Last Sunday we looked at Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding godliness—the right disposition toward God. In that sermon we saw true godliness requires both believing the right things and living the right way. Without either one of these, one cannot be godly. That is, if one does not believe the right things or if one does not live the right way, one cannot have the right disposition toward God.
Godliness necessarily affects the decisions we make, for it must be pursued. No one is accidentally godly. No one inadvertently follows the Lord. I promise you there is never a time when you’re home alone for an hour or two and without realizing it you engaged in godly behavior. I promise you no one has ever been asked what he or she did for the hour when home alone and answered, “Well, I opened up my laptop to check my email and then I opened a web page and an ad popped up and then I clicked on it and then I clicked a few more links and the next thing I knew I had spent 40 minutes praying for my friends and family and church.”
This is where spiritual disciplines are vital for the pursuit of godliness in our lives. Professor Don Whitney writes a lot about spiritual disciplines. He defines them as practices found in Scripture that promote spiritual growth in a believer by pointing him or her to Jesus and his gospel. Things like fasting and prayer and giving and serving and even weekly worship on Sunday mornings are all spiritual disciplines. They are disciplines because we have to choose to do them. Again, no one ever on a Sunday afternoon says, “Wow. I don’t know what happened. I woke up fully intending to just lounge around all day and do nothing but somehow I just stumbled into worshiping with my church, fully engaged with them in singing and praying and praising the Lord. Not sure how it happened!”
Over the years I’ve shared a number of times that Jesus expected his followers to engage in spiritual disciplines. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gave instructions for when you pray, not if you pray. He gave instructions for when you fast, not if you fast. It is clear that he expected his followers to engage in various spiritual disciplines.
This is usually when someone will point out that Jesus said to pray and fast in secret. He did say this. His point was not that we should never let others know we’re praying and fasting, otherwise we’d never be able to pray together! He said to not pray or fast or give to those in need in a way that draws attention to one’s self. This is what the hypocrites did. They prayed in such a way that they were honored rather than the one they claimed to be praying to receiving the honor. Don’t engage in spiritual disciplines to show how great you are!
It should come as no surprise that the earliest Christians were much more organized when it came to spiritual disciplines. They were also more dedicated than many are today. The Didache—written as early as the year AD 50!—gave instructions for fasting:
But do not let your fasts coincide with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday, so you must fast on Wednesday and Friday.Didache 8:1
The Pharisees practiced fasting twice a week. It was they whom Jesus criticized in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:16–18. They loved to be noticed for their “piety” so they made a big show of fasting. Out of concern for not being associated with them and their particular form of fasting, the writers of the Didache—again, likely written during the time of the apostles—urged Christians to fast on different days for they were fasting regularly for entirely different reasons.
One thing that is evident from early church history is they truly expected the Lord to return at any moment. For the first century or two after the apostles the church organized itself on a weekly schedule. This is why we see such an emphasis on fasting twice a week. On Sundays the whole church would assemble in the name of Jesus to worship him and to be encouraged and built up in the faith. The focus was a weekly focus.
Over time, however, this focus began to shift. As the church realized it may be here for a while longer, the focus on spiritual disciplines began to extend. Rather than a focus on weekly schedules of worship and discipline, the church began to develop the church calendar. The weekly focus became an annual focus. Regular participation in spiritual disciplines still occurred weekly, but annual observances began to develop. By the time the Council of Nicea was convened the organizers could refer to “the spring fast” and expect everyone to understand what this meant. Whereas from the beginning Sundays were celebrated as mini-Easters, for the Lord rose from the dead on a Sunday, the church had begun an annual celebration of Easter as well. Christians would fast in preparation for this annual celebration of the victory of Jesus over sin and death.
This is the origin of Lent. The word “Lent” is short for “Lenten”, which is the Old English word meaning “spring”—the spring fast, or the Lenten Fast. Fasting together as we look toward Easter is a reminder of the importance of Easter. It is a holy time for us as followers of Jesus for his resurrection is the foundation of our faith. If we lose the resurrection we truly lose everything. As the apostle Paul famously wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, if our hope is only in this life and not in resurrection, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
Lent eventually became a forty-day fast that takes place over 46 days. In Matthew 9:14–17 Jesus was asked why his disciples do not fast. He said they cannot because he is with them, though when he is taken away from them they will fast. Since the Lord is present in his gathered assembly, we do not fast on Sundays. If you add up the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday and take away the six Sundays, you’re left with 40 days. These 40 days are meant to mirror Jesus’ own forty-day fast. The Lord himself engaged in spiritual disciplines!
The point of fasting is it is a self-denial of something good. That night in the garden the Lord practiced self-denial when he prayed, “Not my will but your will be done.” When we fast we deny ourselves something good, whether it is a total fast, consuming only water, or giving up coffee or your favorite mid-day snack or even your nightly television viewing or web-browsing, we are demonstrating that we would rather pursue God’s will in our lives than our own wills. We must be careful to not be like the hypocrites Jesus mentioned in Matthew 6 and think the very act of fasting makes us righteous; it does not. Only faith in Jesus makes us righteous.
Here’s where spiritual disciplines come in to play in our pursuit of godliness. By denying ourselves through fasting or disciplining ourselves to pray and attend worship and read Scripture and serve others, we are reminding ourselves of our need for the Lord. Only he sustains us. Only he can save us. Through the self-denial that is inherent in spiritual disciplines we are relying on the Lord for his righteousness. During the times we would ordinarily enjoy the good thing we give up for Lent we should pray and reflect on who Jesus is and what he has done. This is when we can see the outworking of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
I encourage you to consider participating in the spring fast this year. It begins on Wednesday this week. Choose something good that you regularly enjoy and voluntarily give up that thing Monday through Saturday until Easter, for resurrection ends all suffering. Enjoy that good thing on Sundays, again as a reminder that resurrection is coming, and resurrection ends all suffering.
As we do this, let’s pray for God’s direction for our lives and for our church. Pray that we may be more effective in outreach as we desire to see men and women come to faith in Jesus and experience his grace and mercy and begin to enjoy eternal life now through a changed life. Pray that you and I would become more like him as we follow him in the spiritual discipline of fasting. Let us pursue true godliness together.
Over these next six weeks, rather than lament what we give up, we should celebrate all that we gain through spiritual disciplines—especially through fasting. Through fasting God gives us greater insight into our own hearts, for our sins are often revealed when a source of comfort is stripped away. Through fasting God provides us opportunities to pursue godliness. As we saw last Sunday, godliness with contentment is itself great gain (1 Timothy 6:6). By giving up some of our excess and celebrating who we are in Christ, we grow in contentment and so through observing Lent we can grow in godliness. Even more, through fasting we gain more of Jesus. We don’t gain more of him in the sense that we are lacking any part of him. Instead, our awareness of him and what he has done for us grows. Through faith we are drawn closer to him. It is our experience of him that grows and so in this sense fasting gives us more Jesus.
Is it really giving up if we gain far more than we give up? Are we really losing something when we gain more of Jesus? As we contemplate giving up something good, is it really a loss if we gain something superlatively Great?