“It Is Finished!” Isn’t it?

Just before Jesus took His last breath on the cross, He called out, “It is finished!” Theology teaches us that His statement reflects the completion of His mission– to defeat the power of Sin and Death, and pay the redemption price for all who will call on His name. The ultimate victory has been declared; the ultimate battle won!

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The past two weeks, I have wanted to say, “It is Finished!”– as I struggle with a hundred different tasks that never seem to end. I missed my self-imposed deadline to publish a blog entry on Monday; I stared at a pile of extra dishes in my sink and a growing mountain of laundry as I added “extra” tasks to my weekly list. My work here is not finished; my mission is not complete.

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But Jesus’ words remind me– It IS finished! My “mission” is not to wash every dish, make every deadline, “fix” every small problem that arises, or answer every question. My mission is to follow Jesus. He didn’t heal every leper, end poverty, sweep away the armies of Rome, or even convince the Pharisees to repent. Because THAT wasn’t His ultimate mission.

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That does not give me an excuse not to do the dishes or try to make sure I post this by my next deadline. But it gives me Grace to keep going– not in my own strength or achievement, but in dependence on God’s power, timing, and mercy. His Grace is sufficient!

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This is true of our prayer life as well. God doesn’t “grade” us on each prayer, or each day’s efforts; rather, He waits, patiently and lovingly, to hear us call on Him and listen for His voice in return. The “judgment” has already been given–Jesus’ work on our behalf has been accepted and declared “complete.” His Kingdom has come; His will is being done, even if our prayers seem small or inadequate for the mission.

There are some tasks that we will never see “finished” during our lifetime or through our limited efforts. But we can work and pray heartily and confidently in the knowledge that we will see it “finished” in God’s perfect timing. And we can rejoice in the privilege of working toward that end– even our smallest efforts and weakest moments are woven into the story of Eternity!

Laughing With the Sinners

There is a line in a song by Billy Joel (Only the Good Die Young) which reads, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.”

There is a myth about sin– that sin is fun and obedience is drudgery. Sinners laugh and live carefree, happy lives, while “saints” lead gloomy lives filled with tears, worry, and anguish. Heaven will be filled with sour-faced do-gooders playing harps, while Hell will be an eternal party.

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Nothing could be further from reality. While sin gives momentary pleasure and temporary laughter, it also leads to devastating pain and haunting regret. Broken families, lost relationships, stress, and guilt are just some of the consequences of sin. The idea that “I’m not hurting anybody– I’m just doing what makes me happy” is a false comfort.

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Similarly, while obedience may require us to make sacrifices or suffer momentarily, it also leads to great reward–discipline, wisdom, integrity, and a legacy of hope and help. The idea that “I’m missing out on the fun” is also a false one. “Saints” may cry, but often their tears are for the misfortunes of others!

Unfortunately, the common stereotype of sinners laughing while saints cry or, more often, sit in judgment, is based on observation. I have known some very sour Christians. They may not be crying, but they frequently make others around them cry! They nag, scold, wag their fingers, consign their neighbors and family members to Hell, and act as though they are too good for everyone else. When challenged about their negative attitude, sometimes they suggest that they are just “waiting for Heaven.” Others plead a genuine concern for others, and they worry that the laughter they hear now will turn to mourning in the future.

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But I have also known joyful Christians– laughing, singing, encouraging others, whistling while they work, even laughing in the face of suffering and persecution! They, too, are “waiting for Heaven.” But in the meantime, they are celebrating their new and abundant life in Christ. Their attitude and actions attract others, and reflect the love, joy, peace, and hope that transcends the mere “happiness” of a moment’s sinful pleasure.

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The Bible says much about the value of both laughter and tears; of joyous celebration and sober reflection. In the end, ALL of us are “sinners”–no one is righteous on her/his own. Jesus, when He walked the earth and interacted with people, wept and celebrated with them. The Pharisees reprimanded Jesus and His disciples for their “feasting” and spending time with prostitutes and tax collectors. And yet, Jesus had harsh words about sin and Hell, and often spent time alone and in anguish of heart.

