Fasting Reveals the Hidden You

image“Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it.”  John Wesley

There is a certain irony in Wesley’s observation of fasting as he points out that a spiritual discipline that helps us to recognize the spiritually-dividing excesses in our life can, in itself, become an excess of its own. Fasting has largely fallen from favor as a spiritual discipline. Through the centuries excesses in asceticism gave the practice an undeserved reputation as a form of mortification but it also contrasts deeply with modern culture in a Church that views any deprivation as suffering.

The lack of understanding about the purposes of fasting also contributes to its negative reputation. Many continue to view it as a hair shirt, a form of self-imposed castigation but that is a flawed view. The singular purpose of fasting is to become more intimate with God. A fast is a personal matter between you and God in which you do without food in order to focus on how you are sustained by God alone. Spiritual fasting for any other reason is extra-biblical and borders on self worship. It is never to be used as leverage to gain favor from God or as an effort to divert His will.

The Bible Speaks on Fasting

Christians since the earliest days have sought the biblical mandate for all Christians to fast regularly, only to be disappointed in their efforts. There is no biblical law that commands regular fasting. Every case of fasting in the Scriptures is initiated by the Lord, as He sees necessary. The majority of the instances are individual in nature though, on occasion, God has called for corporate fasts. The discipline of fasting, its method and frequency are initiated by God and conveyed to the believer through the intimacy of relationship. We should interpret these facts cautiously. The spiritual discipline of fasting is a release of control on our lives meant to help deepen our intimacy with God. It is a privilege which we can practice as a part of our regular devotional life as long as we are certain of its purpose. If there is a specific reason for a fast (repentance, et. al) God will guide his people to it.

As people have searched the Scriptures to determine if there is a commandment to fast, the disciple discovers that Jesus simply takes for granted that you will include fasting in your devotional practices. In the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “When you fast” (Mt 6:16). It is not offered as one selection among many (‘if you choose fasting’) or as an optional endeavor (‘IF you fast’). Instead, the Lord speaks to the topic as a regular component of the devotions of a disciple as are prayer and charity.

What Jesus brings to light in this passage is a warning against ostentation when one does fast. Our fasting is to remain a private matter between us and God. To make a public spectacle of ourselves in the process draws attention to us and immediately defeats the purpose of the fast. Glory shifts from God to ourselves and the growth and strength that derives from the fast is destroyed. We might as well not have fasted at all. If those around us become aware of our fast they should not be asking how we endure such torture. Rather, they should be seeking for themselves the source of our nourishment which, for the disciple, is the very word of God (Jn 4:32-34).

The real you and me that we mask with comforting things will also be revealed when we fast. It’s no secret that we are vulnerable to revelation when we are uncomfortable. Our irritations, feelings, and sometimes our actions bubble to the surface when our discomfort overrides our ability to suppress them. This is our true self that we contain under normal circumstances. This is the true self that Jesus directs the Spirit to address within us. Our deceitful minds are more than capable of convincing us that these attitudes are not a problem but the Lord knows the truth. Just as the desert revealed the purity of Jesus Christ, our 24 hours of fasting reveal the flaws within us that demand attention.

It’s Time to Stop Avoiding Fasting

Fasting can bring unparalleled vitality to our spiritual life in a way that none of the other disciplines can. Wesley closes the thoughts, “…it was not merely by the light of reason…that the people of God have been, in all ages, directed to use fasting as a means:…but they have been…taught it of God Himself, by clear and open revelations of His Will…Now, whatever reasons there were to quicken those of old, in the zealous and constant discharge of this duty, they are of equal force still to quicken us.” (Sermons on Several Occasions)

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Life With God 9

And so we conclude our weekly foray into Richard Foster’s fine book as we started by rehearsing the the Immanuel principle means to us as we attempt to live it out. Life With God began by reminding us of a truth that we all know on the periphery of our consciousness but often fail to bring to the center of our lives; God is with us. In that intimate presence he extends a hand and asks, ‘will you be with me?’ Our choice is to partake of the stream of grace that is offered, to imbibe of it, to allow it to infuse our core and transform us such that we love God and love others more than we are ever able to comprehend on our own.

