“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” ~ Romans 12:1
I’m not sure why it happened, but in college I began to practice the discipline of fasting. I had started to read the Bible regularly in my freshman year, and was part of a church community that took Scripture seriously and somewhere along the way, fasting came up as a topic. I saw that fasting was a frequent Old Testament practice, and that the Lord assumed his followers would practice it, and that the apostles did practice it. So I gave it the college try, and have run hot and cold with it ever since. Never did I realize that the day would come when this practice would become instrumental in breaking the stranglehold of porn from off my neck.
As we discussed in the last reading, the training of our bodies for holiness comes in three phases depending on the severity of our sin addiction. If we’re at the point where whenever sin says, “Jump” we ask, “How high?”, then self-abasement is what’s required. At this level-one stage, we need our lives to be surrounded with the scaffolding of rigid legalism, and we need people around us to help hold that scaffolding in place.
When the Hebrews first came out of Egypt, God greeted them in the wilderness with laws, laws and more laws. They had no clue how to live responsibly with their newfound freedom, and quickly showed their foolish ignorance. God, like a loving parent, had to discipline them, severely at times. Law is always the first tutor for a child. “Don’t touch!” “Don’t eat that!” “Don’t run ahead of me!” If we can’t say no for ourselves, then self-abasement is what is called for.
God though expects us to advance beyond this place. A child is cute for only so long. If you have a beard, and you’re still in diapers, something’s wrong. At some point, you’re going to have to learn how to use technology without dumpster diving for porn. At some point you’re going to have to earn back the trust of your family, your church and your God.
Paul warned against living in endless asceticism. “If with Christ you died,…why…do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’…These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting…asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23). Self-abasement is a stop-gap measure at best, to insert a measure of control where none had existed. To grow, we must continue our training.
Level-Two of training our bodies is Self-Denial.
This is where we begin to learn how to say no for ourselves. Jesus pointed to self-denial as a key life-skill of his disciples. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). God gives us his grace not only to provide us a cover of forgiveness for all our failures, but also to teach us to say no, “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:11-12). If we continue to use grace only as a sin cover and not as a sin breaker, the time comes when grace will sour in our possession (2 Corinthians 6:1; Jude 4).
One of the greatest gifts God has given his people to teach them the life-skill of self-denial is the practice of fasting, where we go without food for a given time to seek God more intently in prayer and study. If you’ve never heard of fasting before, you’re probably choking at the suggestion that going without food is a gift. Let me explain why I see it this way. What I have to share is based on more than thirty years of having practiced this discipline with some degree of regularity.
A few quick observations.
- The church has by-in-large taught and observed fasting for most of its 2,000 year history. It’s only in the last century or so that this discipline has been largely neglected.
- While a small percentage should not fast (anyone with blood-sugar issues would be ill-advised to attempt it without a physician’s oversight), most people are able to fast without ill effects. You won’t die; it will only feel like you are.
- Fasting has been shown to have a wide array of benefits beyond the spiritual. Those who practice it often find it physically cleansing, emotionally cathartic, and mentally stimulating. Rather than prompting me to binge-eat the following day, I’ve discovered that fasting restores equilibrium to my nutrition and fitness pursuits.
However for our purposes, I want to zero in on the spiritual benefits of fasting, and why this discipline has great potency for breaking through the chains of sin addictions in ways that other approaches do not.
Fasting says to God, I’m hungry…for more of you. (Psalm 63:1).
For starters, if I fast with the right motive, then my heart is geared up to seek God in a longer, deeper, more intense way that ordinary. My spiritual self is energized by spending extra time in mediation and prayer.
Fasting says to God, I’m broken…please reveal my sin.
While getting close to God might sound well and good, don’t expect to hear angels singing while you fast. Fasting, by nature of what it is, will bring out all manners of ugliness in you. Though sent to its naughty chair, your sin nature will froth and scream. Like melted silver, fasting brings to the surface the dross in my life – the things which control me, the passions which drive me, the desires I can’t shake. (Psalm 19:12-13; 51:6)
Fasting says to God, I’m sorry…please save me from my sin.
Once revealed, sin must be brought to the cross for forgiveness. Fasting in the Bible is often linked to confession and repentance. “Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning.’” (Joel 2:12-13) On fasting days, I try to give extra time to self-examination, which we talked about earlier.
Fasting says to God, “I’m listening…please speak to me.”
