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.
image by Alexander Tudorach from Unsplash
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
2 Corinthians 13:14 is the last verse of the book, and also holds Paul's parting prayer for the Corinthian church. There are so many similar such closing prayers in many of the New Testament epistles, it's easy to pass them over, to see them as a generic list of abstract well wishes like a tacky Christmas card mindlessly proclaiming LOVE JOY PEACE.
However, my Search the Scriptures devotional focused on this verse, out of all the verses in the chapter. It asked, "Consider how the prayer of verse 14 sums up our Christian heritage, and gives the complete solution to our threefold need--our sin, our sorrow and weakness."
Grace, because only through the Lord Jesus were we redeemed and given a new lease of life, a new slate, a new identity, a new purpose.
Love, because without God's steadfast faithfulness, providence, and blessing we could not last a day--we could not come this far.
And the presence of the Holy Spirit to continually change us, to enable us for each day.
In a sense, this verse draws a simple but beautiful diagram of the Trinity in their respective roles and especially in relation to our needs. It also poses a reminder for us, for what we should be constantly engaging with, what we should be constantly aware of our need for, in our daily spiritual walk.
Grace, for our sin.
Love, for our sorrow.
And the Holy Spirit's presence in our hearts, to strengthen us in our struggle against sin, to make us stronger in our faith, in our love for Christ.
image by Ihor Malytsky from Unsplash
Having grown up, come to faith, and become a member in the same church, I've only known what it's been like to be in a small church, all my life. Even after so many years, we're nowhere nearer to outgrowing the "small" category. I like to watch the expressions of Christian friends when they tell me their church "isn't very big, couple of hundred only," and then ask me "how about yours?"
There are many challenges to being a small church. I would be the first to say that. For those of my readers who come from large churches, please don't misunderstand. This article is not a weird flex, an awkward attempt to feel better or appear superior or holier. Not by any means. I just want to challenge the unquestioned sense of pity that we (myself included) associate with small, struggling churches. To challenge the mentality that being small and struggling means that God hasn't blessed us. The temptations to feel envious of more "successful" churches, to wallow in self-pity, or fall into discouragement and despair stem from this mindset.
We all struggle. Struggling is not an indication that God has forsaken us, or cares less about us. When we focus too exclusively on the (inevitable) struggle we can end up blind to the gifts that He just as surely gives.
1. being in a small church = desperate lack of manpower = opportunities for us to realize--constantly!--that we need God's help and cannot rely on ourselves.
I'm aware that this is a problem that all churches face--on different levels. We always need more people to serve, we always fear that all the work is being thrown on the shoulders of a faithful few, the "core group." However, in a small church, this problem takes on whole new proportions. It's a looming problem constantly in your face, the first consideration of every decision. We're talking about every Sunday's worship service; managing to survive week by week, not having any backups, having to cancel or modify plans simply because there isn't enough manpower, or that one key person isn't available.
This is far from ideal by any human standards, of course. It leaves you in a state of constant instability and uncertainty, that can easily spiral into anxiety and discouragement. But instability and uncertainty are God's fertile grounds to grow faith, truly strong, tested faith. When you can't rely on your own planning, on people, on backup plans and strategies, you're forced to realize from the sheer bleakness of your resources that yes, you're not doing this with your own strength and ability. You're constantly aware that every Sunday, every prayer meeting, every event and every sermon, is enabled by God's sovereign will and power.
Too often we reduce the church to an institution, especially when we get lost in the multitude of admin/logistical needs and worries. And institutions are built on human effort and human ability--they look to human effort and ability for maintenance and progress. For any institution to improve, the humans running it try harder. Plan better. Purposefully expand. It's the recipe for success which we unthinkingly apply to so much of life.
But churches are so much more. They are the living fruit of God's Spirit working in God's people; each church in its unique context, with its unique abilities and needs. It is an organic, ongoing growth of the individuals within a community, and the relationships they have with God, both on their own and as a body. (yes, this is heavily influenced by the concepts of fellowship, or koinoinia, as developed in True Community by Jerry Bridges)
The kind of growth that cannot be defined in numbers, in graphs, or KPI.
