image from Unsplash by Umit Bulut
With the COVID19 virus trending everywhere as the greatest concern, especially here in Singapore--where we currently have the highest number of cases outside of China--more and more Christians have taken to fasting and praying.
Fasting is not something that we in the 21st century do often. In fact, it's surrounded by awkwardness, often eyed with suspicion. We mumble about legalism, wonder if trends like intermittent fasting have taken away its significance, and feel embarrassed talking about it in a society which celebrates food and the enjoyment of food (what to eat for lunch is the highlight of many Singaporeans's working day!) at the same time as having a heightened awareness of eating disorders. In light of all these, a simple question is at the root--is fasting still valid and useful today?
While preparing to do so as a church, my pastor gave a helpful sermon on fasting which I felt was applicable in helping us develop the right attitudes towards not just fasting, but other spiritual disciplines as well.
First of all, as many New Testament Bible references to fasting indicate--Jesus Himself fasted in Matthew 4--fasting is still valid for us today. Having said that, how do we avoid the legalistic attitude towards it which the Pharisees and scribes had, and which Christ so clearly condemned?
In Matthew 6: 16-18, Christ gives detailed instructions on what fasting should be like, and what it shouldn't. Instead of focusing on the external specifications--what we fast from, how long we fast, etc--He brought the focus to our hearts. Where it should be.
(There is definitely a lot more that can and should be discussed on the topic of fasting, eg. guidelines, types of fasts, etc but I would like to focus on just this aspect of the topic, for this post.)
Firstly, what is the purpose of fasting?
To help us pray better. Not because it can change God's mind, akin to a hunger strike, but by helping us to:
1. get rid of a casual attitude towards prayer. All too often we take prayer for granted, pushing it to the corners of our routines and schedules, since we can do it "anytime anywhere." Like coming for prayer meeting--a specific event/time slot carved out for prayer--fasting helps remind us of how important prayer is, and not to become complacent about it.
2. strengthening our fervency and making our prayers more focused. Similar to the first point, it helps us to take our prayers more seriously, because it costs us more. Though we can pray just as sincerely lying on the sofa after a full meal on a Friday night with no plans, humanly speaking it certainly helps us to take prayer more seriously when we've actually skipped a meal because of it.
3. teaches us to be more submissive and have spiritual wisdom in responding to God's answers for our prayers, EVEN IF they are not what we want. This was a new thought which I appreciated, because it reinforces how fasting is so much more than the "hunger strike" idea we tend to associate it with. Its ultimate purpose is even greater than the request at hand; we also grow spiritually through the process of seeking God's will, praying fervently, and learning to listen in faith. Even if the answer is not what we wanted.
4. to help us make time to pray/pray more/pray for things that we don't usually have time to pray for. This is the perfect comeback to whenever we fall back on the old excuse that we don't have time for that in our regular prayer routine (*raises hand*) I find myself often feeling overwhelmed at the number of things to pray for on my prayer list. What more when there's a special case which requires more time, how can we possibly squeeze everything in? Well, this is what Jesus did. Surrounded by people who needed Him, all clamouring for His help, He regularly sought out time to pray. Even removing Himself to fast in the wilderness.
As a spiritual discipline--and as with any other spiritual discipline, eg. prayer, studying the Word etc-- fasting should not be treated as a painful duty that makes us feel sorry for ourselves. Exercising spiritual disciplines should be a joyful thing, just like how Jesus commands His disciples to anoint their heads and be cheerful when they fast in Matthew 6.
This sounds simple, but in principle is quite ground-breaking to me when I realize how much it applies to the attitude I have towards other spiritual disciplines. Do I read spiritual books out of a sense of duty, so I can feel good/not feel guilty? Do I feel sorry for myself when I sacrifice time/sleep to serve in church, or taking time from my schedule to pray? Perhaps I'm fostering the wrong attitude towards these spiritual disciplines, which keeps me not only from truly benefiting from them, but also prevents me from experiencing joy in them. Perhaps, when we wonder how those "super spiritual" Christians seem to actually enjoy these activities, and feel almost guilty that we *don't*--this is what we've neglected to see.
Likewise, the focus in Matthew 6 is not about whether others see you or not. Jesus' emphasis is rather on the words "in order that" (others might see you.) If we are doing this because we want to fit in, or please others--then we are already failing to do it for the right reason.
Simply put: fasting should strip us of our pride, remind us of our weaknesses and limitations. It should help us to humble ourselves to seek God more sincerely, to pray more fervently, and to accept His will with peace and trust after having wrestled in prayer.
Ironically, the exact opposite would be if it caused us to become proud of our discipline/endurance/holiness in doing it, the way the scribes and Pharisees did. Which unfortunately is what so easily happens if we do it with the wrong motivations or understandings.
