This year God used my annual retreat to challenge me about my greed. About my sense of entitlement to the good things in my life, about my resentment when anything (even He) gets between me and what I consider ‘mine’. About my refusal to let the good things he’s given me become a means of communion with others; my refusal to share in His name. I don’t stuff my face at buffet meals. I don’t avariciously seek to maximise every penny. I don’t feel any need to wear designer clothes or drive a flash car. I can sneer at all these things – and yet greed has innumerable tiny hooks in my soul, and it was only the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting, scripture reading and contemplation that exposed me. That showed me my need for God’s grace and God’s forgiveness and God’s discipline in my life.
There are episodes of devotion, like my annual retreat, that are intense and that can overthrow spiritual mountains (or expose spiritual undermining), but if those intense episodes aren’t grounded in daily life, then they are meaningless. How do we live in the valleys and on the plains by the light of the mountain-top visions? Here’s where the disciplines are essential. The discipline of fasting is taking the ordinary discipline of self-denial to a pointed extreme. On its own, fasting is meaningless. If I’m only prepared to deny myself on those special occasions when I ‘fast’, then I’m not really fasting at all; I’m just trying to earn spiritual brownie-points – yet another form of greed! I need to be able to deny my desires, my lust and greed on a daily basis. How? Start small. What’s something small that you know you don’t actually need or even want, but take for yourself because you’re afraid of missing out? Something that is a little self-indulgence. A little guilty. Whatever it is, it can be your opportunity to practice the discipline of self-denial. Say to yourself that you’ll forgo whatever it is next time you have the opportunity. Tell yourself that you are free to leave it for someone else to enjoy. Remind yourself that God will supply all your needs – abundantly. Consider how denying yourself in this way might help you to serve others.
When Jesus spoke about fasting, he talked about dressing up festively – “put oil on your head and wash your face” – instead of covering ourselves with sackcloth and ashes. His point was that the fast is between us and God so we don’t need to advertise. We should beware of using the disciplines as an opportunity for boasting, but the picture he paints goes a little further than that, too. We should dress up festively not just to put on a false face, but because we can be glad in our fasting – because God really is an amazingly generous God, and pours his grace out to us superabundantly. When we detach ourselves from our petty desires, and pause to see all that God gives, we live in gratitude and celebration. Fasting and self-denial shouldn’t lead us to pretend that God’s goodness isn’t good, but should sharpen our appreciation for the richness of God’s bounty. And that should overflow into generosity. These are the spiritual fruit that come from fasting; not misery and resentment and suspicion of pleasure and plenty, but joy in God’s blessings, and a warm open-handedness. We may first have to confront our resentment of God’s Lordship in our lives, and our anxieties about not having enough, and our fear of missing out, and so forth, and that might be a painful process. But the outcome should be a much greater freedom, and an easier communion for us all.
The whole world is now clutched tight in the grip of rampant commercialisation. There is nothing that has not been reduced to a market opportunity. Our worship of wealth has led to a tiny elite of super-rich, and ever-increasing poverty for those who supply the wants and desires of the 1%. The world needs better answers than “increased quarterly growth” and “buoyant markets”. It needs a new vision. It needs God’s Kingdom. And it needs us to show them what the kingdom looks like. But for us to show forth the kingdom, it has to become real in our own hearts. Can I commend to you the discipline of fasting? Prepare yourself well, and find a spiritual overseer to guide you in it, and then enjoy what God will do in your soul.