I was asked, recently, to comment upon apparitions of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. Here’s how I responded (in case anyone else is interested):
It’s difficult to talk about the Virgin Mary. On the extremes, Protestants contend that reverencing her borders on polytheism while Catholics take offense at any slight (as if somebody said something bad about your mom). It is my opinion, from Scripture, that Mary was a virgin until after the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:25) and that when the Gospels talk about Jesus’ brothers, they mean just that (John 7:3).
I think that Mary was fallible, just like the rest of us and needed salvation through her Son, just as we do. I think of the time that she and her other sons came to take Jesus away because they thought he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:20-34). It is also seems that she jumped the gun with her request for him to do something about the wine shortage at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. Jesus told Mary that his “hour has not yet come” (John 2:1-12). God the Father must have told Jesus to go ahead and change the water into wine moments later, honoring her request.
Mary was blessed and graced like no other in history (Luke 1). Most Protestants pay too little attention to Mary as a model of faith, obedience, and perseverance compared to Jesus’ other male disciples.The Orthodox Church has a slightly different perspective on Mary than the Catholic Church. In Orthodox iconography, Mary is never pictured without Jesus. I think that’s healthier. Mary must always point to Jesus as Lord and Savior.Thus, the sightings of the Virgin Mary, alone, at Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe, and Medjugorje present me with slight problems. One of my problems is: why Mary and not other disciples? Is it because she’s a woman and sometimes the church needs a more feminine touch? Why are there no records of Mary’s supernatural visitations earlier in church history? Why is it predominantly a Roman Catholic thing? All that aside, I believe that God could send Mary as an ambassador if He thought it would bring people closer to Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life” because no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). So, I would look at the fruit of the apparitions – do they point people to Jesus?
Look at the span of her life and see where Mary was after the resurrection. She was with the believers in the Upper Room, waiting for the Holy Spirit to fall upon them (Acts 1:12-14). We would be wise to do likewise. She must have become part of the community of the faithful that shared with one another as each had need. She must have devoted herself to prayer and to the Apostles’ teaching (like the rest of the church in Acts 2:42-47).Let’s be like Mary.
Ultimately, Mary falls at her Son’s feet with the rest of the saints, thanking Him for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life (Revelation 7:9-10). The result of her being “highly favored,” the one of whom Elizabeth said,“blessed are you among women,” and she whom “all generations will call blessed” will live happily under her Son’s rule, now unto the ages of ages.
We’ve made it to our final week of Lent! I tackle our last Deadly Virtue — Generosity — as the antidote to greed. This theme is especially fitting on this Wednesday of Passion Week. Today is known as Spy Wednesday to mark the day that Judas (the “spy”) agreed to betray our Lord.And why? Because, being consumed by greed, he asked the chief priests, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. Judas lacked the virtue of generosity.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”—Jesus, Matthew 6:19-21
“I’m convinced that the greatest deterrent to giving is this: the illusion that earth is our home.” —Randy Alcorn, The Treasure Principle
“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. . . . If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.” – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
The Deadly Virtue of Generosity
Oseola McCarty worked all her life washing and ironing other people’s clothes. She didn’t earn much, but she always saved her money. Her one regret was that she had little education, for she had quit school to help her family. In 1995, at age 87, she did an amazing thing: She gave $150,000 (a value of $257,500 today) to the University of Southern Mississippi, in her home town, so that other young people could afford to stay in school. An award-winning children’s book, The Riches of Osceola McCarty, illustrated by Daniel Minter, tells the story of McCarty, a woman who loved the Lord and loved to give.
In a church where I was on staff, there was a group of guys who called themselves the Desperados. This was an amazing group of young men. If they heard about a family that was in financial need, they’d buy groceries—and not just the regular stuff. They bought steaks, wine, candles, flowers and, of course, all the other stuff a family needs. They would set it on the porch late at night, ring the doorbell and run away into the darkness, watching for the family’s reaction from a safe hiding place.
They got the idea from some Desperados at another church. There, those Desperados found out about a woman who had no money and no gas in her car after she had just barely made it to the church service. They managed to get into the pew behind hers, reach under her seat, grab her purse, find the keys, slip her purse back, drive the car to get gas (while one of them stayed behind to hold the parking place), put the car back, and then return the keys along with slipping a $20 bill into her purse—all before the church service was finished. Can you imagine what she thought as she started her car and watched the gas gauge needle slowly sweeping toward the full mark?
The dictionary defines generosity as “readiness or liberality in giving,” and “openhandedness, marked by ample proportions.” Contrarily, the vice of greed is defined as, “excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth,” and “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed.” Here’s the deal: you can’t be greedy in the same instance that you’re being generous, for the virtue kills the vice (see Matthew 6:24). That’s why we call it The Deadly Virtue of Generosity. How does a person becomes generous as opposed to greedy? The answer might surprise you.
“But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.” —King David, speaking to God in 1Chronicles 29:14
We must remember that we are receivers before we can even think about being givers because God made us to be receivers first. He is the Giver and we are the receivers—over and over again. Everything we have comes from Him, and He has been very generous. Just look around: Where have you seen God give to you in over-the-top ways (or even in sneaky ways?) The Bible says that God loves a “cheerful giver.” That is because cheerful giving is what God does. It’s a blast to give away the stuff God has given to us, but we have to start with a theology of receiving that stuff first. Everything we think we own, we owe to God. We are trustees of all that we have received.
It is not, “How much do I give to God from what is mine? It is, “How much of God’s do I keep for myself?” Some Christians get stuck on the concept of the tithe; that is, the Old Testament concept of giving 10% of one’s crops, herds, and income. It is not about giving 10% of our money to God. God owns everything anyway. He doesn’t really need our measly 10%. Allow me to illustrate: I remember taking my young son to McDonald’s. He ordered a Happy Meal. We sat down, and after a while I asked him for one of his french fries. He didn’t want to give me one. I thought to myself, “I can go over to the counter and buy this kid enough french fries to bury him, but he won’t even share one of them!” We all know that it wasn’t about me needing a french fry—it was about him needing to learn how to share. Maybe that’s how God looks at us.
More than a billion people out of the Earth’s six-and-a half billion live in desperate poverty caused by famines, earthquakes, war, corrupt governments, lack of education, disease, unfair trade laws, and false philosophies. At least 200 million of these one billion desperately poor people are followers of Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:10). In North America, there is an increasing disparity between rich and poor, largely along racial lines. Meanwhile, middle and upper-class Americans, including Christians, now eat out an average 30% of their meals (except for now during the coronavirus pandemic). At the same time, the amount of money spent on sports, recreation, lawn care, video and computer games, home entertainment centers, pets, and dieting has skyrocketed. But Christians are giving less to charities than ever before, from an average of 4% of their total incomes in 1960 to an average of 2% recently.
