Making Fasting Matter

empty plate on a bare table

Have you ever considered the fact that fasting is something Christians do in the New Testament? We often associate fasting with the Old Testament since it had periods of required fasting. The New Testament commands no such observances, but we find fasting listed along other traditions of worship we are familiar with.

Acts 14:23 says:

When they had appointed elders in every church and prayed with fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

This is toward the end of Paul’s first missionary journey, and it gives us an apostolic example of early Christians participating in fasting. In this case it’s coupled with prayer. Acts 13:2 – 3 contains similar language: “They were worshipping and fasting,” and, “After fasting and praying.” The apostles obviously had a tradition of fasting before important spiritual decisions or events.

Jesus also fasted. In the beginning of Matthew 4, we can read that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights prior to facing Satan. I’ve often heard this taught as Satan approaching Jesus at His weakest, but have you ever considered the fact that Jesus might have fasted to prepare for this encounter. Just as the apostles would later fast before important events, here we see Jesus possibly doing the same.

When to Fast

When is it appropriate for Christians to fast? While there’s no hard-and-fast “on the first day of the week” passage for fasting like there is for the memorial, I believe we see evidence that fasting can be done individually or collectively. Both examples in Acts see Paul and his friends fasting together. Just as we can pray both individually and collectively, we can fast alone or together.

Also based on these examples, there’s no prescribed time for fasting. Paul and the apostles did it prior to some big undertakings. Jesus fasted before facing Satan. Individuals in the Old Testament also fasted in times of mourning and repentance. Fasting is an opportunity to grow closer to God, so the best time to fast is when you need that closeness most. That’s why prayer and fasting go hand-in-hand. It’s an act of removing something you take for granted or rely on and replacing that thing with God.

What to Give Up

When I think of fasting, I most often think of food. I think you can make the case, however, that fasting isn’t limited to eating.

I Corinthians 7:4 – 5:

A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does. Do not deprive one another sexually — except when you agree for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

When Paul says, “Do not deprive one another…except when you agree for a time to devote yourselves to prayer,” it certainly seems like a form of fasting. In this case, the couple fast from physical intimacy for a time.

The point is that fasting requires a serious commitment. It’s not about giving up something trivial for a week; it’s about disciplining yourself by removing something meaningful and important. Like the monetary offerings we see in the New Testament, what you give up is between you and God. Maybe one person will give up all social media for a period of time while another takes their fast more literally and gives up food.

How to Fast

Jesus and Paul both have some guidelines for us when it comes to fasting. For example, Paul warns against self-denial for the sake of false holiness in Colossians 2:18 – 23:

Let no one disqualify you, insisting on ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm and inflated without cause by his unspiritual mind. He doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, develops with growth from God. If you died with the Messiah to the elemental forces of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? All these regulations refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are commands and doctrines of men. Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence.

Basically, Paul is saying that fasting of any sort should not be outwardly enforced, nor does it serve as evidence of holiness in and of itself. I Timothy 4:1 – 5 makes a similar claim, that we should be careful of anyone regulating specific foods from which to abstain. These things can feel pious, but Paul says they’re not.

Jesus says, in Matthew 6:16 – 18:

Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The idea here is the same as Jesus’ teachings on prayer and benevolence. When you fast, it’s between you and God, not between you and everyone else. When you fast, it’s not my business what you are giving up, unless you need me to know so I can support and encourage you. In fact, Jesus says that no one should even be able to tell we’re fasting based on appearance or behavior.

So What About Lent?

At this point, Lent becomes an elephant in the virtual room. Should Christians observe Lent? My only response is that it’s between you and God. That comes with a caveat: that we all understand that Jesus nor His apostles command the observance of Lent in the New Testament. Then we can apply Romans 14:5 – 8:

One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, yet he thanks God. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

If your conscience moves you to observe Lent, then do so in the ways we see Paul and Jesus observe and teach about fasting. If your conscience steers you away from Lent, then abstain. Do not judge the brother or sister who does observe, nor should the one who observes judge the one who does not. Both are acceptable to God as long as their motivations and conduct remain pure.