Or we can ignore it and spend the precious currency of our lives living on the edges of the grace. We can acknowledge that God is near but never truly see him as present and thereby lose out on the power of a grace filled life. This is biological life … it is not life in full!

The central theme of LWG is that we read the Bible not just for information but to discover the relationship with God that we can have. Our hearts and minds are stretched to greater realization as we see how the relationship has touched other humans for the centuries before we arrived on the scene. We read to know God, not just know of Him. In return, God speaks to us individually through His Word. He offers comfort, guidance, instruction, wisdom – anything we need so long as we hear his voice as we read His story.

There is a risk in exploring spiritual formation through the Bible that derives from our brokenness. The risk is that we try to do something rather than resting in the grace offered. Jesus pointed this out to the Pharisees:

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (Jn 5:39-40)

The Bible is not the source of life, its author is. When we read for spiritual growth, we read to know the author the words. May He bless us in our efforts and help us to understand it is not for our efforts.

Life With God 8

imageThe life with God drives us to see what  could happen we are faithful doers of the Word rather than just hearers. As Foster begins to wind down his book Life With God, he is emphasizing the ‘why’ of spiritual transformation. He says that “ the quiet power of a life transformed by God is so explosive that it can redirect the course of human events.” When we are deeply enmeshed in a life lived in the immediate and intimate presence of God, we find ourselves with transformed inclinations. Our purposes are driven less and less by personal desire and worldly avarice and more by the subtle whispers that guide our fulfillment of God’s purposes through us.

Coming to this spiritual awareness is the purpose of the spiritual disciplines. Remember, the definition of discipline that we apply to our spiritual nature is the ability to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason. The spiritual practices are not intended for record keeping, that is, we are not rewarded by the measure of their exertion. Rather, the reward for the practice of spiritual disciplines comes in an increased sensitivity to the words of God through which He moves you to action. As Dallas Willard says, we are being prepared to enter a state of unthinking readiness in which we are able to respond despite pressures from outside to act otherwise. When the moment of action arrives, we  move in the Spirit without having to consider the possible societal implications of doing so.

There is a liberating truth that we can come to understand through study and focus on the lives of the saints that have gone before us such as John Woolman (pictured above.) The truth is that we do not become godly by trying to become godly. We become godly as our worldly habits are replaced by holy habits such as love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness. When our character is filled with these traits we will instinctively do the right thing at the right time for the right reason. Our practice of the Disciplines is not intended to change ourselves, that is God’s work. Rather, our practice is intended to open ourselves to His power so that the transformation may occur. This is the principle of indirection.

This principle works by addressing human character issues by attending purposely to the attending spiritual virtue. For example, pride is overcome by intentionally seeking out opportunities to serve others. Over time, this consistent practice puts us in a proper relationship with others, engendering humility within us. Paul mentions this intentional training in 1 Corinthians;

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:24-27)

We do not train in the Spiritual Disciplines solely for the sake of training. We train for transformation. The key to this shift in our understanding is to remember that it is God that will provide the transformation, not our own efforts. We must become expectant of the change, sensitive to His whispers that slightly change our mechanics as a coach would do. All of our training and the resulting transformation of our character will reorient us for life in the kingdom of God and our thoughts and attitudes and our behaviors will gradually become radically different from what passes for normal in this world.

Now, that’s not such a bad thing, is it?

Life With God 7

Richard Foster takes a turn now in Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation’ target=_blank>Life With God to examine the means by which we immerse ourselves in the presence of God. If you are familiar with his earlier classic Celebration of Discipline, this chapter rehearses familiar territory. As each preceding chapter in LWG have led us to see how the mining of the scriptures contribute to an ever deepening acknowledgement of the presence of God, Foster now turns our attention to additional spiritual practices that contribute to strength and trust needed to wade into the deeper waters of a with God life.