A church that lost its pastor, or had a major split, or by all human standards seems to be struggling, may be spiritually thriving more than at any other "successful" point in their history.
This is not to say that we can only experience blessing/spiritual growth in the midst of trials, of course. But God delights to subvert the human ideals and standards for success, often to challenge them directly with how He works out His.
After all, He is the One Who reminded us that His strength is made perfect in our weakness.
2. pressing needs/urgent limitations = motivation to pray more
When you're face to face with your limitations and needs, you don't forget to pray. It's as simple as that. We are proud creatures; we don't like asking for help, or acknowledging that we need help, unless we absolutely have to. Often it completely slips our mind that we need help, in fact. We just get so used to managing, to getting by, that we let ourselves get entrenched in self-reliance. We take it for granted that we can manage, and that we can.
However, when the odds seem impossible, when you're faced with your own insufficiency, when you have nothing to find reassurance in--you don't forget to pray.
Prayer meetings became a much more personal, intense affair for me when I started seeing how urgent the needs of the church were. It truly became God's people meeting to pray together, to confess our neediness and unworthiness, to plead with Him for His help, to seek to grow in faith as we try to obey Him and serve Him amid many reminders of our inadequacy.
In our worst times, we come closest to Him. In our neediest situations, we glimpse His abundance and power, far more clearly than we could when we are contented and flushed with success or prosperity.
3. less excuses, and less barriers, to form friendships and relationships; to practice Biblical fellowship.
I've heard from so many friends on the challenge of being in a big church, where you don't even know where to start, where you feel lost, and where--in too many cases--you end up settling for coming jusssst in time for the sermon and sneaking away the moment it ends, in order to avoid the mass of people and inevitable initial awkwardness. (I can relate to this, almost every time I visit a--comparatively--large church. Guilty as charged.)
Sadly, this means we miss out on the huge blessing and privilege that Christian fellowship is meant to be. And even if we try, we often end up settling for smalltalk over coffee and snacks as "fellowship."
One blessing about being in a small church is that you have a much better chance of knowing everyone's names, and of seeing the same people each Sunday. There are more opportunities, so to speak, to build deeper relationships, simply due to the lesser number of people.
But just to be clear, nothing--not the most conducive environment in the world--can replace the genuine desire to reach out, and purposefully acting on that desire. If our hearts aren't in it, there will always be reasons (perhaps excuses would be a better word) to keep us from reaching out.
4. similarly--less excuses to get involved in serving. After my (already small) church went through a major split a few years back, we were even smaller than we were initially. Without the deacons who had been faithfully serving all those years, we suddenly faced manpower issues on a whole new scale. For the first time, the youths and young adults made the decision to step up and serve, despite our lack of experience. For many of us, who still felt that we were relatively young in the faith, we would otherwise continue assuming we weren't up to the responsibility, and settle comfortably for assisting in smaller, less "important" ways. Teaching Sunday School? Sharing at prayer meeting? Leading worship? Organizing camp? But I feel like I'm not up to such a big task! When are we, though? (in fact--feeling like we are may not actually be a good sign.) Again, it's a reminder that we don't serve because we're good at it, or because we're holy enough to qualify; we serve with the strength that God supplies. (1 Peter 4:11)
We get discouraged so easily. We think the answer lies in getting a church venue of our own--or a bigger, better one--in having more people--in having more funds--in having better pastors, teachers, leaders, structures, programs. We worry, sigh, feel sorry for ourselves, and lonely--when in reality He is among us.
I remember being struck by how the Christians under persecution seemed to be in touch with a strong, vibrant joy and sensitivity to Christ. Despite their very real struggles and trials, this joy and consciousness of God's presence only became clearer and more important. They were truly enabled to find out how much He loved them, and how precious He was--an overwhelming knowledge greater even than the fear and uncertainty of their circumstances.
How much more so us?
Whatever the size of your church is--there will always be anxieties. There will always be struggles. But that's not the main thing. How we respond to those struggles, how we learn to draw closer to God and see His presence in every situation... If I've learnt anything, it is that.