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The crying of saints is not, in itself, of any more value than the laughter of sinners. But laughter and happiness in the moment cannot save us from the sting of death or the yawning emptiness of an eternity without God. And that is no laughing matter! Unfortunately, the song is based on an empty myth. Death comes to all of us, young or old, “good” or “bad,” gloomy or exuberant in life. What makes the difference is not our laughter or tears, or even our efforts to obey or live “good” lives– what makes a difference is GRACE and FAITH. And I’d rather live with the redeemed than die with the defiant!

Debt Free!

7“Blessed are those

    whose transgressions are forgiven,

    whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the one

    whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”

Romans 4:7-8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com (See also Psalm 32:1-2)

Ask me about my most embarrassing moment, or my greatest failure..better yet, ask one of my friends or relatives! We tend to hang on to our past, especially our mistakes, our hurts, our missed opportunities, and our shortcomings. When I taught public speaking in a local high school, I heard horror stories about why “I can’t get in front of people and talk.” The fear of public speaking rates higher in some studies than the fear of Death! And often, the fear is based on an incident from early childhood of people laughing at a small, but very public mistake. Such moments haunt us.

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As we grow older, we let our regrets live large– those things we “would have, should have, could have” done, or the things we shouldn’t have said, but can never un-say. And even if we try to move on or forget the past, there always seems to be someone who cannot let go, cannot forgive, or cannot forgive. Lives have been stunted and ruined by the ghosts of “what happened” when…

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God is all-knowing. There is nothing we’ve ever done, said, or even thought, that He “missed,” ignored, or “lost track of.” God has total recall over all the centuries and eons of time– past, present, and even future! And yet, God offers to forgive ALL our sins, and to “remember them no more.” God will never bring up “that time when you disappointed me…” God will never look at you with condemnation over anything you have confessed and repented over. It’s not that God will never be able to recall what happened; but He will no longer “charge it to your account.” He has chosen to pay the consequences in His own Blood, so that you can be debt free.

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Imagine if you had no bills. If all your mortgages, utility payments, credit card debt, medical bills–everything that you were responsible to pay– all were stamped “Paid in full.” You never had to worry about interest payments, late fees, repossession, evening phone calls from bill collectors, credit scores, etc. What a weight off your shoulders! Imagine if you had no reason to fear getting in front of a room full of people to speak or sing or give a presentation– no fear that others would judge your every hesitation, or whether your tie was straight, or your hair was mussed, or you stumbled over a word or phrase or tripped on the steps leading up to the podium. Imagine being accepted and embraced by the very one who, by rights, should be your most severe critic.

Sometimes, when we see God as our critic, our judge, or our opponent, we’re not seeing God as He really is– we’re seeing a reflection of ourselves– harsh, judgmental, unwilling to forgive others; unwilling to forgive ourselves. The very first deception of the Enemy was to distort God’s image from Creator and Sustainer to Judge and Tyrant. Yet Satan is called “The Accuser,” not God. God’s Holy Spirit may convict us of Sin– causing us to see that we have done wrong– but His purpose is always to correct and restore us, not to haunt and condemn us. Even the “worst” sins are not beyond God’s ability or willingness to forgive. Jesus forgave His accusers, His betrayers, and His executioners from the Cross!

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Forgiveness is not easy. Sin is real; it has real and terrible consequences. Sin hurts, humiliates, victimizes, and traumatizes. And its effects do not simply vanish if we say, “I forgive.” But hanging on to the pain and anger keeps us from finding and experiencing the healing and wholeness that Jesus offers. Forgiveness does not mean that the sin, or the pain, never happened– God will not “forget” injustice just because we forgive the unjust. Forgiveness means that we no longer need to try to collect the debt from someone else– because God has already promised to pay it back with interest! And forgiving yourself doesn’t mean that your past actions didn’t happen or didn’t cause pain. In fact, whenever there are opportunities to atone for past actions, or ask forgiveness from those we have wronged, we should take them. But where such opportunities are impossible for us, even when we cannot see how such pain could be redeemed or relationships restored, God has promised that we can move beyond our past mistakes and live a new , blessed, and debt-free life.

