December 5, 2011

Spiritual Disciplines XLIII: Austerity & Self-Denial

You Have That Empty Feeling For A Reason

There was a time when the emptiness I felt was filled with substance abuse in the form of alcohol consumption. When I dried out that switched to materialism and material goods. As Solomon or Qoheleth came to realize later in life as I did… “all is vanity”. When he said “all is vanity” what he meant was we often strive for things of this world which are temporarily. We labor endlessly and “in vain” to possess items that have not eternal significance (things “under the sun”). As such they will never truly satisfy us or give us contentment. We were created to worship and praise an eternal and holy God and that is the source of our holy discontent. Until we fulfill this need that we were created for, all else is chasing the wind. What Solomon/Qoheleth and I now realize that the only true way to fill the emptiness in our lives is through God. All else ends in varying levels of meaninglessness as it is all perishable and of the creation, not the Creator. Everything that we can/could attain or ascertain is of a fallen creation that can only be rectified and fixed by the Creator whom we were created for to bring glory to. Nothing else makes sense. The holy discontent and restlessness comes from the fact that we have a God-shaped hole in us and only God will fill it.

Your heart is made for God, act accordingly.

Self-Denial & An Austere Nature

Fasting and self-denial breaks dependency of desires of the world. More people should do it. Many people think they do deny themselves but they do not. Some people believe getting rid of one television because they have three is self-denial. Some believe not buying a fourth new shirt because they have three new ones is denial. They do this while some of their neighbors can’t afford one television or used shirt from a thrift shop. All the while there is no sense of incongruity, no sense of shame.

I guess this is a sore subject with me. I guess denial looks different for some people. I guess poverty looks different to different people. I guess some live in a world of entitlement. I’ve seen how both halves live and I now live somewhere in-between. I believe many think they are being deprived and have it hard…but have not. I believe many think that things are a struggle but in reality things have been easy.

Conversely, I believe there are some that are struggling but they believe they have a good life. I believe some deserve more but are often marginalized and ignored by the world because of the world’s headlong drive into materialism. Until we truly understand how the weak and downtrodden of society live and want to help them, we have no right to pursue our materialistic gains as it is then only sin, greed and vanity. In today’s language we would call it insatiable materialism. Materialism is a love of thing(s). We worship the thing or and idol made by our own hands. In America we do it in bulk.

At about this point many will stop reading this because it will begin to convict them. Others will respond mentally to me thinking, "Andy needs to be gentler delivering this. He is not delivering this in love the way Jesus would." I've said stuff like this before and these are generally the two reactions. Sorry folks, some truths are just harder to hear than others. The lack of love or failure to deliver things in love that I am often accused of is not a failure to love. If I failed to love someone I would lie to them. What people are seeing from me is austerity. I will not "doll up" the picture to make it easier to look at. I speak plainly so all will understand the truth and the severity of the issue. If I do not communicate clearly I am not doing the job I've been called to.

Fasting and self-denial helps us not make our desire of “material things” and “wants” the very idols that cannot save us. Money for things “toys” and “gadgets” that cannot help us is better spent helping those that can’t help themselves. Perhaps some people’s over-abundance is to help those without? When people realize they don’t need “things” those “things” can no longer hold sway over those people’s lives. When we do need “things” they hold sway over our lives and replace God at varying levels. Sadly, they are just plastic, metal, wood, paper…perishable one and all. This can never be a good thing. Isaiah explains this brilliantly in Chapter 44, verse 9-20.

“All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together. The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, "Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!" And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, "Deliver me, for you are my god!" They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, "Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?" He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, "Is there not a lie in my right hand?" Isaiah 44:9-20

We live so deeply in a culture of entitlement, self-fulfillment, self-aggrandizement and selfishness in general that it has severely infiltrated our churches. We believe because we do exactly what the Bible tells us we deserve to have a successful church, a successful ministry, a blessed life. How is this any different than the health and wealth prosperity Gospel that has pervaded much of the programming on TBN and a large portion of evangelical America? We feel entitled because of the very fact that we "are Americans" or "are Christians" or "are Republicans", "Democrats", "educated", "paid our dues", "handsome", "pretty", "hard workers", blah blah blah. Get over yourselves. God gives you grace...that is enough.

Now go on a materialism and sensory fast. Start with your TV. Deny yourself. Kill or destroy your idols and take up your cross. Stop buying plasma televisions, shoes and luxury goods and go buy a homeless man a meal. Stop worrying about whether you have a pair of shoes a color that matches your pants and give your extra shoes to the shoeless man on the street. We need to realize something…more often than not, a manicured hand and clean shoes are usually not connected to a body with a heart for their neighbor…and therefore by extension…it is  a heart that is not connected to their God.

This constitutes a dead heart in a dead world.

Please also note that I did not say that you have to practice asceticism as a permanent lifestyle to be holy. That would be a religion by works. I am simply saying that occasionally depriving yourself stuff that you normally crave helps you focus on the things that matter.

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