For the Christian who has surrendered to the Lordship of Christ, whether it is realized or not, you are already given to life in the presence of God. As Peter wrote:

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:3)

we have life and tools to live it in full but it is required of us that we nurture the intention. Rather than simply applying the transformation that God intends, He expects us to know the struggle and joy of the process of transformation. This striving and participation in the process teaches us lessons in holiness that we could not garner from an immediate transformation.

Practicing the spiritual disciplines is not without risk. The narrow path of the disciplined walk is flanked on both sides by temptations which threaten the integrity of the exercises. On one side, we run the risk of turning the discipline we choose into an end rather than a means. The Pharisees and Sadducees were well known for distorting the Law in this fashion. On the other slope lies the danger of devaluing the disciplines based on the false argument that no work can earn our righteousness, it is freely given. As with most distortions, this argument contains a grain of truth; we cannot earn our righteousness. But grace requires something from us in order to do its transforming work. The spiritual disciplines are the means to this end.

The spiritual disciplines are not onerous or unattainable. They do not enslave us even the term discipline can often take this connotation. The spiritual disciplines lead us on the path to true liberty in Christ as we experience the transformation that he intends to be measured out especially for each one of us. You’re invited into the deep waters. God will be there, all around, supporting you while allowing you to build the muscles needed to swim.

Life With God 5

The reader of Foster’s Life With God might be surprised when they turn the page to chapter five and find the topic, ‘Reading with the Mind.’ This seems at first contrary to the theme of reading with the heart for spiritual formation but a little exploration leads us to discover that reading with the mind is not simply reading for the acquisition and collection of information. It is reading for understanding so that you and I can discover our place in great span of God’s redemptive story. As we engage the messy, complicated, roller coaster story in the scriptures, we find pieces of information that help us to understand who God is, how He interacts with His people, and our individual and corporate purposes in His plan.

We do not want our reading efforts to lead to the amassing of spiritually dead information that leads to pride but no transformation. This was one of the major critiques that Jesus voiced of the religious professionals of his day. They were intellectually deep, knowing the text inside out in all of its nuances but the Spirit was missing. The words were dead without the life giving Spirit of God and lead no one to a transformative experience. In our lives, we read the words under the supervision of Holy Spirit who brings the text to life showing us how to apply and understand the words.

We encounter several genres and a huge historical span of time as we immerse ourselves in the scriptures and find not a systematic and ordered presentation but instead, a messy, complex story of humanity in the presence of God. Recalling the Immanuel Principle is a lens that can focus the hundreds and thousands of lives that we encounter. God says “I am with you” and we read of the lives lived in response to the question, “Will you be with me?” The answers that we see are the struggles that each of us faces in life and the different ways that people have responded to God’s graceful invitation.

How does your Bible reading fit into this idea? Do you memorize bits and pieces of scripture that might pull the verse(s) out of their context? The Old Testament in particular can be a violent story. Does this make you avoid this part of book thinking that it has little application for modern life? I’d love to hear what everyone thinks.

Life With God 4

It was this…intention that made the primitive Christians such eminent instances of piety, that made the goodly fellowship of the Saints and all the glorious army of martyrs and confessors. And if you will here stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it. ~ William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Intent rather than method. A bracing thought for the modern Christian who finds themselves enmeshed in the current intellectual culture of the Church. Spiritual formation is reduced to a set of to-do’s and application. Richard Foster leads us now to develop the proper mindset needed to read the Bible for spiritual formation rather simply information. Life With God locates the next chapter in helping us to draw the distinction between reading the surface of the text and encountering God. The greatest cultural challenge that we face is that we encounter daily the idea that the Bible exists to serve our needs. We are tempted to pick and choose verses that serve our needs while setting aside the context that might challenge our perceptions. When read this way, the Bible becomes a manual for moralism, a behavioral set of scales that substitutes for true relationship with God.