I had my first attempt at fasting last week and it was...rather comical. I blame it on foolish decisions and a lack of experience/proper preparation.
Pragmatically speaking, I figured lunch was the best meal to skip. But because I had a class to teach right after that, and I made the mistake of thinking, "oh, I'm fasting for lunch today, so I'll have more than enough time for prayer and other things." Having fallen into the trap of thinking I could combine fasting with skipping-lunch-to-be-more-productive, I definitely wasn't in the right frame of mind for prayer. Sure enough, I found myself running late--even though I had skipped lunch!--let alone with enough time to pray. I hustled off to work feeling bad for my foolish decisions.
On my way back, tired out and feebly resolving to make some time to pray that evening (to make up for my fasting failure haha) I ended up falling asleep on the bus and overshot when I should have gotten off by two stops. It was drizzling too. I hurried off the bus in that semi-panicky sleepy daze and realized with a sinking heart that it would be a long walk back. The traffic was so slow on the opposite side that it probably wasn't worth it catching the bus back.
Struggling with my umbrella, I was about to give way to the usual woe-is-me-today-is-a-Terrible-No-good-Day response, when it suddenly hit me. Now. Now was the perfect time to pray. Despite all my good intentions, I had messed up my intended fasting/prayer slot, but God had granted me this perfect little pocket of time.
Trudging up that path with the scent of rain washed earth, wet trees plashing tears softly onto my umbrella, alone except for an occasional food delivery rider, everything just fell into place. My sleepy daze sorted itself out into a calm, focused, peaceful frame of mind, where I could remember most of the prayer points I had jotted down. For just ten minutes I experienced a little haven of a prayer corner under my umbrella; and God's gentleness in the face of our comical human failures. Truly, it's so much more than the prayer item at hand, or how perfectly we execute it. God uses this to teach us, how to grow in understanding Him and trusting Him, how to experience joy in obedience and peacefulness in His presence.
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I was halfway typing this post only to realize the red squiggly lines were trying to tell me I had consistently typed "drunkardness" instead of "drunkenness."
Ephesians 5:1-21 is a long passage which gives many weighty guidelines for us as Christians on what our new life should be like, and drunkenness is only one thing mentioned briefly towards the end. We tend to not talk much about this term, at least in my experience, perhaps because we limit our understanding of drunkenness to its literal definition; alcohol.
But drunkenness can be more broadly understood as a state of addiction. And in our time, addictions have only morphed into more and more mutations; it's never been more relatable.
How do we recognize an addiction? It reduces your life to two categories--when you're feeding the addiction, and when you're anticipating/waiting to feed it. That itchy, restless feeling that we've all experienced before.
Being hooked on a drama series, for example. You go to work daydreaming about it and wishing you could just stay home and binge watch the rest of the episodes, pick up where you ended last night. Wishing you could just do that all day.Waiting impatiently to get back to it, getting annoyed when anything gets in the way or delays your gratification.
Addictions could be anything ranging from the obvious ones like drugs and porn, to the where-do-we-draw-the-line ones like social media, handphone or video gaming, entertainment, movies, sports, shopping, etc.
Like an alcoholic, whose life is wholly measured in relation to his/her addiction (when they're sober or drunk,) addictions make us see our every day in light of whether we're doing It, or waiting to do It; living in anticipation of the gratification it gives us. "Drunkenness is the product of repeated involvement."
We may realize our problem, or we may not. In either case, lack of self-control keeps us trapped in it; lack of the motivation, desire, and willpower to break free of the cycle we're living in. It saps our energy, prevents us from using our abilities and resources, from taking an interest in other things, in people.
And it gets harder and harder to envision and experience joy and intimacy with God, when our experience of pleasure and satisfaction is increasingly defined by what our addiction gives us. As C.S. Lewis said, "...We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud-pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased." (The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses)
And it is this joy--joy which the Spirit gives, joy in God--which is our weapon against drunkenness. This joy needs to be cultivated, to be actively nurtured and exercised by repeated involvement in the means of grace as our God-appointed means of accessing it.
Having said that, joy is so much more than simply mindlessly, if dutifully, going about spiritual disciplines.
Joy can be cultivated in our conscious mindset of thankfulness.
Joy can be cultivated in meditating on God's attributes.
Joy can be cultivated in learning to lay our hearts before God when we pray. Our sins. Our fears. Our desires. Our longings. Even our flawed, often insufficient trust.
Joy can be cultivated in the fellowship of His people, where we strive to model Christ's love.
As a Christian: what comes to your mind when you think of joy? How distant and unrelatable does the concept of joy in God seem to you?
