Before we plunge into our study of self-denial, let me sum up what we have learned so far. Taking meditation, prayer, and solitude together, the spiritual disciplines we have considered to this point in our series, we have been reminded that the Christian life is the effulgence or the overflow of a relationship between God and the soul. It is essential that this never be forgotten, whether in our acts of private devotion or in the life of public worship. We are with God himself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We meditate precisely because the living God has communicated his love, his mind, and will to us in his Word. He has given us the Spirit together with that Word precisely so that we might know Him and summoned us to meditation because he has wanted us to know as much as we can about Him and because he wanted that knowledge to live in our hearts. That is what makes the truth of God’s Word so important. It is our connection to Him! And that is why we pray. Prayer is conversation with God. It is personal dealing with the Almighty, addressed ordinarily to the Father, for the sake of the Son, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Silence and solitude, we said, emphasize this point. In a world full of every manner of sensual distraction – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell – we Christians are to be all about a living connection with the invisible but fully and really present God. All the disciplines of the Christian life as they are recommended to us in Holy Scripture have this character: means of building our relationship with God himself, drawing closer to him, understanding him better, appreciating him and his ways more fully, deepening our love for and sense of nearness to him.
We will lose the true meaning of these disciplines if we forget why they have been recommended to us, why they take the form they do, and what they are for. We must never forget, I think perhaps peculiarly so in our secular age, we must never forget and we must always keep in the front of our minds the fact that it is only our Christian faith, only in Christianity that this prospect is set before human beings: the pure and perfect communion of the soul and of many souls together with the living God. It is not so in any other religion, it is not so in any other philosophy of life. It is only in the Christian gospel that salvation is understood finally to consist in the experience of a loving relationship between the individual human person and the living God himself. It is here that the magnificence of the Christian vision is displayed in all its wonder: God who lives forever in deeply loving and satisfying relationship himself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the loving, joyful unity of the Godhead – brings ordinary, even sinful human beings up into that fellowship and communion to experience that love, joy, and peace together with him. He gives himself utterly to us and invites us and then enables us to give ourselves to him. We must never forget that this is what the cross, this is what the atonement, this is what salvation always has as its ultimate purpose and point. It is not to simply get rid of our sins. Getting rid of our sins is so that we might be one with God and live in that oneness with him. God and I, God and you, God and us all; loving him and being loved by him with the very love that God has always had in himself: the Father for the Son and the Spirit; the Son for the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit for the Father and the Son. It is this radically personal knowledge of and friendship with God in its existential fullness that is the ultimate destination of the person who is being saved. Heaven, after all, is the place where perfectly and without distraction, barrier and limitation God is our God and we are his people. In all of the disciplines of godliness we are both practicing and anticipating the most wonderful thing that can be imagined: living in constant and intimate fellowship with the Triune God. Imagine a mind and a heart literally full to bursting with the most glorious knowledge, with perfect love, and with perfect joy. In the experience of human beings that requires the love and communion of persons and that is what is offered us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Now we go on, but remembering this foundation as we do.
In his immortal Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin devotes a section to what he calls “The Life of the Christian Man.” It is found in Book III and extends from chapter 6 to chapter 10. This section has sometimes been published separately as The Golden Booklet of the Christian Life. It is a wonderfully practical account of how the Christian life is to be lived. It begins with an account of the motives for life that ought to compel a Christian. It deals with our love of our neighbor, the bearing of the cross, that is, dealing with the sufferings of life, with the contemplation of our future in heaven, and with the proper use of the blessings of this world that God sees fit to bestow upon us. But all of this is treated under the rubric or heading of “Self-denial.” At the beginning of this section of his great book, after treating the motives for Christian living and acknowledging the imperfection of the Christian life in this world, Calvin begins his exposition of what Christians are to do, in a chapter entitled “The Sum of the Christian Life: The Denial of Ourselves,” by saying,
“Let this…be the first step, that a man depart from himself in order that he may apply the whole force of his ability in the service of the Lord. I call ‘service’ not only what lies in obedience to God’s Word, but what turns the mind of man, empty of its own carnal sense, wholly to the bidding of God’s Spirit.”
Now, by “self-denial” Calvin means every way in which we turn from our will to embrace God’s will for our lives; every way in which we forsake a worldly, self-interested, and selfish mind to love and advance the glory of God. Forgetting ourselves, we seek and long only to do God’s will. That is the true Christian life!