The approach that we can take to engaging the bible to participate in God’s transformation of our souls is called Lectio Divina. Our reading changes focus from breadth to depth. It is a way of encouraging our mind to descend to our hearts so that we are drawn into the love and goodness of God as it is spoken to us through the living Word. Our goal is total immersion in the text so that we a drawn into the story, becoming a part of the words.

There are four elements to Lectio Divina:

  • Lectio – this is the practice of reading with a listening spirit
  • Meditatio – we reflect on what the voice of God speaks to us
  • Oratio – in response to the elation of hearing from God, we pray the scripture in response
  • Contemplatio – most importantly, we contemplate deeply on what changes we will make in our lives in obedience to the Word

Engaging the Bible in this fashion is a challenge to much of what we may have learned. It is not compatible with a daily reading plan which schedules a number of verses so that the book can be completed in a year. We skim over the words that God has for us in our pursuit of the goal. Lectio is a much slower process, immersing us in a single passage, perhaps even a few words or a phrase so that the voice of God can get through to us. It seeps into our heart as we camp on this verse or passage and as our hearts turn, we act in obedience to demonstrate to the world the way of the disciple.

Have you practiced these methods with success? Has there been some culturally or in the Church that works against this method of engaging the text? Let’s talk about this.

Life With God 3

Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. Isaiah 55:3

Richard Foster emphasizes the messy reality of the the “I am with you” Immanuel principle in chapter three of Life With God. Reading the Bible with this in mind, one of the transformative themes that we can derive is that the book does more than just tell us about the immediate presence of God. Instead it unfolds for us how embedded the Presence is in every aspect of human existence. Whether we are running toward or away from God, we cannot escape the truth of His pursuit. He calls out, “I am with you” and asks, “Will you be with me?”

Our struggle with Immanuel is often spelled out in the tension between two ideas. We comprehend our value to God in His pursuit of relationships with us and yet, when skies cloud over, we identify equally with the Psalmist’s lament “why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? The space between these two poles is life guided by the choices that we make. In those choices is the ultimate act of spiritual formation, allowing God to perfect His will and His ways in our lives. In the pages of our Bible, we can see how the Living Word transforms countless other human beings and it speaks to us; surrender your will and come into relationship with me! In exercising our freedom to choose to trust in Christ, we open ourselves to transformation in the depths of life with God.

For spiritual formation, we want to read the Bible with two aims. First, we want to engage the story of God’s people who were immersed in God’s immediate presence, whether they were aware of it or not. We read of God pursuing relationship with His creations and of the blessings and consequences of choosing for or against this relationship. In fact we learn from those that have gone before us that turning back to God is not a mechanical transaction, not a rule to follow, it is a relationship.

The second aim that we want to approach the Bible with is hear God as he speaks to us through the Word. The stories that we read are replete with examples of failure and restoration. Human beings are not the most reliable partners in relationship and when we come to this realization it opens up a new horizon in how we view God. Because we are by nature fickle, the transformation that occurs in each of our spiritual lives is a unilateral commitment from our Father. He pursues and transforms. Our task to immerse ourselves in those things that can positively affect our character. It is at this level that the living Word works.

Foster refines this approach to a single statement for modern Christians in saying that the way into this life, the Immanuel life, is trusting in Jesus. The Lord’s words make it simple, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” (Mark 5:36) Our call is to live the Kingdom life now and not just approach the faith as fire insurance. Our way into the fullness of this life is through character transformation, something that occurs when choose for life in relationships with the Lifegiver and when we immerse ourselves in the Word that changes us into what we were intended to be.

I would love to hear of your experiences of transformation. Have you found any particular scripture verses or story that were particularly meaningful in this process? Let’s share and grow together.