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When we approach God in prayer, we come as we are– people with past mistakes, very human emotions, including doubt and fear, and unworthy to stand on our own before a perfect God. But it is God who invites us to come to Him– debt free and embraced by His limitless Grace!

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The Sound of Silence

The events of Good Friday are well recorded in all four of the gospels, (see Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=JOhn%2019&version=NIV ) but it is still difficult to imagine exactly what it must have been like that day. The first crow of the rooster came as Jesus was still on trial before the Sanhedrin, hours of questioning and betrayal that would continue as the sun rose and Jesus as passed on up the chain of power to Pontius Pilate for more questioning. The sun was still climbing as Jesus was beaten and paraded before the crowds. The swell of voices shouting for His execution would have echoed through the public square–“Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” “We have no king but Caesar!” The same taunting would continue as Jesus walked the long Via Dolorosa and came to Golgotha.

By nine that morning, Jesus, bloodied, whipped, exhausted, humiliated, betrayed, and struggling for every breath, was nailed to the cross. He was fully exposed to the bright morning sun, the heat, and all the stares of the angry mob who came to revel in His anguish. He was unable to wipe the blood or salty sweat that trickled from His brow and ran into His eyes; unable to swat away flies who buzzed around His face, elbows, or cheeks. He was unable to block out the noise–curses, curious questions, His Mother’s agonized cries, and, in the lull, the ordinary noises of a crowded city preparing for a celebration.

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As noon approached, there would be the aromas of roasted lamb, market fish, baking bread. The crowds were quieter now, some may have left to seek out lunch or relief from the heat. But the heat and the sun disappeared as darkness rolled in. The angry energy gave way to fear and dread. The earlier shouting was now a an ominous rumbling among the remaining spectators. It was quiet enough to hear Jesus address His Mother and His disciple, John, and answer the thief on the neighboring cross, promising to see him in Paradise. It was possible to hear Jesus cry out later, His voice raspy and broken, but clearly in anguish, “Eloi, Elioi, lama sabachthani!?”

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Perhaps it even got so quiet, as it sometimes does in darkness, that you could hear the three men on the crosses struggling to take each breath–their tortured muscled straining to lift their weight enough to get air past their parched lips and tongues–in and out, as distended muscles demanded more oxygen than their bodies could provide. Did the members of the crowd listen to their own heartbeats in those moments?

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The unnatural darkness would have magnified the moment when Jesus, the Light of the World, breathed His last breath. And I imagine in the moment after that a silence so deafening, so complete, as the Word of God, the Creator of Life and Giver of Breath departed the Earth– as though all light and sound imploded at the loss. A split second only, but one so intensely silent that it must have taken the breath of every onlooker.

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And then, the sound returned full-force– the Earth quaking, the skies crashing, Creation gasping, the Temple Veil ripping, and terrified people rediscovering their ability to cry out. Noise–piercing, and violent and sudden, bringing with it a return of the angry energy of before. But the energy is different now. Subdued. Nervous. Desperate. Empty…

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Easter Sale

A young man walked into a local superstore. He was nondescript: late twenties or early thirties, dark hair, light brown skin, deep brown eyes, clean cut, quiet and friendly-looking. He was alone.

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He came in by the pharmacy, and started down the first aisle. He saw a woman staring at a box– a home pregnancy test. She looked fearful, tired, and sad. He started to reach out to put a hand on her shoulder.

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“Hey! Where’s your mask?! You can’t be in here without a mask– state mandate. What are you? Some kind of COVID-denying homicidal maniac? Hater! Get out of here!” This from another lady at the end of the aisle. The sad woman disappeared around the corner. Without a word, the man pulled a mask from his pocket and slipped it over his mouth and nose. He continued down the aisle. “I hope you get COVID and die!”– a parting shot from the second woman.