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Psalm 51, in my Bible, is the only page that has a special fawn book tab sticker to mark it out. Partially because the moment I stuck it on I regretted it big time--I didn't realize how thin my Bible pages were, and they tore around the sticker edges if I wasn't careful turning the page. AbortMissionAbortMission--
But that's just standard characteristically bad decision making; Psalm 51is the psalm that became meaningful to me when I was seeking to be saved. Perhaps the first time that the Bible really 'spoke' to me, to use a trite phrase. When the aptness and timing almost frightened me. When I realized for the first time why reading the Bible is not like reading War and Peace or any other old thick book with tiny text.
I still remember a particularly low point, struggling with feeling depressed and hopeless because I was forced to accept that no matter how hard I tried, I could not make it through a single day without regret, without realizing I had acted selfishly or proudly; without anger and impatience--and the list goes on. During this time, crushed by the appalling proof of the limits of my self-control, of just how useless "trying harder" was, I found myself drawn more and more--not to the deep theological discussions and records of Jesus's life in the New Testament, or the multi-faceted stories of the Old Testament that I had always enjoyed as a child, but to the Psalms--that unassuming book somewhere in the middle which I had always passed by. David's intimately personal "I" and the honest, vulnerable expressions of his emotions--his frank, child-like joy in God, or his most wretched moments of guilt and self-doubt--were something that drew my own restless, unhappy heart.
David had always been one of my favourite characters. I tried my best to forget about that horrid incident in and as a result the preface to Psalm 51--"To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba"--kind of put me off the rest of the Psalm. For the first time, however, I remember looking past the shadow of that incident and feeling verse one hit me in the pit of the stomach; "Have mercy upon me, O God..."
In the 21st century vocabulary we don't speak like that. This was what my heart had been groaning wordlessly, and it felt almost like relief, hearing it articulated so honestly and simply for me. Yes. Mercy. Simply mercy--I had no excuses, no reasons, only a wracking yearning need to be lifted out of this swampy morass of guilt and self-doubt, even self-loathing, that I could see no way out of. With a small sighing sob I felt the smart of tears, and looked through them at the rest of the psalm, blinking.
Empathy. Catharsis. Comfort. Guidance.
But more importantly, hope.
I found those as I made my way slowly through the rest of Psalm 51. And each time I reread it, I find more things to carry away, to store up, picking up pearls that only add to the beauty and significance this particular psalm has for me.
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Guilt, ever-present, forcing us to realize that something is wrong with us, something is wrong with this world, that we have a gaping hole, a desperate need of Someone greater than ourselves...
4 Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight--
That You may be found just when You speak,[a]
And blameless when You judge.
This always caught me unexpected--a reminder to see our sin in its full scope; as primarily an act of rebellion and rejection against God Himself.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
6 Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.
This is not the problem of isolated acts, isolated "bad decisions," moments of weakness, as we'd like to think--because we want to think that we can manage it, we are basically good despite these small flaws.
This is something intrinsic to our human condition, from our very conception; something that underlies our whole world.
And to change--to fix it--we need likewise a transformative change. Not a quick fix or a coverup, but from the inside, from our "inward parts". You need to change us. You need to plant truth and wisdom in the very core of our being, to transform us from the inside out. Our hearts, not just our external actions, need to be changed.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Make me hear joy and gladness,
That the bones You have broken may rejoice.
9 Hide Your face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquities.
The self-aware, cringing consciousness of guilt, of impurity--washed away. Cleansed, as thoroughly and simply and effectively as physical cleansing. The satisfaction of watching the dirt being blasted away, watching the cleanliness being restored. Free!
Free, and joyful.
No longer trapped inside the swampy morass, even though we might have broken a few bones in our fierce struggle to get out. Wounded and weak and still vulnerable, still raw from the struggle, perhaps; but rejoicing.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from Your presence,
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners shall be converted to You.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
The God of my salvation,
And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
And here you have the new convert's earnest prayer--for sanctification, for perseverance. With a vivid awareness of how much, how intensely you need God's presence. The power and guidance of the Spirit. In order to have a "clean heart"--to persevere--to have joy. And even--I found this point especially enlightening--to spread the Gospel. David prays, not simply to evangelize as a duty, but for God's abundant mercy and joy on him, which overflows into the most powerful and effective--and sincere--evangelism. Evangelism akin to praise.
16 For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart--
These, O God, You will not despise.
And to balance that, David acknowledges that yet, all these things, all the things he promises to DO for God, they are not what is actually important. They do not earn him merit. That's not why he does them.
As John Piper said in Desiring God, our desire to be like God, to be righteous like God, should be our motivation--arising from our deep love and joy in Him; like a boy to whom the most intense, direct enjoyment of football would be to play the game himself, rather than simply watch others play.