Fasting, Spirituality, and Self-Discipline

I Corinthians 9:24 – 27:

Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a crown that will fade away, but we a crown that will never fade away. Therefore I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

To me this is the at the heart of fasting. It is an act of self-discipline that trains us to be self-disciplined in the Lord. The act of giving something up that is meaningful to you takes self-discipline. Sticking to it for a predetermined period of time takes self-discipline. If you are able to keep your fast quiet, that takes self-discipline. If you’re not letting a fast affect your behavior, that takes self-discipline. All of this helps us bring ourselves under control so that we will exercise self-control in all of our conduct.

Fasting can also bring us closer to God if we really are giving up something meaningful and replacing it with study and prayer. It puts us in a place to turn to God when we might most miss something of this world, and it helps put the things of this world in perspective. Whether you are giving up meals for a couple of weeks or turning off all screens for a month, fasting helps remind all of us that we need God more than we need the things of this world.

 

 

“It’s Your Problem”

I see stuff like this all the time on Facebook:

If you don’t like what I post, then it’s your problem. Just delete me if you don’t like what I write because I’m just being myself, and you should go away if you can’t handle it.

Or I see and hear things like:

If I can’t be myself on Facebook, it’s ridiculous. I wish people at church would stop trying to change me. I am who I am, and if they can’t handle it, they shouldn’t be friends with me on Facebook. It’s their problem if they can’t take me for who I am.

To an extent, I can see where these attitudes are coming from. There are people I know, some even pretty close to me, who assume ulterior motives to nearly every lesson I give and every post I write. They have good foundation for their biases but have never come to the realization that I’ve grown and changed since they formed their opinions. They assume the worst of me, and there’s nothing I can do about it outside of trying to keep my conduct and attitudes as good as possible.

On the other hand, we need to remember what the scriptures say about the examples we set to our fellow Christians and to the world around us. Paul, in Romans 15, says we should bear others’ burdens, and he goes on in I Corinthians 8 to warn us against wounding the consciences of our fellow Christians. If I’m causing a brother or sister to stumble, instead of digging my heels in, I need to evaluate myself. We’re to be living peaceably with those around us, and an “it’s your problem” attitude is anything but peaceable.

It’s easy to have knee-jerk reactions. It’s easy to see faults in those who share their concerns with us. It’s easy to push back. As Christians, we should be striving for something better. In this case, it’s a little bit of self-evaluation, a little bit of self-adjustment. We have to ask ourselves what’s more important – preserving our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ or our pride.

Loving Controversy: Revisited

Recently, I spent some time looking at the problem with loving controversy. That, along with some other stuff I’ve recently read online, prompted me to write a bit about online arguments on my personal blog. This, of course, brought me back here and studying about a Christian’s attitude toward arguing. Before I jump into some scripture, I want to give you some of the background that keeps this in my mind, so you understand where my concerns are coming from. Please note, I’m going to open up here and let you have a peek into the real me. If that makes you squeamish, close your eyes until you get to the third heading.

The Backstory

Like any good online citizen, I don’t only blog. I also belong to a couple of online communities. I don’t jump onto every social network available, but I’m active in three particular ones:

  • Pleonast. This was my first social network. It’s supposed to be like MySpace for Christians.
  • Twitter. I joined Twitter shortly after is opened and have made several new contacts through it.
  • Facebook. I was most hesitant to join this one. I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

In all of these networks, I link to my various blogs when I post something new. I’ve noticed a troubling pattern, though. Whenever I post something of a spiritual nature, it gets few hits and few responses. In contrast, whenever I post something that even remotely touches on the topic of politics, it gets a lot of hits and numerous responses – mostly negative because, I’ll admit, my personal political philosophies are contrary to those of many Christians. I want others to understand where I’m coming from, so I write, not necessarily caring whether or not I change any minds. I just want to share a different perspective.

By the way, do you see the problem yet?

Spelling It Out

All of my friends on Pleonast consider themselves Christians. The vast majority of my Facebook friends consider themselves Christians. I think my only substantially non-Christian community is Twitter, and I link to few of my spiritual posts there. (Specifically, on Twitter, I only link to the posts that I author myself.) The expected outcome, then, would be that posts on spiritual matters would receive the largest amount of hits, for the vast majority of my contacts consider themselves to be spiritual individuals.