People who watch Christian trends have made two staggering calculations. If every American Christian did give 10% of their incomes, the additional amount of money that would be raised above and beyond the current level would be enough to eradicate world poverty in our lifetime. Second, the average age of major donors for both church and parachurch organizations is now well over 65 years of age. Current Christian work is being funded largely by retired people, who themselves lived a more frugal lifestyle a generation ago. Thus, unless patterns of Christian generosity change dramatically, a majority of currently existing ministries will close their doors for lack of finances within one generation.
One of the weirdest things is that while all this is happening, some Christian leaders are promoting a health/wealth gospel that pretends it is God’s desire for the already affluent American Christian (by Third-World standards) to become even richer. Even if we don’t feel rich, we don’t have to be rich to be greedy—many have little but their life is consumed by getting more. It is our conviction that the first step away from this madness and into the virtue of generosity is to begin with a theology of receiving. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. We have received much—and to whom much is given, much is required. We are to be receivers first, givers second, and to be generous as God is generous.
Responding to the Deadly Virtue of Generosity
Who (apart from Jesus) is the most generous person you’ve ever heard of? Who, on earth, has been the most generous to you? Why do you think those people gave so much?
An eminent 20th-century innovator in the world of manufacturing and construction, R. G. LeTourneau tithed 90% of his personal and business income to the Lord’s work, establishing a foundation, a liberal arts and technical college, as well as making significant contributions to expanding the work of his church and its denomination. Do you think it is possible to be too generous? What percentage of your own income do you think would be too much for you to give? What percentage would be too little?
If you decided to be a Desperado like the guys in the stories above, what is one way that you might pull something like that off? Or, if you were to begin being like Oseola McCarty, where might you direct your additional generosity—to what organization or persons?
While being a helpful resource, money can never satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. It can’t provide purpose, fulfillment, or true joy; furthermore, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” according to 1Timothy 6:10. Think of someone who is greedy with money. How does that greed affect the rest of their life?Contrast that with generous people you know. How are their lives different, in all areas?
Two friends met in the street. One looked sad and on the verge of tears. The other man said, “Hey my friend, how come you look like the whole world has caved in?”
The sad fellow said, “Let me tell you. Three weeks ago, an uncle died and left me fifty thousand dollars.”
“Sorry about your uncle, but fifty grand’s not bad at all…”
“Hold on, I’m just getting started. Two weeks ago, a cousin I never knew kicked-the-bucket and left me ninety-five thousand tax-free dollars to boot.”
“Again, sorry about your cousin, but I’d like to inherit that kind of money.”
Then the dismal fellow added, ”Last week, my grandfather passed away and I inherited almost a million.”
“That’s too many deaths in a short time. I can understand why you’re so sad.”
“And what’s worse—this week—nothing!”
A Christian farmer is overjoyed to see that his cow is pregnant. Not being in need, he plans to raise the calf and sell it for profit. Time passes and the cow ultimately gives birth to two calves. The farmer is even happier, rejoicing and thanking the Lord.
He tells his wife, “God has been so gracious to us, when I sell these two calves at market, half the proceeds will be given unto Him.” The farmer’s wife commends his for his generosity.
One day, several weeks later, the farmer returns home from his work day on the farm, saddened and reserved. His wife asks him what happened.
With “shelter in place” orders, travel bans and various restrictions, do you have that sense that our whole country is being asked to do something like practice Lent together? The goals may differ but, there is something familiar about it. Perhaps, The Church—in her wisdom—has championed Lent throughout the centuries knowing that there will always come a time when everyone is asked to “go without.” Because of Lent, The Church would then be prepared to lead the way in times such as this, offering practical help and Holy Hope. Below, Dave Meserve writes about a virtue that helps us navigate today’s challenges.
“Whenever I feel the need to exercise, I lie down until it goes away.” (Paul Terry)
“But the precious possession of a person is diligence.” (Proverbs 12:27)
The DEADLY VIRTUE of DILIGENCE
Like most on our list of Deadly Virtues, the words Mike and I have chosen don’t necessarily carry the meaning today of their original intent. Our latest virtue, DILIGENCE, is no exception.
When I hear “diligence” my picture is of an auditor obsessed with attention to detail in order to honor “due diligence,” the most common use of this word. It’s as if diligence is only about satisfying some legal requirement. Hardly makes the heart beat faster.
The original idea of diligence is far more captivating. Our English word arrives to us from the Old French meaning “attention, care” and carries the sense of “taking delight” in something. It is “love and care through being attentive.” Now that quickens the heart.
Our Greek New Testaments offers something which is interesting for its stark contrast tothe Deadly Sin of Sloth. Diligence “speeds up” something within us, moving us to action and effort. Putting this all together, diligence is “love and care through being attentive” where our care is in earnest. This is a foundational virtue.
We learn from the Epistles what we are to earnestly care about: the poor (Gal. 2:10), keeping spiritual unity (Eph. 4:3), confirming our calling (2 Peter 1:10) and especially being diligent toward one another (2 Cor. 7:12). It is all about a having a heart that deeply loves and cares.
Other things to note from our Scriptures:
When Paul attaches virtues to the spiritual gifts, he specifically attached the virtue of diligence to the gift of leadership (Rom. 12:8). Spiritual leadership demands love and earnest care.
Paul says that earnest care was produced by the church’s “godly sorrow” (2 Cor. 7:11). A heart that can repent is a mark of a heart that can love and earnestly care.
Peter writes a beautiful progression that begins with faith and ends with love. He says that we must speed all of these virtues along by “applying all diligence” (2 Peter 1:5). Diligence is foundational to fully exhibit all the other virtues.
Diligence is deadly to the sin of sloth. We might call it laziness today, but it is deeper than how we tend to use the word. The heart of what it means to be lazy or slothful is not caring. In the early centuries, it was called acedia which literally meant to be “without care”. It was seen as a core sin as it strips away the very soundness of our soul. It has been called “the sin of the empty soul … a weariness of the soul.”
In this sense, the slothful person refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. To live with this, as one writer put it, is like being “on spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.” Not only does it make us unable to care, it takes away our ability to feel bad about it.
My favorite reference for this condition comes from ancient monks who called this “the noonday devil” as it came upon them most intensely in the heat of the day. They would see this as an attack by the “demon” of sloth. We may refrain from that language but can appreciate their diligence in the face of this foe.
