The concept of self-denial is foreign to most American Christians who, in our consumer culture, as as well conditioned as the rest to indulge and spend, to consume, consume, consume. We consume food to the point that most of us are overweight. We consume so much food that many chronic illnesses are all directly related to consumption of too much food, and unhealthy foods at that, over consumption of alcoholic beverages and over consumption of tobacco products. [Disclaimer: This is not a post intended to spark debate over drinking and smoking.]
What about it? Is American Christianity at all open to the rigorous spiritual disciplines practiced throughout the Church’s history? Are we ready for fasting during Lent? Can we forego a meal and cut down on food for six weeks? Is fasting good for the soul? If so, how?
On the other hand, what drives many Christians away from acts of self-denial are stories of going too far and doing things that strike us as bizarre. Witness the recent story of Pope John Paul II’s practice of whipping himself. Christianity Today has a great story out on this today. Even as we rightly criticize this kind of practice, one reason Western Christians, and particularly Protestants, recoil in such horror is because we have lost sight of the proper place of self-denial and self-mortification in the Christian life. Our Lord Christ assumed His disciples would fast, even as He assumed they would pray. There was no “if” about it, for Christ. It was simply assumed we would fast. Here’s that quote from the CT article that really got me thinking:
“Christians in a gluttonous, denial-less, self-indulgent society may struggle to accept and to begin the practice of fasting,” Don Whitney writes in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. “Few disciplines go so radically against the flesh and the mainstream culture as this one. But we cannot overlook its biblical significance. Of course, some people, for medical reasons, cannot fast. But most of us dare not overlook fasting’s benefits in the disciplined pursuit of a Christlike life.” Do you want to strengthen your prayer life? Discern God’s leading? Find an outlet to express your grief to God? Confess your utter dependence on God? Whipping is not necessary, but self-denial is a vital means of Christian growth. As Jesus prepared for his earthly ministry, he fasted. His example compels us to do the same.