That doesn’t happen, though. If I track hits from Facebook alone, one of my political posts will generate ten to twenty times the hits of a spiritual post. In fact, a post I recently wrote about my favorite Obama myths generated more traffic from Facebook in a day than this blog will generate in a couple of weeks – and I link two or more posts from this site every week on Facebook. Let that sink in for a bit. One silly post about Obama easily outpaces the collected effect of four posts on this site – among a primarily Christian audience!

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. It’s not like my Facebook or Pleonast friends are unfamiliar with my political views. It’s not like I link only posts I think will be (unintentionally) controversial while withholding those that would be edifying. The conclusion is that many of my fellow Christians are ignoring spiritual nourishment but willfully pursuing content they already know will rile them. They are seeking out reasons to be angry.

What Do We Seek?

What are you seeking when you are online? Research? News? Distraction? God’s word has a few things to say about the things we seek in this life.

  • Proverbs 2:4 encourages us to seek God’s wisdom as a treasure.
  • Proverbs 8:17 says those who love God seek Him unendingly.
  • Matthew 6:33 calls on us to seek God’s kingdom before anything else.
  • I Corinthians 10:24 and I Thessalonians 5:15 say we should seek ways to help and benefit others.
  • Colossians 3:1 tells us we should seek things above.
  • I Peter 3:11 encourages us to seek and relentlessly pursue peace.

We’re good at this when we’re at worship services. We may even be good at this when we look for books to read or choose activities with our Christian friends. When we embark into that hive of scum and villainy that is the Internet, however, all bets are off. The Internet has a profound affect on Christians, and it’s seldom a good one.

We are quick to remind our children that they are still Christians when they are at school. We easily remind each other that the workplace doesn’t negate our Christianity. We know that we still have to behave like Christians when playing sports. We would do well to remind ourselves that we are also still Christians when online. If we truly reflect the name we wear, then what we seek online will closely resemble the things we seek when we open our Bibles.

Again, I can’t help but come back to Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Do we seek what is true online? Do we pursue that which is honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or praiseworthy? Or are all bets off the moment we launch our favorite web browser? Is the Internet merely a place to waste our times with our favorite games and yell at people who don’t see eye-to-eye with us on every worldly issue? Put another way: what would Jesus browse?

The Final Word

This kind of stuff has almost caused me to abandon this blog more than once. I wonder why I bother when not even those who consider themselves Christians can spare a moment to read something edifying while they go out of their way to seek controversy. In fact, I only link to this blog on Pleonast now, and I seldom visit anyone else’s page. Too much negativity and arguing exists there. What’s the point? Why do I keep banging my head against the wall when I see so many fellow Christian seem so disinterested in God’s word when they are online?

You might notice I haven’t said much about Twitter. Again, I only link to this blog on Twitter when the post is original to me – not when I’m sharing my notes of someone else’s lesson. Of my Twiter followers, only a handful identify themselves as Christians, but here’s the thing. One link on Twitter outpaces Facebook traffic by a factor of ten. Here are people who, by and large, have never met me face to face. Many of them don’t share my religious views, yet more of them visit this blog than my friends and family on Facebook. That keeps me going here: the knowledge that I’m reaching someone in some small way.

What are you seeking from day to day? What do your activities look like online? Do you spend your time looking for political controversies? Do you look for arguments to join? Do you seek out reasons to be angry? If you are, just stop it. Exercise a modicum of self-control, and reject the negativity and distractions of this world. Instead, seek out things that will edify you. Do this, and the will to argue will dissipate. Seek out things that generate peace and unity. Let your online habits be as nurturing to your spiritual growth as your church attendance. Seek Him first.

Loving Controversy

I once had a fellow Christian say to me, upon stirring up some political argument or another, “I love controversy.” Now, we all create controversy at times, especially if we have opinions on anything. The very act of teaching Christ’s word can cause controversy among some, but I’m not sure we are necessarily supposed to love the controversy.

The wisdom literature has little kind to say about one who stirs up controversy and contention.

