~ Fasting From The Self ~
"Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, 'Are you for us or for our enemies?' 'Neither,' he replied, 'but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.' Then Joshua fell face down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, 'What message does my Lord have for His servant?’ The commander of the Lord's army replied, 'Take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy.' And Joshua did so." (Joshua 5:13-15, NIV)
Embedded in this account is a powerful lesson about the orientation of the self. Joshua's first response was egocentric: Are you for us or against us? That there was a third option did not occur to Joshua: "Neither." Upon learning to whom he was speaking, Joshua quickly shifted from the focus on self to God. The question was no longer one of "for or against," but rather "What does the God who says 'neither' want to tell me?" Furthermore, the "me" turns into "His servant." And the answer? "Take off your sandals. You are on holy ground." What a wonderful upside-down switch in Joshua! From self to servant, Joshua now understands God is not taking the sides that people have created, but will follow His own intentions. Joshua, as servant, asks the only justified question, "What is it God wants me to know?"
Fasting from food for sanctification and prayer is, in a literal way, fasting from the physical self. The food one would have consumed would have been transformed into one's body, becoming that body, physically. Leaving the food on the vine or store shelf for another to eat is literally sacrificing your body to nourish others. This is just one way fasting is sacrificial and loving.
By denying yourself you are nourishing others. There is a gain, however. In that sacrifice, your body and soul go into a cleaning mode, the result being sanctification and purity, your gift to God. This helps to get some of the self out of the way so one's prayers can be more fervent and selfless.
Let's go further and consider this remarkable mandate by the apostle Paul. "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, but did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (Philippians 2:5-7, NIV). From the original Greek text, "made Himself nothing" should best be translated as "emptied Himself." That is what a fast is, an emptying. Jesus emptied Himself! Isn't that the ultimate fast? Fasting from your own self? And that is what we are told to do!
"…We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5b, NIV) is fasting from the thoughts that come from the self. "Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips" (Psalm 141:3, NIV) means to fast from the words that gives flesh to the thoughts that originate in the self. In the process of taking over Jericho, "Joshua had commanded the people, 'Do not give a war cry, do not raise your voices, do not say a word until the day I tell you to shout'" (Joshua 6:10, NIV). Fasting from words was necessary for this mission.
The psalmist writes, "Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain" (Psalm 119: 36, NIV). James explains, "But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such 'wisdom' does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil" (James 3:14, NIV). Jesus taught, "When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Matthew 6: 3, NIV). Acting without self-ambition or self-glorification is fasting from the self.
When fasting from food, there is a point at which the body needs nourishment to continue living, generally between forty and fifty days for a healthy adult. Then if only healthy and purely nourishing food is consumed, the constantly dying cells of the body will be replaced with much more vitalized and well-functioning cells, renewing the entire body. While some cells are short lived, like blood cells, and others more lasting such bone cells, every cells is replaced about every seven years, some many times over.
In both the physical and spiritual realms, death brings renewed life. "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24, NIV). Jesus could use so many analogies from the natural world because it reflects much of the spiritual world, the two being intrinsically connected.
Paul wrote, "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3, NIV). That statement sums up the entire gospel. Yet the Scriptures often speak of the physical body and soul (mind and emotions), still in a fallen state, to which the spirit, in Christ, is connected. Jesus' body felt everything ours do. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15, NIV). We are taught to "put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature…" (Colossians 3:5a) so that our reborn spirits in Christ can continue to be "renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator" (3:10b).
Rather than having one's spirit feed on one's "earthly nature," "earthly self," or "old self," one can practice a life-long fast from that self. After listing them, Paul tells us "And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity" (3:14). Agape, or the love of God, is perfect nourishment for our spirits, because it is not "self-seeking" (1 Corinthians 13:5), continuing the fast from the self.
So upon what shall our spirits be nourished, if not by the faulty self to which we cling so strongly? "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…" (Colossians 3:15a;16a, NIV). This requires a fasting, an emptying, of our hearts, "so that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge…For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is head over every power and authority" (2:2b-3; 9-10). What an incomprehensibly incredible, loving God we have!
The Book of Job is very likely the oldest in the Bible. Other ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature, such as "A Dialog About Human Misery," about a counselor who blames an afflicted person of unrighteousness while he agonizes over the nature of his gods, are quite similar to the theme of Job. That these types of stories are so ancient underscores how old and basic to humanity the questions about the suffering of the innocent are. While knowledge abounds, we humans seem quite learning disabled when it comes to wisdom.
The drama of Job's suffering captures our attention to the unfortunate point that few people understand the book's most important teaching, which is not about enduring adversity. James writes about Job's perseverance (James 5:11), which is sometimes incorrectly translated as "patience." There is a difference and Job was not patient, despite the popular reference to "the patience of Job."
In the Book of Job, "Satan" is not yet used as a personal or proper name. "Satan" means "adversary," "devil" (diabolos) means "accuser" and "Apollyon," in Revelation 9:11, means "destroyer." Using Job as the personal target, a man who practiced righteousness and love of God, the chief accuser and adversary of all time and creation, Satan, makes one of the greatest and challenging proclamations of all time: People who love and worship God only do it because of personal gain. Take away their possessions, loved ones, health and hope without any explanation, and they will curse God instead of worshiping Him.