We worship a good God.
image from Unsplash
Those of us who serve in our churches--no matter what kind of ministry we're involved in--will know that challenges come thick and fast with serving.
Always, whether in teaching or arranging chairs, the temptation is to treat it as any other task--manual housework; finishing an assignment; organizing an event; giving a presentation. We take the same business-like approach to serving in church that we take to our offices, our classrooms, our kitchens. Get the task done. Plan for the next time. Do it faster, better.
The problem is it's not the same. Success, efficiency, productivity, self-worth, approval, rewards--these things, foundational to the mindset we take to any other forms of work, should not be our motivation and goal here, at least not to the same extent. We treat them as standards and methods through which we achieve success and make progress, through which we evaluate ourselves and our serving, the same way we assess our work in school or in the office.
This misguided application is often the reason behind us falling into discouragement and despair. Bitterness. Self-pity. Guilt. Resentment. Burn-out.
We need instead to consciously cultivate and focus on the true essentials for serving.
1. prayerfulness. This is so often repeated that it's become trite; but really, is it just because we can't draw a clear line between prayer and its benefits? If someone made an argument that for every hour of prayer, we would experience n amount of blessing on our ministry, I think prayer would actually appear on our schedules as something we took seriously. Too often we rush through prayer, itching to get to "the real work," massively confusing our priorities.
If we feel that the benefits of prayer are vague, that very fact indicates how we've lost sight of it as the basis of our spiritual life, and how enslaved we've become to a results-oriented mindset. Like a husband who calculates the benefits of talking to his wife.
2. a Biblical attitude towards serving, and understanding God's role in enabling us. This is so much more important than we realize. It enables us to deal with burn-out, disillusionment, ungrateful or difficult people, feeling lonely, unappreciated, or being taken for granted. Why do we serve, and how are we able to in the first place? (Fyi, Jerry Bridges discusses this concept of enablement and serving in his excellent book, True Community. But more on that another day.)
3. a right perspective and focus on people instead of goals, individuals instead of numbers, hearts instead of conformist external behaviour. It is so easy to look to these temptingly concrete things for assurance and certainty. Whether congregation size or skirt lengths. But God's ways are different from man's ways, and we need to let go of the standards we use to measure success, the need to constantly measure (and reassure ourselves of) success.
4. humility so you are able to receive and benefit from constructive criticism--and not be devastated when it's...not constructive. Also, to keep you from seeing this role or ministry as "yours," becoming possessive--seeing it as an extension of your self-image and worth, the way we tend to with our jobs and academics etc. I've realized this can be a real challenge, after working in the same ministry for many years. It is a very real and natural temptation to make it an extension of myself; seeing any praise or encouragement of it as a reflection of my skills/worth, any criticism as a personal attack that threatens my self-image.
5. heart of peace that stems from trust in God, and relying on Him. It helps us to cope with stress, anxiety, and to rest intentionally. Purposefully planning rest--and being able to truly rest, not just physically but mentally and emotionally--is something that many of us need to learn.
It helps us also not to blow things out of proportion, to micromanage/stress over not getting exactly the outcome we want.
6. actively growing in our relationship with God, and keeping a clear conscience before the Spirit. If we are clinging to idols, finding excuses for pet sins, neglecting our time with God, harbouring bitterness, or refusing to forgive someone, how can we expect to serve in ministry? How can we expect God to enable us?
Many of these are interrelated--cultivating one helps you in developing another--because they are all aspects of spiritual growth.
Which in turn shows us that one of God's means of helping us grow spiritually is through serving.
Dear friend, as you stifle a sigh and try not to be anxious, struggle with burn-out and discouragement--
--try to see beyond merely the task at hand. It is so easy to simply focus on what needs to be done, and forget that God could have chosen any way, in His infinite power, to accomplish this work or meet this need.
Instead, He chose you. He chose you, knowing full well there would be challenges, limitations, imperfections, mistakes.
He knows, and He chose, for a reason, and it is so much more than just getting this task done.
This task is nothing compared to His passion for your growth; it is only His tool.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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