Dress Up and Fasting

As our church does 21 days of prayer and fasting, I’m realizing how easy it is to go through the motions of fasting, and forget the point. It’s easy to feel good that I’m denying my body certain foods, without actually stopping to pray—the other critical facet of this time.  I can focus on the things I’m doing, without ever once getting my heart involved.  Isn’t that the point?  Isn’t the real point to all of this my heart???

I have a stack of backlogged magazines in my bathroom.  Maybe that’s more than you need to know, but I’ll be honest… I’m that girl, the one with a stack of bathroom readers—because the only time I get around to magazines is…you know…on the john.   So, if I’m in the powder room for a questionable amount of time, you can just assume it’s because I got sucked into an article, or an entire magazine…

It was providential that, during this time of fasting, far enough into it that I’d grown accustomed and a little stale and was primarily just going through the motions, I picked up the November 2013 issue of Send!  {Gospel for Asia’s News Magazine}.  I read this:

So what is God asking from us, the Bride of Christ?

He is asking for an all-out, absolute surrender, not just of our personal life but of everything with it.  It means denying self.  That’s far different from denying ourselves things, like food or new clothing, as part of a spiritual exercise.

Denying self means you are no more your own.  You take up the cross along with the pain, shame and rejection.  It is losing your life for His sake and for the sake of the Gospel.  It is surrendering soul, body and all to the Lordship of Christ.  It is giving up every right to run your own life, even to the extent of asking Him, “Lord, where shall I go today?  What do you want me to say to this person?”  It is to be willing, much like Abraham who gave up Isaac, the promised son whom he loved.

In order for this transformation to take place, we must not only cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but we also must be willing to walk the small and narrow road Jesus talked about.  Others around us will be free to live their own dreams and pursue their own goals, but we can no longer join them, for we have found something far more precious to live for.

…Jesus is worth all of our love and dying to self.[1]

Denying THINGS vs. denying SELF.  Ouch.

Now, I actually think there is great benefit in denying ourselves things, especially in that it begins to show us where our selves lie.  I don’t know if you can deny yourself if you never first practice denying things.  I do however know from personal experience that it is possible to deny yourself things without ever once learning to actually deny yourself.  So, this process of fasting and denying ourselves of things is an important (and I dare say necessary) step to the greater goal of learning to simply deny ourselves.  But that’s just it—it’s a step, not the end goal.

I’ve mentioned this book before, but in the spirit of denying things in the hope and process of learning to deny self, I will again mention Jen Hatmaker’s funny and challenging book, 7.

“7 : An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess” – 7 is the true story of how Jen took seven months, identified seven areas of excess, and made seven simple choices to fight back against the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism, and overindulgence.  (There’s a cute trailer for the book at the end of this post.)

It’s an honest, often hilarious chronicle of her journey toward denying self and making more room in her life and heart for the things of God.  Her honesty along the way was refreshing and encouraging.  This journey, as C.S. Lewis has said, is much like kids playing dress up.  They don’t fit the clothes yet, but they are practicing and learning what it is to be grown up.  We may take pictures and watch and giggle at the process and at their shortcomings, but, despite the comedy, we see great value in the process and in the attempts.

You are not a being like The Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centred fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death. So that, in a way, this dressing up as Christ is a piece of outrageous cheek. But the odd thing is that He has ordered us to do it….

Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grownups—playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretence of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.[2] (To read the longer passage – which you should, it’s fantastic! – click here.)

I know that it can be daunting to think about fasting, about denying ourselves any of our pleasures, much less to think about reading a book by someone who “fasted” in SEVEN different areas of her life, and lived to tell about it.  Not to mention, it can be even more daunting to think about the fact that God isn’t just content with our actions—He wants our hearts, so that even if we DO manage to “do the right things,” we can still fall short (because, remember, we called to deny ourselves, not just our things).  But that’s why I wanted to include this quote/image from C.S. Lewis.  Because no one looks at a kid playing dress up and criticizes them because their feet don’t yet fill their mama’s shoes, or their speech, despite the attempts at higher, adult language, still contains a lisp and their hard “c’s” still come out as “t’s.”  We just love that they’re trying.

So let’s try.  Jen Hatmaker’s book is about trying.  Sometimes she failed, sometimes she “succeeded,” but all the while she was getting stronger and better.  All the while she was denying things, she was learning more about what it is to deny self.

I find the same is true for me.  I have been trying.  I started small.  I started with a day of fasting here and there, nothing glorious or impressive, but it was something—something that gave me courage to try again, and to try something bigger.  Those single days gave me the courage to take on a 10 day juice fast challenge with a friend.  I survived it.  I learned a lot.  That gave me confidence to try another, longer fast.

It would be easy to feel good about the fact that I’m doing this 21 day fast, and in some ways I do.  Just like a little girl is proud of (and enjoys) her attempts at dress up, I’m proud of (and, yes, even enjoying) my attempts at spiritual dress-up and discipline.  But then, a child will also be quick to realize they fall short and are not yet grown-up.  I’m no different.  The more I try to dress up, the more I realize I have a long way to go.  I’m doing it, technically, sure, but I realize I’m failing.  I’m forgetting the point.  I’m going through the motions, without remembering what it is God really cares about it.  I’m denying things, not self.  Here’s the thing though – even in the failing, I’m learning and growing.  The failure itself gives God opportunity to remind me and nudge me in a better direction, the right direction.  I wouldn’t have thought about how I can go through these motions without having my heart in the right place if I hadn’t tried (and failed).

So here I am, putting on shoes that are too big for me, and I’m stumbling.  But I’m learning to walk in them.  Some day I’ll be more grown up and I’ll fill those shoes better.  Someday I’ll find my heart does a better job of focusing on God when I fast, that I do a better of job of praying, and of truly caring about the things God cares about.  For now, even though I miss the point at times, I have to believe God is giving me some grace, pleased that I’m trying.  For now, I am playing dress up in the righteousness of Christ, and I will keep on playing dress up in those robes of righteousness until, by His grace, they actually fit.

And when they do fit, I’ll find that my life (and my fasting) looks a lot like this:

 True Fasting.  Isaiah 58

58 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
14 then you will find your joy in the Lord,
and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

[1] Send!  {Gospel for Asia’s News Magazine}  November, 2013; pg. 23.  (Emphasis added.)

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 187-189.

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