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The man turned a corner and approached the brightly-colored Easter display area– candy, plastic eggs, plush bunnies, baskets filled with small toys, and lots of plastic grass. One area boasted crosses–wooden crosses on stakes to put in the yard, filigree crosses to hang on the wall, pewter crosses on chains of various lengths for necklaces, bracelets, key rings… A few wall hangings and lawn banners with sunrises, lilies, cute little chicks, and old country churches. More candy. The larger bags were on sale. To the right, there were adorable clothes for the kids– suits for the little boys, frilly dresses and bonnets for the little girls. Most were 20% off. There were “dress-up” costumes, too–rabbit ears and and flower hats and fairy wings. There was even a chicken outfit with feathers. Off to the end, there were deeply discounted Halloween costumes for 70% off–zombies and vampires, witches and skeletons. A special end-cap held yet more candy.

As the man left the area, he shook his head. He wandered over to the Home Decor and craft area in a fog. There he found framed art. “God Bless America!” “Life is Better at the Lake” “Love Never Fails” “Sleep, Drink, Fish, Repeat” “Faith, Family, Freedom” “These Boots Were Made For Walkin'”, plus several with pictures–Wonder Woman, Harley-Davidson, Captain Morgan, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe.

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He kept going. There were books and magazines–best-sellers, romance series, biographies, horror and self-help books. Magazines filled with gossip and gaming, guns and glamour, gardening, goddesses, and gigabytes. Just for Easter, there was a special display of leather-bound Bibles, next to the Spring Gardening guides and photographic histories of favorite Major League Baseball teams.

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The man bypassed the mesmerizing glow of wide-screen TVs and computers, strolled past the sporting goods and garden center, and turned away from the auto and hardware sections. He spent a couple of minutes glancing at the furniture– prefab and chipboard dressers and bookshelves, patio tables made of plastic or resin or metal tubing; floor-model chairs and lamps already scratched and discounted.

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As he approached the grocery area, his eyes widened–aisle after aisle of canned goods, packaged dinners, bags of cookies and flavored popcorn, rows of olives and pickles and hot peppers, an entire section for bread and rolls. And the meats! Large banners announced special prices this week on ham and lamb, rolls, potatoes, and special Easter cakes.

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As He left the superstore, there was a bench just outside. The young man sat down, sank His head into His nail-scarred hands, and shed a tear.

Insult to Injury

Have you had “one of those” days lately? Nothing seems to go according to plan, and as the day goes on, it just seems to go from bad to worse. Something (or someone) comes along and adds insult to injury.

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Next week, the Church will be remembering what seemed like the last week in the ministry of Jesus Christ on earth. First comes “Palm” Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Shouts of “Hosanna!” and crowds of people cheering and waving palm branches–it was as though Jesus was a rock star or a prince of Israel. But just a few short days later, he was arrested, and convicted in a corrupt “trial” by the religious officials. The same crowds who cheered him on were screaming for his death, waving fists instead of palm branches. Pilate, to please the crowd, sentenced an innocent Messiah to one of the most brutal deaths imaginable– public, excruciating, humiliating, torturous crucifixion.

Jesus didn’t just suffer death. He was mocked, insulted, deserted by his friends, lied about and lied to by those he should have been able to trust, stripped naked and whipped, and branded as a criminal as his “fate.” In such a short time, to be so crushed and betrayed, brutalized and humiliated–none of my “bad days” can compare to what Jesus went through. His injuries were horrific; the insults and betrayals were worse. Yet He bore them all. He died in anguish; broken, bruised, beaten, and abandoned.

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And He could have chosen differently. He was perfectly innocent, perfectly authorized to defend Himself, capable of calling all the Hosts of Heaven to testify on His behalf, and perfectly powerful enough to come down off the cross at any time and send all of His accusers and tormenters to oblivion! That Friday wasn’t just “one of those” days. It was not something that took Him by surprise, nor was it something He “deserved.” He chose to go through that day…it was part of His perfect plan. That day. That death. That stunning humiliation and “defeat.”