Instead, how do we please Him?
With humility. With repentance. With faith in Him, not in ourselves.
18 Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness,
With burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.
With that as our foundation, we are empowered to truly serve in the more common, concrete action-oriented understanding of the word. To change lives for the better, to nurture and bless and build up our communities and the people around us. To build the walls of our own Jerusalems, not because God is depending on us to get it done, but because we see ourselves as the instruments of His good pleasure, of His power. Without the pride, self-reliance, anxiety, and doubt that characterizes human achievements. With humility and purity in our personal lives as the foundation for these "sacrifices".
Those are the sacrifices of righteousness, the sacrifices that please You.
If we live day to day without joy, it's a good indicator that we have lost sight of Christ's redeeming work.
I heard that in a sermon a while ago, and it resonated strongly with me. As it would with anyone.
Lift up your heart, we sing in church. Lift up your voice, rejoice, again I say, rejoice! We all want to experience this life-changing, steadfast joy--no weak common emotion like happiness, mind you, but something deeper and fiercer and stronger, as the word choice conveys.
Is it a huge, impossible challenge for you to have a happy life, to find contentment in your everyday? For so many years I lived with the impression that happiness lay several boxes away. Friends. Success. Affirmation. Aesthetics. Comfort. Tick those boxes and you've completed the formula for happiness, no?
Even as Christians, we still tend to have the same mentality. To experience the "joy of the Lord" that Nehemiah 8:10 talks about is such a surreal, transient thing that we hardly dare talk about it, maybe dismiss it as "charismatic", (*cough Reformed background weakness cough*) assume that we're not 'holy' enough to have reached that stage of loving God, we've got to first improve our spiritual disciplines and kick those bad habits entirely and...
I think that when we've lost sight of this joy that we as Christians are entitled to have, it's because we've lost sight of Christ--in our focus on doing things for Him, we neglect to enjoy Him. Amid all the distractions of our busy lives, our faith soon gets reduced to another set of to-do's. Read the Bible more. Get devotions in every day. Reach out to others.
But we forget that we don't have to have ticked all these boxes--an impossible task, by the way, at least while we're here struggling through the gory process of sanctification--to enjoy Him. That His joy, peace, and love are tangible in our lives, are directly relevant to our lives, in the midst of all we haven't done, shouldn't have done.
I think that is possibly the biggest lesson I've learnt this year. When I stopped to reflect on the past year and consider how I'd grown spiritually, my first response was guilt and discouragement. In so many of the ways I'd determined to grow this year--pray more! have more courage to talk about Christ! be more patient and loving!--I'd failed. Not even failed to make progress; in some cases, actually regressed. And so I felt, on the heels of that realization, that no, I hadn't "grown spiritually" much this year.
But the next moment I reconsidered that conclusion. Though I didn't have any ticked boxes or graphs to show for it, I felt that wasn't entirely true. This year has been a difficult year for me, a year full of change and often weariness. Of realizations that one by one take a little bit of sparkle away from how you see the world, the future. But amidst all that struggling, all the failure, even, I felt as though one lesson had cleared through the mist--learning to see how the person of God relates directly to my life, learning to appreciate and understand the significance of God's attributes.
And that enabled me to experience for the first time a kind of durable, everyday joy--a taste of the "peace which surpasses all understanding;" (Philippians 4:7) of why we call Him the "God of all comfort." (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
I think I won't do a good job explaining this, but I can only try.
For example. So many times I found myself repeatedly asking for forgiveness, for the same besetting sin, that even I got frustrated at myself, almost couldn't dare to imagine that God hadn't lost patience with me by now, that I hadn't made a mockery of Christ's atonement for me. Humanly speaking, there was no reason why not. I ran out of excuses. Forced to face, exhausted and speechless, the unpleasant fact that I just clung too tightly to sin.
And that was when I realized anew what GRACE and MERCY, those abstract, often dry terms which we use to describe God, actually meant. Their very real and direct application to my life--right now. Not only at the point of my conversion, but as a necessary and vital part of today, of what gave me hope, what encouraged me.
Our joy--as our hope, our peace, and so much more--is steadfast and strong because it does not depend on us. On our current mood or our current situation. It is based on Him, on Who He is; and that never changes, never fails us, is never less than we need.
This year, in different ways and over different stages, I've been realizing slowly just how significant each one of God's attributes are to me. A newfound appreciation and understanding of Who He is, and simultaneously who I am; and how He changes my life. I'd memorized in the Shorter Catechism Who God is:
God is spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.
But what does that actually mean?
To put it more specifically--what does that mean for my life, today?
This coming year, no matter what it brings for you--pain, affirmation, loss, growth, change--may you answer that question for yourself.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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