Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Not So Fast

A reflection on Lent

A friend of mine recently attempted to "fast" certain things that distract her from her work at the office.  

She quickly grew frustrated with the practice and gave up.  She felt overwhelmed by the sheer number and type of distractions. "Clearly this isn't working!" she spat in exasperation over her two-page list of "struggles."

But what I heard was that it did work: She had become immediately and intensely aware of all the things that she allows to pull her mind in different directions in just one eight-hour time period.  More than that, she was confronted with the ways these distractions took her places - places she didn't want to go.  She often felt anxious, insecure, or disconnected by the end of the day and as she looked at the things that she allowed to capture her attention and her thoughts, it started to make sense why she might feel these ways.  She also realized that, once upon a time, she had actually intentionally practiced these distractions - she had actually created this monster to begin with.

She suddenly understood that she needed to start paying attention to what she was paying attention to! 

Fasting and Awareness

Incidentally, as a result of her little experiment, my friend developed a new strategy for "paying attention" and eventually came up with a technique to explicitly focus her thoughts on the things that were important to her - which was not just about the work at hand, as it turned out, but her life-goals and values, too!  She was amazed that she could redirect her thoughts so effectively, and what began as short-lived "fasting" became a sustainable lifestyle of walking in greater self-control.

When we choose to abstain, or to fast, as a spiritual discipline, we are choosing to increase our awareness - and our opportunities for awareness - of God, self, and others.  In the case of my friend, it might seem like she was already "too aware" because she was so easily and readily distracted, yet she was unaware of her thought life, its history, and the impact it was having on her.  She was also unaware of the choices and the power she actually had to do something different.  When we fast, we stop our normal, every-day routines and habits and we do it for a purpose: To create space for something else!  Namely, fasting is about turning away from something in order to turn toward - toward reflection, self-examination, toward God and a greater truth and understanding of ourselves, and ultimately toward greater love and freedom.

Fasting and Freedom

What shall we say, then?  Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?  By no means! We are those who have died to sin ... because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.  
Romans 6:1-7

Recently I served in a church wherein the freedom to drink alcohol was celebrated - to the point that it became a concern.  A family or two left the church over it.  The denominational leadership got involved.  There were questions about whether church fellowship events were threatening to newcomers or to those who are in recovery from alcoholism or drug use.  As conversations and accusations circulated I began to wonder, "We have the freedom to drink, but do we have the freedom not to drink?"

In recovery I have come to recognize that one of the greatest freedoms I can experience is not in what I am free to do, but what I am free not to do.  This is the Alcoholic who is finally free to not have a drink.  This the sinner free from sin.  This is freedom from slavery!

"I have the right to do anything," you say - but not everything is beneficial.  "I have the right to do anything" - but I will not be mastered by anything ... not everything is constructive.
I Corinthians 6:12, 10:23

Fasting is about the search for true freedom in Christ, not about an immediate sacrifice or the value of a sacrifice in itself.  

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
Psalm 51:17

"To love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."
Mark 12:33

Fasting and abstinence as a lifestyle is practicing the freedom of saying no to some things so that we can say yes to others, so that we are not mastered by anything, so that we keep our hearts soft, repentant, contrite, and sensitive, free to respond to God and to grow in love.

Fasting and Maturity

According to human development studies and theorists, we actually have an emotional (and spiritual) need to say "no" to things, and especially those things to which we might not want or know how to say no!  If we do not develop our ability to "turn away" we become stunted in our development and emotional maturity.

Many Christians talk about abstinence only in terms of -specific- sexual activity, and then only in the context of being single.  But abstinence is the ability to say no, to turn away.  Abstinence (sexual and otherwise) is something you must learn to practice throughout life! In fact, sex is a great example: The need for sexual abstinence does not change when one gets married - in fact, it becomes, in some ways, more vital. 

Allow me to explain: You have heard it said that I cannot look at another person lustfully or I commit adultery in my heart - and I say that this includes my spouse!  Lust dehumanizes another person by making that person an object to meet my sexual gratification.  It also dehumanizes me, corrodes my moral reasoning, distorts and confuses my thinking.  Jesus' warning about lust and adultery is not a warning about "sex outside of marriage," it is about the ways we exploit and dehumanize ourselves and others in our hearts because we are not practicing the very difficult and loving behaviors of turning away.

As a married person, I do not get sex when I want it, how I want it, nor should I.  Those passages about a husband's and wife's bodies not being their own is not permission for exploitation or moral license for using - or making demands - from one another.  The point is a plea to treat one another as human beings, with the love, honor and respect we would want shown to us!  Sadly, we live in a culture of sexual addiction wherein we violate ourselves sexually, so it's no wonder many Christians expect "sexual gratification" in marriage instead of love, respect, and intimacy.

But I digress, the point of this example is that, in marriage, I must abstain from sex as much as I participate in it.  I must abstain when it violates me or my partner, when it is unhealthy, when it is selfish, or when my partner says no for any reason.  I must abstain from sex that isolates me.  And I must abstain from sex with anyone other than my spouse - in my mind or in body.  If I have not developed the character required to be abstinent outside of marriage, I am setting myself up to fail in a sexual relationship.

And that is how it is with all forms of "saying no".  We must develop these muscles, this strength of character, so that we can turn away when it is loving and appropriate and humanizing to do so.

Consider that before you give up fasting for Lent!

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