regress spiritually. There are only two possible directions in the Christian life: forward or backward. Especially if you are involved in ministry, all activity must flow out of your private life before the throne.
Being undisciplined with my time has a direct impact on my spiritual life. When I am not at work or involved in the immediate needs of childcare, I am much more likely to write, read Christian blogs, listen to podcasts or even just hang out on Facebook than I read the Bible these days. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. Add ministry and an upcoming certificate course in biblical counseling in the mix, and without a dynamic prayer life, I would be dead in the water (not to mention wide open for spiritual attack). By squeezing intermittent prayer around frenetic activity, everyone will be defeated and sucked dry. If there is a season tailored for repentance and discipline, why not take advantage of it? I plan to get back into a daily plan for study, prayer and limiting “screen sucking” time in favor of more productive endeavors – such as keeping the house clean!
Mastering our appetite
Elsewhere in the chapter, Bridges shows how a lack of discipline in one area of life weakens the resolve of others (he uses the example of constantly indulging his craving for ice cream), and in the end, all areas where we have a weakness are spiritual issues. . I have written:
“I’m not trying to put a guilt trip on those who enjoy ice cream or soda, or even those who go to Starbucks every day for their favorite coffee drink. What I address is our lack of self-control – a tendency to spoil our desires, so they control us, instead of controlling those desires. ”
Many years ago, I listened to a very articulate and God-fearing Orthodox priest who explained to his congregation one of the purposes of fasting in this area. Although I certainly wanted some theological differences with him, I made a good point: we modern humans have become so used to excess in all things that evil has become the norm. He did not speak exclusively about our eating habits, although it is certainly a big part of our “consumer culture”. If we believe that this surrender does not affect our spiritual life, we grind ourselves. Fasting is a period when we can voluntarily remove the excess and cling to what is truly life-sustaining. The rigidity of fasting (a practice maintained in Scripture – see John Piper’s) “A hunger for God” for a discussion of fasting) is symbolic of the believer’s absolute dependence and longing for God and his will.
I was reminded of that sermon yesterday, after a weekend of indulgence …. a restaurant meal to celebrate a birthday, followed by pizza and cake at my daughter’s “real” party; the required chocolate on Valentine’s Day, cut off by ample leftovers from church missions baking sales …. while thousands starve in Haiti. Eating is, of course, morally neutral – but how much overeating is allowed before a lack of self-control? As someone who advises eating disordered women (and a former bulimic myself), I realize this is a sensitive topic and I want to go cautiously. Jack Hughes says in his excellent 5-part series, “When Eating Becomes Sin”:
“Nevertheless, because the Bible speaks of eating, pampering, self-control, self-discipline, evil, and other related sins, we need to be able to address this issue without fearing men.”
Most of us, if we are honest, could use a little restraint in our eating habits – if only to become more self-controlled and disciplined people “not enslaved by all kinds of desires and joys” (Titus 3: 3). Although self-denial for its own sake is not fasting, Jesus’ comments in Matthew 6 have it clear fasting is a normative part of the Christian life. Lending just brings it into the collective consciousness, and what is a private discipline can be accomplished corporate – or individually. The most important thing to remember about fasting, no matter how you choose to fast, is that the heart setting is what matters most. Fasting without praying is simply dieting. There is no inherent merit in leaving food, and the purpose is never to see how long you can actually go without eating. Fasting means seeking a deeper conversion and stronger fellowship with your Savior who takes precedence over food or other activities (see John 4:34). That is it does not a brand of uber-spirituality.
The weeks before Resurrection Sunday may be what you make of them – a journey of growth and reflection; increased worship and appreciation of Christ’s redeeming love; and a certain season to pray more regularly and practice the other spiritual disciplines. For some, it will inevitably mean a list of “do’s and don’ts”; rule by rule, any month-plus with waiting until Marshmallow Peeps come out of the stores and they can eat chocolate again without the slightest twist of guilt. Observing fasting is not mandatory, but it is as good a time as any to get back to the basics of our walk with the Lord.
Personally, this Evanjellybean will be able to say with Paul, “For I decided not to know anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified,”(1 Corinthians 2: 2), and for that purpose, I intend to turn away from apathy and get back into the habit of persecuting God with a passion … as I did in my early years as a Christian. No, I’m not turning into a vegan this month, and since I don’t drink or watch TV, the cliche things to “give up” are no longer options. Instead, I plan to spend more time with God and cultivate greater discipline in 1) how I spend my time (less Internet; more Bible study); 2) my eating habits (can a person really live without junk for 6 weeks? We are about to find out); and 3) a daily commitment to prayer – which is an incredible privilege and not a daunting task. Of course, there is grace when we fail, and God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12: 9); but we have the promise that God rewards those who sincerely seek Him (Hebrews 11: 6). What is the reward?
Friendship with himself.
It doesn’t get any better than that.