Self-Denial: So Hard, But So Good
I really don’t like fasting. I often get a headache when I fast, and it makes me cranky. I’m told some people get greater spiritual clarity and a sense of lightness from it, but not I. I dread it in advance and don’t enjoy the experience.
Yet I love the fruits of fasting. I love walking in the confidence that I have again cleared away the brambles of my heart and that I am assured that my first desire is to do God’s will. Fasting gives me confidence that I have done my best to seek God’s will in some particular matter, and it puts me at peace with whatever decision I have made as a result of my fasting.
The Bible teaches that fasting mysteriously unleashes power “in the heavenly realms.” I can’t claim to entirely understand why or how this happens, but I believe it. Most of the time I have fasted I have not been privileged to see any discernible difference in the world, but on occasion it has produced a dramatic change.
One time I was led to pray and fast all day for one of my children whom I sensed was being held back from giving her life to the Lord by demonic forces. I told no one about my fasting other than my wife, Dana. That night my daughter told me she wanted to talk to us just when she was supposed to be going to bed. At first I assumed she was playing the “stall-queen” as she had done so many other times. When she told me that she didn’t believe she had truly given her life to the Lord and asked to pray the sinner’s prayer with us, I was floored. She then proceeded to pray a genuine and moving prayer for forgiveness and repentance, convincing me that my fasting played an important role in my daughter’s life.
Self-denial leads us to the life God wants us to have—and the life we truly want once we experience it. C. S. Lewis said it best:
Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in (Mere Christianity, 190).
Abraham was prepared to slay his only son, Isaac, the son for whom he had waited for decades and by which God had promised to bless him with descendants too numerous to count. Daniel laid down his life by praying to God in contravention of the king’s edict. The apostles defied a direct governmental order not to preach the gospel. Yet each of these heroes found consolation—both in this life and, we trust, in the life to come—in their sacrifice.
Death is the means to the end, not the end in itself. Knowing God and being in right relationship with him is the end. And once we know him, we find the sacrifice is totally worth it.
In “The Bargain,” the 1970s rock band The Who accurately captured how well death to self nets out positively on the ledger. Although lyricist Peter Townshend was influenced by Indian mystic Meher Baba’s Eastern religious thought in writing the song, his words accurately capture the Christian idea of dying to self.
I’d gladly lose me to find you I’d gladly give up all I had To find you I’d suffer anything and be glad I’d pay any price just to get you I’d work all my life and I will To win you I’d stand naked, stoned and stabbed I’d call that a bargain The best I ever had The best I ever had I’d gladly lose me to find you I’d gladly give up all I got To catch you I’m gonna run and never stop I’d pay any price just to win you Surrender my good life for bad To find you I’m gonna drown an unsung man I’d call that a bargain The best I ever had The best I ever had I sit looking ‘round I look at my face in the mirror I know I’m worth nothing without you In life one and one don’t make two One and one make one And I’m looking for that free ride to me I’m looking for you
C.S. Lewis put it similarly in The Weight of Glory:
. . . it is not so much of our time and so much of our attention that God demands; it is not even all our time and all our attention; it is ourselves. For each of us the Baptist’s words are true: “He must increase and I decrease.” He will be infinitely merciful to our repeated failures; I know no promise that He will accept a deliberate compromise. For He has, in the last resort, nothing to give us but Himself; and He can give that only insofar as our self-affirming will retires and makes room for Him in our souls. Let us make up our minds to it; there will be nothing “of our own” left over to live on, no “ordinary” life. I do not mean that each of us will necessarily be called to be a martyr or even an ascetic. That’s as may be. For some (nobody knows which) the Christian life will include much leisure, many occupations we naturally like. But these will be received from God’s hands. In a perfect Christian they would be as much part of his “religion,” his “service,” as his hardest duties, and his feasts would be as Christian as his fasts. What cannot be admitted—what must exist only as an undefeated but daily resisted enemy—is the idea of something that is “our own,” some area in which we are to be “out of school,” on which God has no claim.
For He claims all, because He is love and must bless. He cannot bless us unless He has us. When we try to keep within us an area that is our own, we try to keep an area of death. Therefore, in love, He claims all. There’s no bargaining with Him (140-141).