But Holy Week doesn’t end in insult, injury, defeat, or despair–because God’s ways are perfect, Jesus turned everything to Glory! We will celebrate next Friday– “Good” Friday– because only God can triumph over death, and transform horror into hope, despair into deliverance, and shame into salvation.

Even on “one of those” days, we can find peace and practice praise as we pray to the one who took “one of those” days and turned it into the greatest miracle!

The Lion’s Share

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
Therefore I will wait for Him.”

Lamentations 3:22-24
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We live in a world of seemingly finite resources. We work hard to save money, save time, protect our joints, take care of our teeth, maintain our house or yard, repair our vehicle, conserve water, protect our air quality, etc.. And we work hard to ensure that we get our “fair share”–vacation time, wages, tax breaks, sale prices, the best return on our investments, the lot with the best view, the window seat on the plane or bus, credit for our hard work, and more.

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God’s resources are unlimited and bountiful. Through Christ, we are joint heirs to all the riches of God. God is our “portion.” And no one who trusts in Him will be left with less than a cup filled to overflowing (Psalm 23:5). We may not fully comprehend or receive our great good fortune in this life, but we will enjoy it for eternity in the next! And there is no need to scramble and scrimp, worry, or wrangle trying to get it– it’s our promised “portion” and our inheritance.

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What a world of worry, stress, desperation, and trouble we might avoid if we carried this promise in our memory and LIVED it out. The prophet Jeremiah wrote these words– Jeremiah, the weeping prophet; Jeremiah, whose life was in constant danger as he watched his homeland being invaded, conquered, and exiled. Jeremiah, in the midst of his anguish, took time to write some of the most hopeful and joyful words of prophecy. Jeremiah knew that, even if the nation of Judah was conquered and destroyed, the LION of Judah would still bring ultimate victory.

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Jesus (called the Lion of Judah, an image found in both Genesis and Revelation) has already given us victory over Sin and Death. And the “Lion’s Share” of the spoils– abundant life, restoration, redemption, and the Righteousness of God– are for all those who call on His name and worship Him in Spirit and in Truth! He’s reserved a “Lion’s Share” for each of us.

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“The Lord is my portion; Therefore, I will wait for Him.” ” I will trust and not be afraid.” (Isaiah 12:2) “You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.” (James 5:8) https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Waiting-On-The-Lord (See also Psalm 37)

Praying in Perspective

I love optical illusions and “trompe l’oeil” drawings and paintings– artwork that either forces the eye to see things as though they are three-dimensional, or fools the eye into seeing something completely different if you look at it from a different angle or perspective. A duck turns into a rabbit, or a hairy face turns into an ape, or a vase turns into two faces…it is not enough to take a quick glance– you are “drawn” into looking deeper, and studying the art from many angles.

What if we approached prayer this way? Sometimes, I pray from a very fixed perspective– my own desires or in my own wisdom– instead of giving my thoughts and worries entirely over to an all-knowing and all-wise God. What if God wants me to see the situation from a different perspective– HIS?!

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Instead of instant healing from an injury, what if God wants me to work harder to maintain my overall health as I recover? Instead of mission work in East Asia, maybe God needs me to work in East L.A. (or vice versa). Instead of my child having the “perfect” job, what if God’s plan is for her to be challenged and unsettled for years before finding the most fulfilling career?

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Jesus gave us excellent examples of praying with the proper perspective. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:10-12) “..yet not my will, but Thine be done.” (Luke 22:42).

I tend to pray “two-dimensional” prayers. Lord, help me to pray with Your eternal perspective!

Show, Don’t Tell..

A fundamental piece of advice for writing fiction is “Show, don’t tell.” A good writer will use words to paint a picture or set a mood. Poets and songwriters are masters of this advice. Metaphors, analogies, figurative language, even alliteration– all create memorable images with very few words.