They believe that these “demons” could not act directly on the intellect and so, instead, they aroused bad thoughts by working on the memory and the imagination. For example, “nostalgia” — remembering the past far more fondly than reality suggests — was one way those “demons” would create sloth in the soul. If the best days are behind you, why care in the present?
Similarly, to subvert theimagination by obsessing over a “grass is greener” future also removed your soul from being attentive to others. You cannot love and care for others in the present when you are infatuated with your future.
When young monks needed help with sloth they would seek out an elder. Their elders resisted the modern advice of recommending a change of scenery or to go “treat yourself”. Instead they would insist on the virtue of diligence.
Let’s end with some of that ancient wisdom to help us strengthening diligence as a means to fight sloth. Most of this comes from Evagrius, a 4th century monk. I’ll add my paraphrases in bold.
When sloth came upon him in the desert, Abba Anthony prayed to be delivered and was shown that any physical task, done in the right spirit, could free him. Do something physical to help get you out of your bad thoughts.
When a young monk faced sloth in the repetitiveness of his work and scenery, the counsel would be to not look without but within; “Go, sit in your cell and your cell with teach you everything.” Your listlessness should not be avoided simply by continually changing scenery. Face yourself in the place you are.
“What heals sloth is staunch persistence… Set a measure for yourself in everything that you do, and don’t turn from it until you’ve reached that goal.” Make small, manageable goals throughout your day and stay with them until done.
“As far as we are able, exalt the mercies of Christ” to battle the despair of sloth. The reading of Scripture was essential to reorient them to reality along with “praying intelligently”. Read your Bibles out loud and sit with the words for a few minutes everyday. Talk to God about it.
I honestly love how practical those ancient monks were. As for our hopes of loving and caring through being attentive, there is nothing better to shake us out of care-lessness than fostering the deadly virtue of diligence.
O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.
If there is a time we need to earnestly care it is now. May our eyes be open and our ears attentive to the world just around us. And, as we face the challenges of our times may we also learn to face ourselves.
Keep us from nostalgia that refuses to look forward with hope and from a corrupted imagination that doubts You are at work in our present.
Help us, O Lord, to see Your love through attentiveness toward us — every single day — that we may be diligent ourselves to the things You so deeply care about. Amen.
Responding to the Deadly Virtue of Diligence
Reflect on the definition of diligence as “loving through attentiveness”. Who has modeled that for you? In particular, how are they attentive and to what are they attentive?
The heart of diligence is to care deeply about something/someone. What do you care deeply about right now? What moves your heart to action? Has anything begun to shape your heart during this time of a global pandemic?
Have you had a season that might fit the description of sloth/acedia when nothing much seemed to matter in life? How do you describe it? Do your remember what helped you move on? Are you in that kind of season right now?
Depression v. Acedia. Writer Kathleen Norris* puts it this way: Depression generally has an identifiable and external cause whereas acedia arises out of nowhere, emerging from inner depths without warning nor reason. Depression is more amendable to treatment. It will disrupt life so that, eventually, you cannot fail to notice and take action. Acediais more subtle when it wells up and “only the venerable practice of spiritual discernment is of much use.” Reflect on these distinctions. Where does it take you?
Of the four practical responses listed above, which are the most natural for you? Which are the least? Is there one you that is calling to you?
For Fun and Exploration:
There was a very diligent man who was overweight. He decided that he had some excess pounds to lose. Since he was very diligent, he stuck to his diet earnestly. He even had a new route to work so that he wouldn’t drive by his favorite bakery in the morning. However, one day, he came into work with a big coffee cake. His coworkers started to scold him because they all knew he was dieting. The diligent man said that he could explain. “You see, I accidentally drove past my favorite bakery today and I saw all these delicious coffee cakes through the window out on the display case. So I prayed. I prayed to God and said, “If you really think I should have this delicious coffee cake, please have an open parking spot right in front of the bakery.” Then the man paused for a moment and added, “Soon enough, there was one on my eighth time around!”—————————————— A sloth was reporting he was robbed by two turtles, when the officer asked for the details on the scene of the crime the sloth replied, “I’m not quite sure…It all happened so fast.” —————————————— The Sloth is a South American animal which sleeps about 80% of the time. When awake, it barely moves because its metabolism converts food to energy so slowly. Their speed is somewhere between a garden snail and a giant tortoise. A fun picture of a sloth comes from the recent animated film, “Zootopia”. Do a YouTube search of “Flash Zootopia” and watch a sloth (named “Flash,” of course) work at the DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles)
* Dave is reading a book on this subject: Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris (2008). It is not short (336 pages) but, if you are intrigued by the concept of “acedia,” this is a great read. Norris is a wonderful poet/writer who came back to the faith in her 30’s when she moved from NYC to S. Dakota.
LOVE: what more can be said? The old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt” may be a temptation when you first glance at this week’s theme of LOVE. “The Church talks about love all the time!” You may be thinking to yourself. Yet, to speak of it as a “DEADLY VIRTUE” changes the conversation. I (Mike) bring this week’s devotion. Read on and stay strong during these strange days and our final weeks of Lent.
Love doesn’t make the world go round. Love is what makes the ride worthwhile.
—Franklin P. Jones
“He that but looketh on a plate of ham and eggs to lust after it hath already committed breakfast with it in his heart.”
—C.S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady (March 10, 1954)
It may seem odd to call “love” a virtue. I think it seems odd because our culture continually tells us that love is a feeling. Those of us who have been well-loved—or who have attempted to love well—know that it’s not just a feeling. Love is intention and action and difficult to accomplish (much of the time). If you don’t believe this, then re-read 1Corinthian’s 13:4-8 where we are told that love is “patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” When Jesus tells us to “love your enemies” in Luke 6:35, love, obviously, becomes a virtue.
Love, the virtue, is the mortal enemy of lust, the vice. Lust is a passionate, overmastering yearning. It’s an intense craving, usually for something sinful. Most of the time we use it to refer to an illicit sexual desire. As C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, “Love is the great conqueror of lust.” Here is the irony. We lust because we think that the object of our immoral fascination will make us ecstatically happy—not understanding that God does want us to be ecstatically happy in ways that are true and lasting. Our lusts, as a matter of fact, move that happiness further and further out of our reach. God wants us to love so that we can actually find the joy that we seek.