Fasting has another powerful benefit – it helps us hear the voice of God more clearly. The missionary revival of the earth church was birthed in fasting. “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2). One of the outcomes of proper fasting should be that your heart begins to beat more in sync with God’s heart, which should lead to a growing desire to share God’s truth and compassion with this broken world (Isaiah 58:6-8).
If you review these four benefits of fasting, can you see why if you bring this practice against your sin addiction, something will have to give? You’re seeking God more intently, dealing with your sin more honestly, and hearing his voice more clearly. Augustine said of the power of fasting for aiding purity, “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence [i.e. strong sexual desire], quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity.”
Not to mention another hidden benefit – in learning how to say no to your craving for food, you are developing the power to say no to other cravings.
The time will come after you’ve logged a few fasting days where your ‘no’ not only gets stronger, but gets transferable. If in the moment of sexual temptation, you call on that same part of your mind, will and emotions that you used telling that piece of chocolate cake what-for, there’s an increasing chance that you’ll send porn-pleasure packing as well.
Somewhere in the time period when I confessed my sin to my wife and we sought out professional counsel, I also returned to the practice of once-a-week fasting which I had neglected for a long time. The counseling lasted eighteen months and I kept up the fasting throughout that time, along with my daily times with Jesus. When the dust all settled, our marriage was rekindled, my mind had found rest, and my will was kicking butt. I had learned how to say no.
Was it the times with Jesus? The counseling? The fasting? I guess the best answer is…yes. Each played a significant role in bringing me back to myself.
However, with all this said, there is a final step to take beyond self-denial before our training is completed.
Level Three of training our bodies is Self-Control.
More than being able to say no to the wrong things, self-control is the ability to say yes to the right things. The idea in saying no to sex-corrupted is to receive it back as sex-redeemed, with a new freedom and new capacity to enjoy sexuality as God intended.
In Paul’s list of the nine Fruit of the Spirit, self-control is last (Galatians 5:22-23.) It’s the anchor in the tug of war chain that holds the other eight in place. It’s the final proof that the other eight are working.
The famous rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “To abstain completely from all enjoyments may be easy. Yet to enjoy life and retain spiritual integrity – there is the challenge.”
Back when I was in college and had returned to faith, I realized that music had been a big part of my backsliding. I owned a couple hundred rock albums, and one day I hauled them all out into the woods, and to the horror of my younger brother, used them for Frisbee-golf, smashing them all one-by-one against the trees (self-abasement at work.) Then over the next twenty years, I ended up buying back CD versions of more than half of my original collection. Was I backsliding again? Nope. I had acquired self-control. I controlled the music now, rather than the music controlling me.
“The way to avoid evil is not by maiming our passions,” wrote Henry Ward Beecher, “but by compelling them to yield their vigor to our moral nature. Thus they become, as in the ancient fable, the harnessed steeds which bear the chariot of the sun.”
Many of you are a long, long way off yet from that destiny. But it’s important that you at least see the Promised Land from afar, to know where God longs to bring you. And by his grace, you will come to that place. Everything we have talked about this week is a roadmap of sorts that will bring you there.
Be overwhelmed – not by how far you have to go – but by how amazing it is that Jesus is ready, willing and able to journey alongside of you.
Keep reminding yourself often of the things Jesus did to open for you the doorway to life and freedom. Keep opening up that Bible each and every day, jotting down the verses and lessons you are learning. Keep talking to him, and listening to him off and on throughout each day. Keep picking yourself out of bed each weekend, and getting yourself into that pew or chair to be with Jesus’ people. And make the choice now to open up every part of your being to him – your heart, mind and body – and submit to the training and discipline he offers you.
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
Why is it important to move past level-one (self-abasement) and work towards self-denial and self-control?
Have you ever practiced fasting? What are your experiences with it? Does this reading encourage you to try?
Re-read the quotes by Abraham Joshua Heschel and Henry Ward Beecher. What points are they trying to get across?
Prayer and Worship
“Father, I thank you for…”
“Father, please help me with…”
“Father, please be with…”
“In the name of Jesus, who died for my sins, who rose from the dead and who is with me now through the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Today’s Worship Suggestion: “Take My Life And Let It Be” (Frances R. Havergal)
This Week’s Memory Verses
“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.” ~ Philippians 4:8
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” ~ Psalm 42:11