  • Proverbs 18:19 warns that contentions are like the bars of a castle.
  • Proverbs 15:18 says it is a wrathful heart that stirs up strife.
  • Proverbs 10:12 says controversy results from hatred.
  • Proverbs 16:28 warns that strife comes from a dishonest heart.
  • Proverbs 17:19 says one who love controversy loves transgression.

The writers of Proverbs go on to warn that strife separates friends in 16:28, that dry morsels in quiet are better than feasting among contention in 17:1, and that strife is like opening flood gates and should be stopped before it’s started.

The Proverb writers then offer contrasts from which we could learn much. Back in Proverbs 15:18 encourages us to be slow to anger, avoiding contention. 10:12 tells us love covers offenses in contrast to contentious hatefulness. Finally, Proverbs 15:1 encourages us to have a soft answer so we can cool wrath, and Proverbs 22:10 even advises us to avoid hanging out with argumentative people.

Engaging in controversies and contentions is the easier route, and this is yet another example where we, as spiritual people, need to exercise self-control. After all, we live in a “loudest-is-rightest” culture. It’s easy to fly off the handle when some public figure does something we don’t like. It’s easy to prod our friends and family who disagree with us. It’s easy to approach a disagreement from the standpoint of what “you” did wrong. Stirring up strife is the easy path, and it’s surprisingly empowering. We feel like we “fought the good fight,” “told them like it is,” “proved our point,” while waving the banner of our impotent rage.

Harder is to close our mouths, bite our tongues, or – even harder – recognize when it’s not that big of a deal. We have so many influences trying to pull us into secular concerns that do nothing for the cause of Christ if we become embroiled in them. At one point, I too enjoyed a good controversy, but I’d like to think I’ve moved on. Perhaps it’s time we Christians collectively told controversy, “I don’t love you anymore. I think we should start seeing other nouns. It’s not me, it’s you,” and gave it up. Maybe we need to stop watching some TV personalities, maybe stop reading some opinion columns, maybe avoid some talk radio shows, perhaps just avoid some topics altogether.

Do we want to be accused of loving controversy or loving unity? Do we want people to see us as a source of discouragement or encouragement? Do we want to fill our minds and our conversations with things that drive a wedge between ourselves and others or things that bring us all closer to each other and to Christ? We should work to have the qualities of Colossians 4:5-6, walking in wisdom, ready to have an answer, seasoning our words with salt.

The Voice In Our Heads

Guilt can either draw us closer to God or drive us farther from Him. The same can be true of the absence thereof. We can look at numerous examples in the Old and New Testaments – David, Judas, Peter, the congregation at Corinth – and see these variations illustrated. We feel guilt, for better or for worse, because we have consciences. We speak of having a good conscience, of having a guilty conscience, of having a clean conscience. This quality God has given us plays a large role in our lives.

The Role of Conscience

In Romans 2:14-16, Paul writes that our consciences guide us toward doing what is right in God’s law whether or not we know that law. To an extent, the conscience judges or justifies our actions. In Romans 9:1-2, Paul speaks of his own conscience, bearing witness to his concern for his fellow man. II Corinthians 1:12 speaks of the testimony of the conscience. It prompts us toward obedience or chastens us for disobedience.

In the context of Romans 14, we know that conscience can be a sensitive things, and this chapter concludes that we can sin based on the doubts of our conscience. We often make light of this concept, but God takes it seriously as an instrument to help guide our actions. When we cannot do something in good conscience, we are falling into sin.

Conditioning Our Consciences

Unfortunately, we can train and condition our consciences. In Acts 23, when Paul stands before the Sanhedrin, Paul says he had been living in all good conscience before God, even before he was converted. Remember, as a Pharisee, he would imprison Christians, hurt them, and even put them to death. This is a man who once saw Jesus as a hoax, but His zeal trained his conscience to harden against these violent acts.

We can take this natural guide and turn it into something unnatural. We can train ourselves to see that which is wrong as something acceptable, even praiseworthy. In the first few verses of I Timothy 4, Paul writes that our consciences can be cauterized. It loses all feeling and sensation toward those behaviors we repeat again and again. Our sin my hurt at first, but we slowly callous our hearts until we no longer feel that pain. The ultimate result is in Titus 1:15 – a defiled mind and conscience that denies God.