Take the problem of pornography, for instance. After a few decades as a pastor of young men, I can tell you that most of them are seeking sexual intimacy and the pleasure associated with it (of course). Here’s the thing: God created them to long for that and He’s the one who came up with the whole idea of sex in the first place. The problem is that by lusting after the images on their computers and elsewhere, these young men are actually pushing the intimacy they pursue farther away—for they were created to love someone who loves them back within a secure covenant of marriage. I’ll repeat: God wants us to love so that we can find the joy that we seek—joy that is only found in Him who is Love. Hidden within every one of our lusts is a desire for something good. As G. K. Chesterton said, “Every time a man knocks on the door of a brothel he is looking for God.”
If lust is damaging to what we were created to enjoy, then love (by its very nature) is healing; although, it may not be easy. In his fantasy book, The Great Divorce, Lewis employs an allegory of lasting impact. It is worth a long look.
There is a man upon whose shoulder sits “a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear.” This lizard would implant lustful thoughts in the man’s mind and give him dreams that had “sometimes gone too far in the past.” In the book, a large flaming angel extends its hand and asks the man’s permission to kill the chattering creature. After much mental and spiritual struggle, the man finally agrees. The man “gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken-backed, on the turf.”
As this happens, the man himself begins to be remade—more solid, brighter, stronger, larger—and something seemed to be happening to the lizard. “The creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks. Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinnying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled.”
“The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse’s neck. It nosed his bright body. Horse and master breathed each into the other’s nostrils. The man turned from it, flung himself at the feet of the Burning One, and embraced them. When he rose I thought his face shone with tears, but it may have been only the liquid love and brightness (one cannot distinguish them in that country) which flowed from him. I had not long to think about it. In joyous haste the young man leaped upon the horse’s back. Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels. They were off before I well knew what was happening. There was riding if you like! I came out as quickly as I could from among the bushes to follow them with my eyes; but already they were only like a shooting star far off on the green plain, and soon among the foothills of the mountains. Then, still like a star, I saw them winding up, scaling what seemed impossible steeps, and quicker every moment, till near the dim brow of the landscape, so high that I must strain my neck to see them, they vanished, bright themselves, into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.”
Lust is an impoverished, pitiful substitute for the love God gives us when we submit to His ways. The Virtue of Love will carry us through this life and into the eternal joys of Heaven.
Lord, I confess my sin of lust to you and I denounce it for the vice that it is.
Help me to love instead—to honor the ones I have lusted after instead of using them.
May I not seek my own pleasure but strive for the joy that you want to give me by loving as you love. For you are love, my God, and the model of what it means to love another person.
May my love be patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud.
May it honor others and not be selfish, not be easily angered and may it keep no record of wrongs.
May my love never delight in evil but rejoice with the truth, always protect, always trust, always hope, always persevere and never fail. So be it by your great power and your love for me, Jesus. Amen.
Responding to the Deadly Virtue of Love:
Who, among your family and friends, has loved you the best? Pinpoint a few specific examples of how that love was shown to you. Have you ever loved others in the same way? Why or why not?
It is said that lust seeks a legitimate desire by illegitimate means. Examine just one of your lusts. What do you think might be the “true good” you are searching for in the wrong way? How would God want you to pursue it?
In our overly-sexualized Western culture, where do you think the culture has, indeed, embraced love over lust? Why?
Name one person in your life that you want to love better. What is one way to exhibit the virtue of love these last few weeks of Lent?
“Before his death, aged 63 . . . the NBA’s Wilt The Stilt Chamberlain, confessed to some misgivings about his estimated 20,000 lovers. “It would have been better for me to have one woman 1,000 times,” said Chamberlain. “I wasn’t bragging that I was a great lover. Actually, you can say that I had so many women because I was such a bad lover. They never came back a second time.” —Tony Parsons in GQ Magazine, 22 February 2013
I asked my girlfriend to meet me at the gym but she never showed up. I guess the two of us aren’t going to work out.
How do you get a farmer’s daughter to fall in love with you? A tractor.
I dated a Communist once. I had no idea. She seemed sweet. But it didn’t end well. Honestly, I should have noticed all the red flags.
Love is telling someone to go to hell and worrying about them getting there safely.
We are being asked, for the sake of our communities, to suspend normal rituals and routines, and keep to ourselves until further notice. You have been receiving advice and warnings by the virtual truckload. Dave and I have no intention to pile on. All we want to do is help you keep your Lent fresh and your souls clean. This week’s virtue may be the most initially unappealing; yet, we think it is absolutely crucial for these strange days. Dave writes this week’s entry.
“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.” ~ Ecclesiastes 2:10
“I guess a modern version of heroism is regaining control of social impulses, saying ‘no’ to a thousand shallow contacts for the sake of a few daring plunges.” ~ David Brooks
Temperance: let’s give it another try.
It is impossible to write anything this morning without acknowledging the strange times in which we live. With the coronavirus, we are witness to something that literally affects every American (and world citizen) in real time. It is an unavoidable backdrop to Lent 2020. And we see no need to avoid it.
Mike and I understand these Seven Deadly Virtues as speaking into our present situation. Lent is not a distraction to real life but the path to walk gracefully through it. Therefore, it is precisely during times of disruption where virtue is most needed and where vice is most tempting.
That brings us to our Deadly Virtue of the week: TEMPERANCE. The word itself has lost its place in our language except to conjure up images of an angry, axe-wielding woman of old (see the fascinating Carry Nation) or, perhaps, the Puritans in general.
The dictionary helpfully describes temperance as “habitual moderation in the indulgence of a natural appetite.” The King James Bible keeps temperance in the text when our modern translations use self-control. The concept is easy to grasp; to be temperate is to exercise voluntary self-control.
Despite America’s Puritan heritage, we must admit that temperance has become a very un-American virtue. We are not exactly known for voluntary self-restraint. The writer of Ecclesiastes (quoted above) may be our culture’s patron saint; we, too, are tempted to deny ourselves nothing which our eyes desire.
Temperanceis the antidote to the sin of gluttony. Where temperance moderates indulgences, gluttony impulsively over-indulges. Fundamentally, gluttony is a failure of self-control, the inability to be temperate with something that is otherwise normal and necessary.
There was a famous Stanford University study, The Marshmallow Experiment (1970), regarding self-control and children. Kids could choose one marshmallow in the moment or, if they waited an indefinite amount of time, they could have two. The conclusion: those who delayed immediate gratification tended to have better long-term life outcomes.
The idea is sound. To exercise self-control by choosing not to indulge in something you want — even something good—is part of our personal maturity and our spiritual formation. And, like all Deadly Virtues, it leads us to better life outcomes. How is your life of self-control these days?
Both Peter and Paul include temperance/self-controlin their lists of virtues. Peter tells us to add self-control to our knowledge (2 Peter1:6) as he describes the progression of spiritual growth; knowledge requires temperance (see the reflection section below).
