Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fasting, self-control, and useless knowledge

I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:22b-27 (ESV)

A couple of months ago, the speaker at our monthly men's dinner said three things that significantly changed my understanding of the necessity of fasting in my walk. One, he mentioned at one point that he used to be addicted to food. He once sat and ate two half-gallons of Blue Bell ice cream in one setting. Two, he quoted 1 Corinthians 9:27. And three, he mentioned numerous times throughout his talk how he fasted on a regular basis. At one point, he even completed a prophet's fast, 40 full days with nothing but water!

I honestly don't remember the context in which he mentioned all these things, but God used those three things to form a coherent train of thought in my mind. God convicted me that I was addicted to food myself. There's no other way to describe the self-destructive behavior of knowing in my mind what I needed to do to be healthy but being unable or unwilling in my flesh to act on that knowledge. For reasons only God knows for sure, something clicked in my spirit that told me I had to start fasting on a regular basis, both as a matter of health and as a matter of spiritual discipline.

I had had a spotty history with fasting, well, more non-existent, really. At a church I used to attend several years ago, many of the leaders there fasted regularly, and they encouraged the congregation to do so. I tried it once, fasting through breakfast and lunch. It was extraordinarily difficult. I remember sitting down to dinner with my wife that night and announcing that dinner was the first meal that I had had that day. Being very proud of myself, I fell into the very trap that Jesus warned against in Matthew 6:16-18. Having "tried it", I decided that it "wasn't for me", and coupled with the fact that the Bible doesn't command us to fast, that was that.

Just last December was my second experience with fasting. As I was contemplating leaving my old church (a different one than the one above), I had asked the pastor a couple of questions, and I was waiting on his answers. I prayed that if God wanted me to stay, the pastor would answer one way, and if not, he would answer the other way. I wanted to fast as I was praying, as it was only going to be 2-3 days before he gave me an answer. But like a couch potato who tries to jump up and run a marathon, I wasn't prepared mentally or physically to rise to the task. I fasted through breakfast two days in a row, and by lunch each day, I felt like I was starving.

Paul describes our christian walk as a race we are competing in, and just like an athlete, our "competition" requires training. He tells us to run in such a way as to receive the prize, not running "aimlessly" or boxing "as one beating the air". The first part of verse 27 literally means "I pummel my body and make it a slave". Part of the training we need to be engaging in as believers is the discipline of denying ourselves.

Then He said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, 
he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.
Luke 9:23

By God's grace, after that April men's dinner, I began fasting on a regular basis. Over the last 2 months, more often than not, I have abstained from at least one meal a day, sometimes two or three, and a couple of times as many as 5 or 6 meals in a row. And when here recently God prompted me to fast specifically to seek Him in prayer and in His Word over the course of two days, I was physically able to do so because of the training I had engaged in previously. God has grown the fruit of self-control tremendously in my life over these two months. And during that time, I have continued to meditate on 2 Peter 1:5-8.

5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, 6 knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, 7 godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As I have written before, there is a logical progression in the characteristics Peter lists should be present in the believer's life. I have also written about this verse in the context of using the specific test that Peter lays out to measure growth in your walk, namely are these characteristics increasing in your life (i.e. Are you more Christlike today than you were yesterday?) Two more things bear mentioning, though, and God showed one of them to me within the context of fasting.

One, there is a danger in failing to pass the test that Peter outlines. Having these qualities will keep us from "being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ", and without them, we are "blind and shortsighted". And in this progression, Peter says we should seek to add to our knowledge self-control. My knowledge of how to be healthy was useless and lacking in any fruit because I did not seek to employ that knowledge to produce self-control in my life. More broadly applied, one of the major themes in James' letter is that if the faith that you claim to know in your mind does not change who you are in word and deed, then your faith is worthless and will not save you (James 2:14-26). Even for those of us who are true believers with a saving faith, to have knowledge of what we "should" do without actually doing it is in itself sinful. (James 4:17)

Two, Peter's progression tells us that the road from faith and good moral character to godly devotion and love is paved with knowledge, self-control, and endurance. It's not enough to simply know the Word in your mind. You must do what it says and stay the course when times get tough. That's what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

19 My dearly loved brothers, understand this: everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, 20 for man's anger does not accomplish God's righteousness. 21 Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil excess, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you. 22 But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror; 24 for he looks at himself, goes away, and right away forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer who acts-this person will be blessed in what he does. James 1:19-25