It is natural for us to do what feels good. We don't even think about it. If it feels good…If it tastes good…If it's easy…If it's comfortable…we just naturally go there. But Jesus' work of saving and changing the world will not always be easy, for Jesus or for us. There will be tough choices. There will be struggles. Being a Christ Follower doesn't always feel good. Our assignments don't always taste good. It is not always easy. It's not always comfortable. Remember the wisdom "What is right is not always easy, and what is easy is not always right." For Jesus, doing what's right included surrendering himself to death on cross. It wasn't good for Jesus personally, but it was very good for us who are saved by it. That's what sacrifice is all about, being willing to lose, suffer, or struggle so someone else doesn't have to and that doesn't come naturally to us. We naturally seek out comfort, security and popularity instead.
Discipleship doesn't have to be a life or death struggle, like Jesus, but it is always a choice. Discipleship is all about choices, and whether those choices are big or little, they will either move us closer toward God or farther away. Obedience is impossible without self denial. As a matter of fact, Jesus states that it is the first thing necessary to be a disciple: "If any wish to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me." (Luke 9:23) This is a basic skill of being a disciple: We recognize the natural temptation to do what is easy or comfortable, and choose instead to follow our convictions and our call. This is a skill that we can learn and practice through the spiritual exercise of fasting and self denial. Self denial is simply giving something up for a period of time for spiritual reasons. Jesus fasted in the desert and the devil tempted Him with comfort, security, and popularity rather than the cross. It was a pretty shrewd move because these are things that naturally feel good to us. These things were also the greatest obstacle to our salvation and the salvation of the entire world. If Jesus was not able or willing to choose the cross over what is easy or comfortable or what feels good, then we are all lost. The Father's plan fails. Likewise, if we in smaller daily ways are not able to choose obedience over what is easy or comfortable or what feels good, then the Father's plan fails in our lives and God will have to turn to someone else to work through.
Now maybe you are saying to yourself "I'm in trouble then because I have no willpower.
If there's a cupcake in the break room at work it's going in my mouth. How exactly am I going make these kinds of decisions for God every day?" We practice. Soldiers train and practice so that when they are in the heat of battle they are ready for it. Sports teams run drills, practice skills, run their plays over and over so that when they are facing a real opponent the struggle feels familiar. We've been here before. We know what to do because we've practiced it. The more we practice, the more naturally it comes to us. The spiritual disciplines of fasting, self denial and self control are ways to practice these daily choices with God in safety BEFORE we are facing the same crafty opponent that tempted Jesus in the desert. Through these spiritual exercises our willpower, our faith, our self discipline, our self control get stronger and we can endure the temptations better. And most importantly, we get better at relying on God's power that is made perfect in our weakness.
So the last question would have to be "How do I fast? What do I do?" Well, it's quite simple really. If you are abstaining from food, start small. Replace one meal with prayer and see how you do. Then maybe two meals. As was the practice in Jesus' day, begin the day with prayer, instead of breakfast, then pause in the middle of the day for more prayer instead of lunch, then finish the day with prayer and dinner. Drink plenty of water. Some people choose to do this one day a week, others two days a week. There are no rules about when or how often to do this, just don't do it everyday. Never EVER even consider something like forty days. This is a supernatural fast. We would suffer starvation if we ever tried it. Fasting is not about damaging ourselves, it is about focus. We give up something normal in order to focus more on God, which is why it doesn't have to be food. It can be any normal thing in our lives that would cause us to squirm or struggle without it. That's good because fasting from food is not for everyone. Some medications or medical conditions make it dangerous to fast, so check with your doctor.
Also remember why we fast. It's not about cutting calories or losing weight. It's not about vanity or looking good. It's not about proving how fantastic we are by not giving in to temptations. It is for spiritual reasons to focus on God and what God wants, rather than on what we want. We practice making uncomfortable choices by choosing to refrain from something that is perfectly acceptable. We learn how depend on God.
Self denial is un-American, because we are the nation of instant gratification. As disciples, though, we are citizens of a different realm where patience, self control and sacrifice are the ways we beat back the darkness.
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