Paul places it at the end of his famous Fruits of the Spirit list (Galatians 5:23). It caught me how important temperance must be when its place is alongside iconic virtues such as love and joy. By calling it a fruit of God’s Spirit, we admit that temperance is more an outcome of following Jesus than something we simply will into our lives. Like the metaphor suggests, our focus is to cling to the Vine as if our lives depends on it and in season, fruit arrives (see John 15).
Fasting—historically the centerpiece of Lenten practices—is designed to build the virtue of temperance. There is much Christ can do with a person who seeks to practice self-control in even one area of their life. For starters, things get revealed: chronic dependencies, favorite self-medications, places of constant temptation, “good” things that lead you away from community or responsibility and more.
All of these personal revelations open space for God if we let temperance do its inner work. And as we become more proficient at self-control, other areas of our life may open up for God’s grace to move. Yes, temperance is a foundational virtue that will lead us to a better long-term life outcome.
Regarding our current reality with the COVID-19 sickness, this is a time for our whole culture, not just the Church, to rediscover the grace and power of temperance. Where is Christ calling us to restrain ourselves for the sake of our neighbors?
We need to stop fighting against this archaic-sounding virtue that has the audacity to deny us something within our reach and within our rights. We need to embrace the Spirit of Temperance and reclaim a piece of our spiritual heritage—and this embracing will help navigate this time of crisis.
Lord, hear our Prayer:
May this time of “social distancing” create a deeper hunger for community in our neighbors and ourselves.
May our hearts be more focused and our actions more compassionate during this crisis.
May we learn to deny what will harm us while we learn to embrace what will heal us.
May our attempts at temperance — no matter how small or how frustrating — grant us a greater taste of your grace and may they be marked by Joy.
May our growth in temperance lead us to you.
May our failures in temperance lead us to you.
May our true fast be to loosen the chains of selfishness that bind us.
Lord, grant us the power to do so—in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
During our current coronavirus outbreak, where have you noticed a struggle with self-control? Is there a good, natural appetite you’re having to moderate or deny? Can you re-focus that to become a spiritual practice by inviting Christ into it?
If you have taken a Lenten fast, how is it going? (Did you give up March Madness?) Consider taking one week for a concentrated fast. Find one good thing in which you indulge everyday (food, drink, screens, games…) and simply deny it. See what it sparks within you. Talk to God about it.
If you have never read through “The Twelve Steps” of AA*, you would be wise to become familiar with them. Which steps catch your attention? Is there one takeaway for this time of crisis? (*AA was founded just two years after Prohibition—two different approaches to the same problem of alcohol addiction).
Peter writes that self control helps us with knowledge (2 Peter 1:5-8). How might that work? Think about what is involved in knowing something or someone else; what role might self-control/self-restraint play in deepening that knowledge?
Temperance (translated self-control) is one of three subjects Paul brings up to a Roman Governor when he was under house arrest (Acts 24:25). Why do you think he brought up self control? Is this why Felix left the conversation terrified?
A preacher was completing a sermon on temperance. With great expression he said, “If I had all the beer in the world, I’d take it and throw it into the river!”
The congregation nodded their approval. With even greater emphasis the preacher added, “And if I had all the wine in the world, I’d take it and throw it into the river, too!”
The people clapped and said, “AMEN.”
“And if I had all the whiskey in the world,” said the preacher, “I’d take it and throw it into the river!”
As the reverend sat down, the song leader then stood very cautiously and announced with a smile, “For our closing song, let us sing Hymn 365: Shall We Gather at the River.”
Welcome back to another week of Lent. We hope it has been meaningful time for you so far.
While we settle into a month named after the Roman God of War, Dave and I invite you to consider that which is deadly to war: The VIRTUE OF PEACE. I write this week’s devotion, and I’ve provided other Biblical passages to consider, several ways to respond, and a hippie cartoon. Something for everyone!
“God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” —C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
“First keep peace with yourself, then you can also bring peace to others.” —Thomas a Kempis
“While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.”—Francis of Assisi
THE VIRTUE OF PEACE
The Biblical idea of peace is much more than just an absence of conflict. It is the presence of something better—wholeness. Shalom (the Hebrew word for Peace) denotes something complex that is in a state of completeness. It’s when all the parts of your life are meshing well. it’s the restoration of relationships. Shalom in your marriage is not when you stop fighting—it is when you are working together. The Bible looks forward to the Prince of Shalom bringing peace forever (Isaiah 9:5–6). He will put the whole world to rights and will heal everything that has been damaged. Even now, Jesus restores the relationship between God and humans, between us people, and within ourselves. (Ephesians 2:14–15)
For me, the opposite of the virtue of peace is the vice of wrath. Some people call it anger. “But Jesus did get angry,“ I can hear people saying. Let’s talk about that. Jesus was almost always peaceful and did not get angry very often. Of the few times recorded in Scripture, one was because the religious establishment was preventing the Gentiles from worshiping the true God in the Jewish Temple. The Jewish leaders had erected a marketplace in the court of the Gentiles—which was the only place in the Temple area for non-Jews to pray. (Mark 11:15-18) Moral of the Story: Get in the way of somebody’s search for God and you might be the object of Jesus‘ righteous wrath.
Jesus also got angry at the religious leaders when they were acting in a hypocritical fashion—placing religious burdens upon the people that they themselves would not lift. (Matthew 23:3-4) So: Put religious obstacles in the way of people getting close to God and you may encounter the anger of Christ. Jesus’ anger is very specific—it’s triggered by His compassion for those being spiritually oppressed.
In my own life, there is nothing that raises my wrath more than being unjustly accused. In other words, blame me of something I’ve actually done and I’ll usually (eventually) agree with you. I might not be happy about it but I won’t get angry. Tell me I’m guilty of something I haven’t done and watch me boil. I will call my wrath justified. But is it?
Did Jesus release his wrath when he was accused of casting out demons by the power of Satan? No, instead, He resorted to reason. He said, “a house divided against itself will fall.” (Luke 11:17-19 ) When accused of breaking the Sabbath laws by healing a man or a woman on that day, he again resorted to reason. He said that if you would rescue—or even just care for—your animal on a Sabbath, then why shouldn’t He heal a person? (Luke 13:10-17, Matthew 12:9-14) Most famously, perhaps, is when Jesus was being falsely accused at his trial before the Sanhedrin in the middle of the night. He didn’t get angry—He remained silent. (Matthew 26:62-63) So much for my own “righteous anger.” It is anything but righteous.