Reconditioning Our Consciences

The subject of conscience is a serious one. We ought not dismiss it when that voice in our head warns us against our actions. I Timothy 1:5 tells us to love with a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. I Timothy 3:9-10 calls for those who would be spiritual leaders to have a clear and blameless conscience, and Hebrews 9:8-9, in the context of contrasting the old covenant with the new, the author speaks of having a perfected conscience. According to Hebrews 10:22, we can cleanse our consciences by the forgiveness of sin through Christ Jesus.

We should remember tender and pure in our consciences, training it to follow after God’s word, remaining clean of the guilt of this world. We can share our faith with the good conscience of I Peter 3:14-16 if we but sanctify Him as Lord in our lives.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Controlling Self

We know the history of Alexander the Great who conquered much of his word, able to control armies and nations but unable to control himself, having drunk himself to death at age 32. Controlling our selves, our impulses, using self-restraint – the Bible has much to say on this topic. Proverbs 25:26 calls one without control as an undefended city, left open to invasions from outside: vulnerable to temptation and unguided by principle.

When David sees Bathsheba, he has the choice to exercise restraint, but he lacks self-control, dwells on Bathsheba, and acts on his impulse. For a time, he becomes vulnerable to temptation and forgets his principles. Solomon allows his numerous political wives to turn him from God despite his great wisdom. Judas betrays Jesus for meager wages, driven by unrestrained and uncontrolled greed. Each of these illustrate how far we can fall without the defense of self-control.

Giving God the Control

Self control may be defined as a willingness to be guided by God’s wishes rather than our own, restraining ourselves from the things we should avoid. It can also be ensuring we act upon the opportunities we have to do good. In Galatians 5:22-24, self-control is included among those fruits of the spirit we should be practicing. Paul, in Titus 1:8, qualifies spiritual leaders as having self-control, and I Peter 1:5-8 lists this control as a trait we should be nurturing in our own lives.

Why be concerned with self-control? In Acts 24:24-25, Paul teaches Christ to Felix and other officials with him. In this message, Paul links self-control with righteousness. David, Saul, and Judas fall short of the measure of righteousness when they fail to exercise self-control. In Matthew 16:21-23, Peter, after having recently professed his faith in Jesus, rebukes Him for going to His death and is rebuked in turn. Then, in verse 24, Jesus says any who follow Him must deny self and crucify self. Self control is key to sincerely following Jesus.

What Does Self Control Look Like?

Romans 12 makes it clear that living a godly living requires restraint. Romans 12:2 calls us to be transformed rather than conformed. This takes rethinking, re-prioritizing, controlling those impulses we might have once followed. Verses 16-21 encourages to avoid revenge, to live peacefully, to show kindness and mercy, overcoming evil with good. It takes control and restraint to demonstrate God’s grace to all – even those who are ungracious to us.

Philippians 4:8 tells us to dwell on honorable things in our lives, to look for the good, to consider the best around us. Self control begins with our minds. We have to control our thoughts before we can control our bodies.

  • We have to recognize our need. I have to admit I need better self-control before I can improve, being guided by God’s principles before my own.
  • We have to identify the areas in which we need more control. On what do my thoughts dwell? In what areas of my life do I struggle most?
  • We have to study. Psalm 119:9 encourages us to take heed to God’s word to cleanse our ways. Verse 105 calls that word a light for our feet. We have to know His will for it to guide us.
  • We have to weigh the consequences. In Mark 8:35-36, Jesus asks what a soul is worth. Is giving into our impulses worth losing our souls?
  • We need to pray about our struggles. I Peter 5:6-7 encourages us to call on the Lord, casting our cares on Him, so He can comfort us.

Conclusion

In Acts 24, as Paul studies with Felix, the governor is alarmed and send Paul away until a better time. Felix is concerned by the challenge of practicing self-control. Do we see this subject as concerning and alarming? If so, we should not follow Felix’s example, whose better time would never come. Instead we should submit to His mercy. Hebrews 5:8 discusses the self-control Jesus practices in His obedience to the Father’s plan. We should follow His example of restraint and obedience and allow God’s principles to guide us, removing self from the throne and exalting God.

lesson by Tim Smelser