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Jesus (hardly surprising, as He is the Word of God) was a master storyteller, using parables that we still recognize and identify with today–mustard seeds and prodigal sons, good Samaritans and lilies of the field– Jesus didn’t “lecture” about forgiveness or holiness or love; He provided word pictures, even as He demonstrated each concept in His actions.

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When Jesus was getting ready to return to Heaven, He commanded His disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations.. (Matthew 28:19 NIV) He also said to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature..(Mark 16:15 NKJV). And as I review Jesus’ methods and actions, I see that I need to make some changes.

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I need to listen more and lecture less. I need to spend more time with those who are shunned by the “righteous,” but cherished by God. I need to spend less time defending myself and more time testifying about Jesus. And I need to spend less time “telling” and more time “showing” love, obedience, joy, mercy, peace, and hope.

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This doesn’t eliminate the need to talk and write and “tell” about God– but I want to learn more about doing it God’s way!

Fast Forward

I’ve written dozens of blog posts about prayer, and very little about fasting. Fasting is a practice that is often coupled with prayer, but fasting rarely appears in my blog.

There are several reasons for this. I don’t make a practice of dedicated fasting, so I don’t feel comfortable writing about something I don’t know well. or practice often. I also don’t want to give fasting equal time or importance, because I feel it can become a substitute or even an obstacle to prayer if done for the wrong reasons.

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The Lenten season is fast approaching, and it is a time when many people choose to fast, so I am stepping out of my comfort zone a little to give more time and effort to fasting (and discussing it here). Here are a few things I have found:

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  • While we often think of fasting as going without food or water (or both), there are actually many kinds of fasting. Fasting simply means that we do without or set aside something as an act of obedience, reverence, contrition, or worship. Fasting should be done with the goal of getting closer to God, increasing our focus and our dependence on Him. When we fast, we are creating a “space” of dependence– separating ourselves from one thing to be available for another thing– namely prayer and worship. It isn’t about not eating, so much as not allowing food and drink (or other things) to call us away from time with God.
  • Fasting is Biblical. It was practiced by Biblical figures from Moses to King David, Ezra, Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther, and the entire nation of Israel! Jesus fasted and members of the early church practiced fasting as well. Fasting is encouraged, but not required. It is never prohibited, but there are several biblical warnings about improper fasting (see below).
  • For an excellent discussion (by people who have studied longer and know far more than I do), see: https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/what-exactly-is-fasting-all-about.html or any number of other excellent blogs and websites, many of which are linked in the site I’ve listed.
  • Fasting is NOT meant to be an end in itself. There are many people who use fasting as a diet plan, or as an exercise in self-control. This is NOT biblical fasting. Whatever you are “setting aside” in your fast should be “filled” with prayer, meditation, and worship, and that should always be your focus. If you have health issues, a history of eating disorders or obsessive behavior, you should be very careful about fasting. Consider seeking advice or an accountability partner to help you remained focused on the real goals.
  • Fasting will not make you more righteous, or better than someone else who does not practice fasting. In fact, Jesus warned that when we fast, we should not do anything to call attention to the fact– no moaning or sighing, etc. Fasting isn’t about impressing others with our religious devotion. God knows our actions, but He also knows our heart.
  • Fasting is a commitment, and should not be taken lightly. If you decide to do a fast, and you’ve never done one, it’s best to start small and complete it, than to jump in headfirst and fail to keep your commitment. Not because God will be angry or disgusted– remember that God LOVES you and wants you to desire a closer relationship. But God wants each of us to grow to maturity. God will give us grace to do what He asks us to do; but He won’t honor our efforts to “outdo” Him.
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In taking a closer look at fasting, I am encouraged to do it more often. I have done short fasts, food fasts, and fasting from activities, and I can say that such practices often have surprising results. If you are planning to do any kind of fast for Lent, I pray that you will find it brings you closer to God and helps you in your own pursuit of prayer.

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