How does one obtain the deadly virtue of peace in situations that usually kindle anything from a brush fire to a raging inferno of wrath? It seems that one must go to the Prince of Peace for that tranquil presence of soul. The virtue of peace, like all the virtues, appears to be a gift. It is a gift one must seek in order to find—and we have to cooperate when it is given. We must open our hearts to be a channel of the Lord’s peace.
Consider offering this prayer for the virtue of peace. May the Lord meet our need as we continue on this Lenten journey through the Seven Deadly Virtues:
Lord, please place Your shalom—your peace—in my heart. I know what I do in these stressful situations normally, but I don’t know what You would do nor how You would do it. Give me the grace to follow your lead. Use this trial to make me more like You, Jesus. Make me an instrument of Your peace. May I reflect Your character—being quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. Remind me that You have not left my side and that You never will. I can trust You to fight the battles which I will only make worse. Be my Prince of Peace. Help me to forgive those who have wronged me. I place myself in Your nail-scarred hands. Amen.
Responding to the Deadly Virtue of PEACE:
From this list of Shalom descriptors, select one that resonates with you today: harmony, confidence, balance, completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, fullness, rest.
List the situations in your life right now that are robbing you of peace. There’s no judgement intended here, just be honest.
What are the most peaceful times of your day? Of your year? Are they peaceful because of external reasons or internal reasons? Think about one time you had peace in a situation that was anything but peaceful—why was that?
If you were asked to wage war against someone—short of killing that person—how would you do it? Conversely, if you were asked to “wage peace” with the same person, how would you do that?
Meditate upon and/or memorize one of the following verses of Scripture (NIV):
Isaiah 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulders, and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Matthew 5:9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
John 14:27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
Philippians 4:6-7 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Colossians 3:15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
Whoever would love life
and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
and their lips from deceitful speech.
They must turn from evil and do good;
they must seek peace and pursue it.
In John 11:30-44, Jesus gets angry when we don’t expect Him to. It appears that he is angry with death and the distress it causes people who love the person whom has died. How has Jesus brought us great peace with the reality of death?
Welcome back to the second week of Lent! This week, Dave Meserve writes on the Deadly Virtue of COMPASSION. Dave focuses on the meaning of the word in English and Greek (and of its evil twin, the vice of ENVY) and offers thoughts on how to cultivate it in our lives. Be sure read his final paragraph as he confesses his struggle with the heart of compassion and his path forward. I playfully add something for fun at the end. Blessings to you on your Lenten journey. —Mike
“You never really understand a person until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch to Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird
“Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, you’ll be a mile from them, and you’ll have their shoes.” – Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handy
Devotion I’m a horrible Facebook friend. I dabble mainly to look in on my kid’s lives or my friend’s vacations. Most recently, it was to join a sweet family of four in Spain: beautiful landscapes and ancient churches older than my country. I really do enjoy seeing friend’s at play… mostly. There are those times when something within me exists alongside the enjoyment. And, it’s a little green…
We are described as “green with envy” (see Twain and Shakespeare) because the skin of those who are ill can literally take on a different hue. Envy makes us sick. More accurately, it is our sickness that makes us envy.
In the Bible, envy certainly breaks one of the “Big 10” Commandments about not coveting other people’s stuff. But it goes even further. Envy not only wants what they have but does not want them to have it, either. That is where it gets dark. Cain wanted the acceptance his little brother received and killed him. King Saul died violently obsessing over David’s popularity. The world’s spiritual storyline began when a fallen angel wanted what the Creator possessed so badly that he sought to destroy God and all the God loves—ultimate envy.
The Greek word used for “envy” is a comparative word. More than basic desire or covetousness, it is rooted in comparison. Envy is not present unless you are comparing yourself to another. And that is a particular problem for us today; we are becoming “green with comparison”.
It is well noted that social media can feed something dark in us. By constantly viewing only the wonderful highlight reels of others we might begin to feel sick inside about our own lives. We pale (turn a little green?) in comparison and it robs us of something. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” Teddy Roosevelt once said, and we have all experienced that.
There is a virtue we can cultivate that also arises from deep within us, something deadly to envy: Compassion. Here is a primary difference: with envy you want to remove the good fortune of another while with compassion you want to relieve the suffering of another.
Our English word for “compassion” parallels the Greek and literally means, “to suffer alongside.” A distinction between some other English words may be helpful: Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling. Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling. Compassion feels the suffering of another and seeks to relieve it.
This leads us to the most common Greek word in our New Testament that gets translated “compassion”. It is a compound word joining “good” with “guts”. Famously, this word is used to describe the inner motivation for both the Good Samaritan and the father of the Prodigal Son. “Good-guts” always results in compassionate movement toward someone in need.
While those two characters from Jesus’ parables display a compassion that seems extraordinary, being so moved from deep within can be cultivated. Compassion does not magically come out of nowhere: the Prodigal’s father did not suddenly become gracious and the Good Samaritan’s actions were not because of a good night’s sleep.
How do we cultivate compassion?
Be present to others. Compassion is a virtue of proximity. Envy is created in distance, but compassion is fostered in closeness. You cannot be compassionate from afar. (And, I suppose it is more difficult to envy up close.). We might begin by being physically present with those who suffer. This helps us refocus our eyes away from comparisons. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
Be honest with ourselves . We carry and often bury our own sufferings. Physical ailments may be the most obvious but hardly the most damaging when we consider the whole person. We are all “heart sick” and suffer for it. And, we may have a difficult time letting our internal suffering get the air it needs. Honesty invites the compassion of others (which may be a risk) and, most importantly, invites the compassion of God. Read 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 to see just how suffering and comfort and Christ all go together.
Know Christ in suffering. Our best hope to cultivate the Deadly Virtue of Compassion is to know Christ in His sufferings. Paul encourages us to participate in his sufferings (Philippians 3:19) and Peter says that joy is found in such participation (1 Peter 4:13). Having compassion for the sufferings of Christ is a way to enter into His Passion. To live an honest, present life in a fallen, suffering world is a powerful invitation to know Christ.
A final word. If you are like me, all this talk about suffering can be… insufferable. I don’t naturally gravitate toward the deep and dark in myself and others. But, if there is one time in my calendar to be brave about it, it is the reflective season of Lent. And Lent is a time to practice virtue, which is a route we all can take. The good news is that practice assumes we are not very good at it. This gives me hope. I’m not very good at compassion but, I can practice it this week. I invite you to do the same.
Week 2 PrayerLord, may this week of Lent help me shift from comparison to compassion. Please reveal Yourself as a gracious God who meets me and my friends in our sufferings. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Who has suffered alongside you in your past?
