We’re headed into the Easter season. This week we celebrated Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, followed by Ash Wednesday, the official start of the season of Lent, something Christians have been observing for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
Traditionally, this has been a time of fasting and prayer – when Christians avoid certain foods or meals so they can take that time to talk to God and contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ instead. These days, modern believers have expanded the definition of “fasting” to include almost anything that we find pleasurable or distracting, like TV, internet, desserts, video games, or chocolate. The idea is to remove something we like and replace it with something we like better. To consider the habits of our life, mortify the sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves, and more about Jesus by setting aside time, energy and effort to concentrate on our spiritual lives.
This isn’t easy, especially when most of us aren’t fans of religion, don’t like denying ourselves the things we want, and live in a hyper-consumer driven culture.
Does anyone remember when the TV signal used to shut off every night? I remember when I was a kid staying up late at night and then the TV channel I was watching would say, “This concludes our broadcast day”, play the national anthem, and then just put up a test pattern until the next morning. Do you remember having to wait for Saturday morning to watch cartoons? What about setting your VCR to record a show you wanted to see because it would be on at a certain time, only once, and then it was gone forever?
That’s not the world we live in anymore. TV is available 24 hours a day. All our favourite sources of media are now “on-demand” whenever we want them. If you like crossword puzzles, you used to have to buy a book of them or wait until the newspaper came the next day – but now, you can fire up the iPad and do as many crossword puzzles as you like!
And our culture doesn’t help. Every week seems to have another holiday, birthday, anniversary, or special day of some kind. Every store has a sale something we want. Every day there’s another “must-see” concert, game, or movie. Everything is always hyped to the max, making us constantly feel like we’re always missing out on something.
This is all terribly bad for our hearts and spirits. Living in a constant state of distraction, never feeling satisfied, always feeling like we deserve a reward, is bad for us. Our spirits cry out for silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but the moment we try to give them what they need, we remember something we have to do, someone asks for something, we run out of milk and eggs, we remember there’s a sale somewhere, the car needs gas and the gas station has a good points program that’s only for today, another episode of our show is available or there’s a new movie premiering that night, our phone dings to tell us someone wants to chat, or needs an answer, or has scheduled a meeting for us, or reminds us of the thing we were supposed to be doing.
It’s very hard on our spirits to live in that state, and it will inevitably cause damage to our souls – we start to spiritually starve to death. We go from thing to thing, distraction to distraction, event to event, job to job, feeling hollow. We may get enough sleep and eat our veggies, enjoy our work, and have a generally happy life – but something deep inside feels hollow, empty – like part of us is starving and there’s nothing we can do to feed it.
Starving for God
Christians should understand this and know why it’s happening. Turn with me to Psalm 63 and consider the words of David when he was living as a refugee in the wildernesses and deserts of Judah, far from his throne, far from the Tabernacle, running away, hungry, thirsty, attacked, afraid, hunted by his own family and people.
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:1–8)
He may have felt physical hunger, thirst, and fatigue, but as a man of God he knew that his real problem, the real danger, wasn’t lack of food or weariness of his body – it was the weariness of his soul. His complaint wasn’t that God wasn’t around, but that he missed God’s special presence in the Tabernacle, in corporate worship, in hearing the prayers and singing praises with God’s people, in meeting God in a unique way in the sanctuary. Being driven from the regular times of worship, sacrifice, songs, covenants, the reading of God’s word, was causing his soul to starve – so in the wilderness, he prays alone, sings alone, meditates alone, and declares that it is God alone – despite missing the trappings of religion – that would be his spiritual sustenance.
Have you ever experienced spiritual starvation? The spiritual atrophy that comes from the neglect of the care of your soul.
There’s a line in the Lord of the Rings movies that often comes to my mind. After years, even decades, of living with the One Ring in his pocket, it’s power having extended his life far beyond normal, Bilbo Baggins says to Gandalf,
“I feel old, Gandalf. I know I don’t look it, but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart. I feel thin. Sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Have you ever felt that way? I know I have.
If we are not careful, the many wonderful things that our homes, town, nation, and modern life have to offer will actually work against us. You’ve likely heard the term “empty calories”, right? It describes food that taste amazing – like pop, candy, or fast foods that are full of fat, sugar, and salt, but contribute nothing to the health and wellbeing of our bodies. No vitamins, mineral, protein – just food that tastes good on the tongue, fills the belly, but actually starves the body. A lot of our modern life is like that, but for the soul. It takes time, feels good while doing it, has a semblance of meaning, relationship, depth – but is actually starving our souls.
1 Peter 2:11 says it this way,
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
1 John 2:15-17 says this,
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
The Bible tells us over and over that the satisfaction we seek deep in our souls cannot be found in anything this world has to offer. Instead, these things we spend so much time, energy, money, and attention on, wage war against our soul, killing our joy, and then they “pass away” – like empty calories.
Jesus said to those who are hungry for real, spiritual food,
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35).
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:38)
Psalm 107:9 says to those who are yearning for more than this world has to offer,
“For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”
At the very end of his book, the prophet Habakkuk, after hearing God’s voice, says that no matter what is happening around him, his connection to God is what will sustain Him.