The accusation could go even further: The only reason you worship God is to save yourself (your self) from hell, even though Jesus said if you do that, you will lose your self. Or, if it wasn't for the fear of hell, you would not be a Christian. But we worship God not out of a fear of punishment or a desire for a reward, which is self-centered. We worship Him because we love and adore our heavenly Father. That's not a difficult thing to understand, since we love our parents and our children for love's sake, as we are part of each other, not because we will be punished or rewarded.
Do you worship God because He blesses you with health, family, home, freedom, comfort, meaningful work? Would you feel the same if you lost all that without any sense, logic or explanation? How would you know? The great accusation of Satan, that God's children are just self-centered self-preservationists who won't really keep their faith and love "for better or worse, in good times and bad," cannot be refuted by argument. So Job is memorialized as the "test case." But Job isn't alone. In this world whose fabric is weaved by both good and evil, we are still experiencing "testing" and challenges of adversity and suffering today.
However, as suggested earlier, the book isn't essentially about suffering. It's about Job's self. Suffering is just the means by which the self is stripped and exposed for what it really is. By the third out of forty two chapters, Job has lost his patience. Cursing even his birth, he engages in a long monologue of self-pity that continues to color all his statements almost to the end of the book. Interspersed throughout the book is Job's angry rants of challenges to God. Job wants his day in court and he wants God at the defendant's table, setting himself up as God's prosecutor. Job's major flaw, that of pride, rapidly surfaces. "I have kept to His way… I have not departed from the commands… I have treasured the words of His mouth…" (23:11-12) Job indignantly boasts, building up his case against God. "As surely as God lives, [note: this was known as a very solemn oath] who has denied me justice…" (27:2) Job says as he continues to assert his righteousness. Many have and do echo Job's words.
Job's three friends, who were trying to get Job to see their explanation of his suffering, stopped talking "because he was righteous in his own eyes" (32:1). A fourth man who was quietly listening, Elihu, "became very angry with Job for justifying himself rather than God" (32:2). Elihu's silence was out of respect for the older man, but now his monologue runs six chapters that begin to point to what God has to say, and, interestingly, it is not about suffering, but Job's self-pride. That was the source of Lucifer's downfall.
Job did persevere and never cursed God, being a godly person. So much more was at stake in the drama of Job than the question of suffering unjustly, which God does not answer in this ancient book. If evil could demonstrate that godliness and holiness are fundamentally self-serving, that the authentic worship of God is motivated by self-gain, then godliness and worship would be considered sin, including the redemptive righteousness given by Christ. Job remains godly, his dangerous flaw of pride has been exposed and destroyed with the required suffering to do that, his blessings are restored, Satan's accusations are silenced, and the ways of God remain unthwarted. Contrary to popular perception, this profound book is not a story about a bet between God and Satan.
Padre Pio (1887-1968) of Italy was well acquainted with the sanctifying power of suffering in himself and through his work. Echoing the theology of St. Paul, he would often say, in word and deed, "The life of a Christian is nothing but a perpetual struggle against self; There is no flowering of the soul to the beauty of its perfection except at the price of pain."
Jesus taught much about the necessity of carrying one's cross (which cannot be done with pride) and putting one's self on a strict fast of just bread and blood, His own Self. After hearing His "hard teachings," many disciples chose themselves over His Self and left Him (see John 6).
A Native American tale
with many versions mirrors St. Paul's teachings on the struggles between
the carnal and spiritual dimensions of a person. The story portrays these
dimensions as a fierce, vindictive, fighting wolf and a loving, gentle,
wise and peace-making wolf. A young warrior struggling with how to manage
these two natures in himself asks his teacher, "Which wolf will ultimately
claim my spirit?" The reply?
"The one you feed."
Jesus had different answers for different people who wanted to follow Him. To one He told to first sell all his possessions and to another He explained that He had no home, unlike even a fox who had at least a hole for shelter. Selling your possessions or accepting a life of homelessness are not requirements of being Christian. Jesus was prescribing specific kinds of fasts for different selves. If your body and taste is neutral for chocolate, and you can take it or leave it, it isn't a health issue requiring the need of a fast. But for someone who is addicted to chocolate or has an adverse reaction to it, a fast from chocolate is needed.
Job was a very wealthy, powerful and well-known man in the country of Uz. After losing all and listening to God's teaching, Job fasted from his self, including speech. His pride was never in his wealth, and with his pride in his self now destroyed, like St. Paul, Job would have been content to remain a suffering but godly servant. Since health and wealth and all of God's blessings would not feed the self-righteous "wolf" in him, God could then restore all and more to Job without causing him spiritual harm and impediments.
Yes, not feeding the self is in direct opposition to the prevailing psychological and educational philosophy of this world, and this world won't understand it. However, those who live in the Kingdom of God can understand and delightfully use the words of John the Baptizer as their own: "He [Christ] must become greater; I must become less" (John 3:30, NIV).
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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