If compassion is a virtue of proximity, who in your life may be comforted by your coming closer? What is one step you can make toward them this week?
Where do you need compassion right now? Can you take that to Jesus? Will you take that to your community? How will you do that?
Paul places two commands regarding compassion next to each other: “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans12:15). Which is more challenging for you? Can you think of a recent example of either?
If you are one who posts online: consider posting something that does not invite comparison to your wonderful life but invites compassion toward those who suffer in some way.
For further reading: The stories of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) and Saul and David (1 Samuel 18-19) are great cautionary tales about the danger of choosing envy over compassion.
For Fun … The Talking Frog.
An 85 year-old retired military officer had one hobby—he loved to fish.
He was sitting in his boat one day when he heard a voice say, “Pick me up.” He looked around and couldn’t see anyone.
He thought he was dreaming when he heard the voice say again, ”Pick me up.”
He looked in the water and there, floating on the top, was a frog.
The retired officer said, “Are you talking to me?”
The frog said, “Yes, I’m talking to you. Pick me up, then kiss me. I’ll turn into the most beautiful woman you have ever seen. I’ll make sure that all your friends are envious because I will be your bride! I’ll adore you and kiss you every day.”
The retired military officer looked at the frog for a short time, reached over, picked it up carefully and placed it in his shirt pocket.
The frog said, “What, are you crazy? Didn’t you hear what I said? I said, ‘Kiss me, and I will be your beautiful bride. I’ll make sure that all your friends are envious. I’ll adore you and kiss you every day.’”
He opened his pocket, looked at the frog and said, “Nah. Honey, at my age, I’d rather have a talking frog.”
Dave and I are excited to offer you some things to ponder each week Our first week is about the “Deadly Virtue” of HUMILITY, the antidote to the sin of pride. I write this section and then we both add some ways to respond whether you are reading this by yourself or using this for a small group. May Jesus meet you on your Lenten Journey! –Mike Sares
“I’d like to be humble, but what if no one notices?”
Humility, according to the dictionary, is “freedom from pride or arrogance : the quality or state of being humble.” As C. S. Lewis wrote (more helpfully), “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” How pleasant it is when we meet and talk with people who are not as concerned with their own agendas as they are with whatever is before us at the moment. Even more, what about those folks who are more concerned about us than themselves? We tend to love being with them.
Pride is an excessive opinion of one’s own importance—whether in thought, word, or deed. Pride is known as the first of the “deadly sins,” for it leads to every other sin. Not only does it destroy a proper view of ourselves, it damages our relationship with others and with God Himself. What kills pride? Humility. Humility is the way to not becoming the kind of person most of humanity despises. This is how the Bible puts it: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” (Proverbs 11:2)
If the choice between humility and pride is so clear, then why do humans consistently choose the vice over the virtue? Perhaps we are so insecure that we work hard to establish our worth in the eyes of those around us (and even in our own eyes). Maybe pride is just a selfish preoccupation with ourselves. Whatever the reason, pride ravages the rapport we have with anyone. It looks like this: the more pride we have, the more we despise it in other people and the more we resent any perceived neglect. Pride is a pretty sure-fire way of not getting along with folks at home, at school, at work, or in the neighborhood.
Recognizing this about us, Jesus offered instructions to those at a dinner who had chosen the prestigious seats at the table. “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor,” He said. “… But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:8-11) Jesus contends that we humans are given two choices: either humble ourselves or be humbled by others and by God. It is a strong warning from the God-man, but there is hope.
In the same way that pride is a door to every other vice, so humility is the portal to every other virtue. Humility appears to be the foundational virtue of Christ Himself, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8)
Thinking of ourselves less and thinking of others more is the obvious basis for compassion,generosity, and love—all virtues that have humility as their foundation. Not assuming we are entitled to excessive rest and pleasure makes way for diligence and temperance. Being humble enough to accept whatever circumstances we find ourselves under (looking to the Lord for strength) brings us great peace(Philippians 4:12-13). Thus, we find that all other virtues are built upon humility.
To get us started, consider praying this prayer for humility as we embark on this Lenten journey through the Seven Deadly Virtues:
“O God, your Word says that You resist the proud and give grace to the humble: grant me the virtue of true humility. Keep me from false humility, which is only pride in dress-down clothes. Jesus, you are the perfect pattern for me; let me follow in Your footsteps. Let me learn of You, Jesus, for You are gentle and humble of heart.”
Responding to the Deadly Virtue of HUMILITY:
If humility is thinking of yourself less and others more, who in your life has modeled this kind of humility toward you? What is one way you hope to be more like that person? Is there one practical way you might move in that direction?
If it’s true that the pride we hate in others may reflect something about ourselves, think of a very prideful person you know. Describe what bothers you the most; is any of that pride true of you as well? Anything about that you want to ask God to help you overcome?
For a creative spiritual practice, every day for the next week—when in conversation with another—do NOT say something you want to say. Resist adding something that is not necessary but makes you look good (or thoughtful, or well-read, or generous, or “humble”…)
For further reflection on humility, read about Mother Teresa. What is most attractive about her to you?
Meditate upon and/or memorize one of the following verses of Scripture:
Ephesians 4:2, Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love
Philippians 2:3-4, Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
James 4:6, But He gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
Just for fun:
One Tuesday afternoon in the church sanctuary, a senior pastor and his associate pastor were collecting the leftover bulletins from the previous Sunday. Light was streaming into the church through beautiful stained-glass windows and playing upon the large, rough, wooden cross hanging on the wall.
Looking up and suddenly overcome by the majesty of God, the senior pastor abruptly sat down in a pew proclaiming, “Lord, I am nothing!”
Not to be bested, the associate pastor also knelt down and exclaimed, “Lord, I am nothing!”
The church’s handyman, working in the back of the sanctuary, joined the holy fervor. He fell onto the floor crying, “Lord, I am nothing!” Whereupon the senior pastor nudged his associate and whispered, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
Mike writes this week’s entry about the historic practice of Lent: fasting.Dave adds some notes he’s gathered over the years about the Bible on Fasting and some contemporary responses to its practice. Like all “spiritual disciplines,” its main purpose is to make space for God in our lives.
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. (Joel 2:12-13)
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Jesus, in Matthew 6:16-18)
Fasting—not exactly the most popular of the spiritual disciplines. Yet, Jesus did not say, “If you fast.” He actually said, “When you fast.” Most of the earth’s Christians for most of the church’s history have fasted regularly—for spiritual reasons—not to cleanse their bodies of unwanted toxins or in order to lose weight.