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17–18)
Jesus’ disciples were often worried about eating and food and money and safety – to the point of being so distracted that they could neither hear nor understand Jesus’ teaching. In John 4:31–34 the disciples came to Jesus with some food, urging Him to eat because he had gone many hours without food. He responded to them,
“‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Has anyone brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’”
As Jesus said,
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
The Apostle Paul understood this better than most. When looking back at the totality of his life before he met Jesus, said,
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him….” (Phil. 3:8–11)
This world has many wonderful things to offer, but as Christians, we must be so careful about how we treat them. Food and drink are wonderful gifts from God, but gluttony and addiction are a prison. Sexual pleasure is a wonderful gift from God, but outside of God’s control, it causes devastation and heartache. Parties and celebrations are a wonderful gift from God, but drunkenness and debauchery lead to the destruction of your life and happiness. Work and education are wonderful gifts from God, but workaholism, anxiety, and elitism destroy relationships. Having money, wealth, comfort, and safety are wonderful gifts from God – but laziness, selfishness, the belief that your stuff will protect you or make you happy, or refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, will drive you to misery. Hobbies and movies and video games are wonderful gifts from God, but choosing a fantasy world over reality, or ignoring your friends, family, and self-care for the sake of that fantasy, poisons your soul. Social media and the internet are wonderful gifts from God that have great potential to build people up – but we all know that they are also rife with temptations that destroy lives.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to examine these things, to do an inventory of our lives, to finally listen to the outcry of our hearts and decide to feed our souls the good food of God’s word and the presence of Jesus Christ.
The only way we are going to be able to see the ways that we are being fooled and manipulated by the enemy of our souls is to purposefully give ourselves to what the church fathers have called the spiritual disciplines.
Consider our study of Jesus cleansing the Temple in John 2 and how 1 Corinthians 3:16 tells us that since the resurrection of Jesus, God’s people, you, me, and those who worship at this church, are now the Temples of the Holy Spirit in which God dwells. If you are a Christian, then God has made His home in your heart, in your soul, and has placed His Holy Spirit within you as a seal of your salvation and to knit you together with Him. You have the Holy of Holies inside of you.
Turn with me to Ephesians 4:17–32.
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
There are some who need to hear this today, but cannot hear it because the corruption of the world has deafened their ears and darkened their souls. Their minds have grown futile, their understanding darkened, they are alienated from God because of the hardness of their heart. Some who hear this are on the edge. You want to hear God, you want your mind renewed, you want to worship with purity and joy, but there are corruption and impurity in you that continuously leads you away from Jesus and towards sin.
But here’s the problem – you may not even know it. Sometimes the things that Paul describes here come so naturally, are so ingrained in us, that we don’t even know we’re doing them. We don’t even see it. Falsehood replaces some truths because the little white lies make our lives easier. We are angry, and sin in our anger, but we don’t even realize we’re angry. We steal like a thief, but we don’t acknowledge it because it’s from the government or big corporations or because it’s something small and no one will notice. We go to work and care for our families, but somewhere in us is a refusal to share with people in need because they don’t deserve it, or because there might be less for us. We participate in “corrupting talk” like coarse jokes, swearing, sexual innuendo, double-entendres, gossip, mockery, slander, but we don’t even notice it because it’s such a part of our vocabulary, or because we do anonymously online.
What the Bible is saying here is that we need to do an act of will where we, as Christians, “put off the old self” and “put on the new self”. How? Through obedience. Through spiritual discipline. Through fasting, prayer, and study. By asking God to look into our hearts and see how our lives have been corrupted “through deceitful desires” and how we have given an opportunity to the devil to do us harm. By asking God what way you have allowed the enemy a foothold in your life, home, and church.
I read the words of the 17th-century puritan pastor Richard Baxter this week and it gave me pause. He wrote this specifically to pastors, but I think there’s a message here for everyone who desires to do the will of God.
“The Enemy hath a special eye upon you. You shall have his most subtle insinuations and incessant solicitations and violent assaults. As wise and learned as you are, take heed to yourselves lest he outwit you. The devil is a greater scholar than you are and a nimbler disputant. He can transform himself into an angel of light to deceive you. He will get within you and trip you up by the heels before you are aware. He will play the juggler with you undiscerned, and cheat you of your faith and innocence, and you shall not know that you have lost them. He will make you the very instrument of your own ruin.” (Richard Baxter, “The Reformed Pastor”, Nisbet, 1850, p.85)
How can we know if we have corrupted our souls with sins we can’t see, crippled our personal worship, or let false gods or false ideas worm their way into our hearts, lives, spirits, relationships, and church? The only way is to ask Jesus what He thinks of the conditions of our souls, and then sit quietly and listen for an answer. And that takes time, effort, energy, humility, and careful attention.
But the good news is that it is never, ever too late. The Good Father is always on the lookout for the prodigal son and daughter. The Good Shepherd is always looking for His Lost Sheep. He will always accept you when you decide to get right with Him – and will help you grow closer to Him when you ask. He will do the work, but you must let Him by giving Him permission and room to work. I encourage you to consider cutting some things out of your life for the sake of fasting, praying, and meditating on the condition of your soul during Lent.
Let me close today with the words of Jesus to the Church in Laodicea, because I think it’s appropriate. Turn with me to Revelation 3:14–22,
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”