Thinking about fasting takes me back to when I was a young boy growing up in the Greek Orthodox Church. Orthodox Christians are supposed to fast every Wednesday and Friday from meat, fish, dairy, and eggs unless it is a special no-fasting time. My family didn’t do that, but we did fast on Fridays along with the Catholics, Anglicans, and some of the Methodists. My father’s tavern (Sares Bar) had a Fish Fry every Friday evening—so we tailored the Friday fast to suit our economic reality. I still enjoy fish and chips.
We did get serious about fasting a couple times a year, and the forty days before Easter was one of those times. Sunday school was the venue for making sure we big-eyed, dark-haired, olive-skinned Greek kids made the commitment. I remember the papers being handed out during class. There was a picture of the Orthodox Cross on one side (that made it official) and all these lines for writing on the other. When I listed the food items I would be giving up during Lent, I did it out of obligation thinking somehow I would become a better person and that God would be pleased with my sacrifice. I could be very specific about what to abstain from: chewing gum but not licorice; chocolate but not hard candy; my brothers but not my sister. (That’s a joke, but you get the idea.)
Sometimes I don’t think I have progressed much beyond that. During my times of fasting as an adult, there are times I will long for a piece of pizza—not so much because I’m hungry, but for the sheer pleasure of taste. At those times, I wish I had been more specific at the outset (for example: fast from all Italian food except pizza). So, God uses fasting as an adult to re-inform me of how hedonistic I really am.
Until I fasted, I never noticed how good the stuff on other peoples’ plates looked when at the dinner table or at a restaurant. I’d never noticed how often food is advertised in the newspaper, on television, at the movies, or on billboards. One gets the paranoid feeling that the world is out to sabotage one’s fast. Perhaps the devil is not pleased when we seek Heavenly Bread and wants to divert our attention as often as possible. It reminds me of Satan’s encounter with Jesus where he suggested that Jesus turn stones into bread. Our Lord’s answer is amazing: “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4) To be sure, fasting is a form of spiritual warfare with our culture and with spiritually dark forces. It is a doorway to understanding our dependence upon Jesus Christ.
I usually begin fasting now with noble goals of toppling my own “idols” and of drawing closer to God; but in the middle of the fast the temptation is toward performance and results. Sometimes it becomes more about the weight I can lose than about the relationship with God I can gain. God can be lost in the details of the very thing meant to find him. It becomes more about what I can do by means of this religious exercise as opposed to what God can do in me. What began because I was not strong enough in some area of my life—and looking for God’s help—ends up becoming a type of self-help process by which I prove I don’t need the grace of God. Ironic! Once again I am that young Greek Orthodox boy proving to God that I can be a good Christian.
If there is one thing that Jesus proved during his temptation, it was that He depended upon the Father totally. He did nothing in his own power. If you are fasting during this time of Lent (and even if you are not) you, too, will be tempted but not just with food. You will be tempted to live life on your own power—even life with God. So, stay close to Jesus. Monitor your motives. Confess your mental slip-ups to a trusted friend. Forgive yourself when you accidentally (or willfully) break your fast. Keep your eyes on Jesus more than on yourself. By His grace, you will lean less upon food, less upon yourself, and learn to lean more upon the Everlasting Arms of Christ.
Why Fast? – Mourning (sometimes this occurs naturally as a grieving response) – Repentance – Need (for Strength, Mercy, Help, Direction, a Word from God) – Preparation for ministry – Worship
Why NOT to fast – In order to appear spiritual – So that we can manipulate God – In order to lose weight
When NOT to fast: – When our deeds are evil (repent first)
How to Fast – Abstain from certain foods – Abstain from certain meals – Abstain from food for a specified period of time (like Lent) or certain days of the week – Abstain from media and/or comforts – Abstain from certain habits – Observe the Church Calendar (also known as the Liturgical Year)
Resources Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster (HarperCollins) The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard (HarperCollins) Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adelle Ahlberg Calhoun (IVP)
The Bible on FASTING “It was not Christ’s intention to reject or despise fasting. It was His intention to restore proper fasting.” ~ Martin Luther.
A. Throughout Scripture, fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. Daniel (Dan 10) gave up all “delicacies”, no meat or wine (nor bathing) for three weeks Esther (Esther 4) instructed Mordecai to ask all Jews to neither eat nor drink for three days. Paul (Acts 9) engaged a three-day absolute fast following his Damascus road experience. Moses (Deut 9), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) and Jesus did a “supernatural” absolute fast for 40 days.
B. The People of God and Fasting The only public fast required in the Mosaic Law was on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27) Group fasts were called in times of emergency (Joel 2:15; 2 Chron 20:1-4; Ezra 8:21-23) Regular fasts developed. Zechariah mentions four regular fasts (Zechariah 8:19) A Pharisee boasted that he fasted twice a week (Luke 8:12) The Didache (1st century) prescribes two fast days a week on Wednesday and Friday. There are no biblical laws for New Testament believers that command regular fasting.
C. Jesus’ teaching of fasting In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6) Jesus assumes fasting was part of the practices of His earliest followers and suggests that fasting is tied in with giving and praying. His first words about fasting dealt with the question of motive. Fasting must center on God. Like the prophetess Anna, we need to be “worshipping God fasting and praying” (Luke 2:37). The church at Antioch received a word from God “while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting” (Acts 13:2-3) and set apart Paul and Barnabas as missionaries. Yet, Jesus’ followers were also accused of not fasting, unlike the disciples of John the Baptist. (Matthew 9:14-15)
“Jesus made it clear that he expected his disciples to fast after he was gone… that the children of the kingdom of God would fast. For the person longing for a more intimate walk with God, these Statement of Jesus are drawing words.” ~ Richard Foster
D. “Secondary” purposes of fasting, by Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline Fasting reveals the things that controls us. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. Fasting reminds us that we are sustained “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4). Therefore, in experiences of fasting we are not so much abstaining from good as we are feasting on the word of God. Fasting is feasting!” (John 4:32-34) Fasting helps us keep our balance in life. How easily we begin to allow non essentials to take precedence in our lives. How quickly we crave things we do not need.” (1 Cor. 9:27). David fasted for his enemies to keep himself from vengeance (Psalm 35:11-14)
E. Recommendations for a traditional food fast (Foster) A progression should be observed, as with all the Disciplines. If the setting allows, debate the time you would normally use eating to prayer. Follow Jesus’ counsel to refrain from calling attention to what you are doing. Learn from others before you attempt a longer fast. Learn the process your body goes through in the course of a longer fast.