But, it is entirely typical of the Bible to embody in certain acts the great principles by which we live. We are, for example, to live our lives in gratitude and joy because of the great things God has done for us and given to us and so it is part of the Christian life to sing the praises of God and to rejoice in his salvation at feasts – from the Lord’s Supper to Christmas – feasts appointed to celebrate our salvation and to put joy into our lives. You remember how Nehemiah puts it in chapter 8 to the mourning Israelites, those who were so downcast by their circumstances and by their sins. He said “This is a day for rejoicing. Stop this, go home, have a great meal, invite your friends, have a great day. This is a day to remember what God has done. Or consider another example. We are to love our brethren. It is an important part of what it means to live the Christian life: to love our brothers and to love our neighbors. In the ancient church, and in some Christian communions today, the “kiss of peace” in the liturgy of the Lord’s Day service is a public and formal act by which that love is practiced, embodied and proclaimed. We are to live and die anticipating the world to come. Calvin says this, too, is part of the Christian life. And sure enough there is a way in which we embody that as well. That is why burial is the Christian practice for the treatment of the dead. In burial the body “sleeps” awaiting the day of resurrection. In these ways and others the principles of our Christian life are expressed in outward acts. They are embodied and being embodied they are reinforced. And so if the Christian life is a life of self-denial for the sake of God and Christ, we would expect that there would be acts of self-denial that are employed to embody and reinforce that principle. And, sure enough, that is exactly what we find in the practice of godliness as it is taught to us and shown to us in Holy Scripture.
There are a variety of forms of self-denial taught and illustrated in the Bible, specific acts that embody and perfect our practice of the principle of self-denial as the way of Christian godliness. They serve as a way of both expressing a proper Christian mind and deepening the spirit of godliness, the desire that one may live his or her life to the glory of God. Think of some of those forms.
There is the Nazirite vow of which we read in Numbers 6, a vow that is plainly a form of self-denial for the sake of the consecration of one’s life to the Lord. It is called there a “vow of separation.” That is, the man or woman making that vow desired to embody some special measure of his or her separation from the world and dedication to the Lord. Self-denial always has something of this spirit of separation in it, of separating oneself from the ordinary round of life for the sake of consecration to God. Some features of the Nazirite vow are harder for us to understand than others. For example, for the period of the vow the hair was not to be cut and the man or woman was not to go near a dead body. These restrictions have to do with ANE customs and Levitical rules of ceremonial defilement and cleanliness. But the Nazirite vow also included abstaining from alcoholic drinks – from the pleasure of their taste and of their effect – and the sense of that is perfectly clear. Something that is entirely proper and something that the man or woman would enjoy in the nature of the case is done without for the sake of the sacrifice itself. Pleasure is being forsaken both to demonstrate one’s consecration to God and to put earthly pleasures in their place, far below one’s commitment to the Lord. Wine is a good thing, but it is precisely for that reason that one might, for a time, do without it on purpose to express and to foster one’s total devotion to the Lord. “Lord, let it be clear that I love you more than the pleasures of this world,” is the message of such a vow. It is an exercise in putting first things first.
Or, think of Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 7 to the effect that married men and women are obliged to maintain a healthy and active sexual life and are not to deprive one another – which means, of course, they are not to fail truly to make love to one another in that way most delightful and fulfilling to each other – “except,” Paul says, “by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” That is, abstinence from sex is a biblically illustrated form of self-denial for spiritual purposes. We wish Paul had elaborated the point because we still today do not know precisely what he had in mind. Is he speaking of some particular kind of prayer the opportunity for which would be lost if time were not taken from love-making? Or is he talking about some period of devotion akin to the Nazirite vow that might be entered into by a husband or wife or by both of them at the same time? In either case, the point remains the same: A Christian can temporarily and voluntarily lay down the enjoyment of something entirely good and even absolutely essential in itself for the sake of the greater consecration of his or her life to God.
The best known and frequently used form of the devotional practice of self-denial is of course fasting. It is referred to in the Bible more frequently than any other practice of self-denial; that is, than any other practice by which the spirit of self-denial is worked into a Christian’s daily life. Fasting is the voluntary abstinence from food or drink for spiritual purposes. It is precisely the same sort of voluntary abstinence Paul mentioned in regard to sex in 1 Cor. 7 but in respect to food and drink. Something entirely proper in itself, even necessary, is gone without for the purpose of expressing and fostering the spirit of self-denial as the principle of our living before God: “not my will but yours be done, O Lord,” is the message of such a discipline in its practice.
In the Bible, as you know, we encounter fasting of various kinds. There are fasts from food but not from drink, fasts from both food and drink, absolute fasts for shorter periods of time and partial fasts for longer periods. Daniel and his friends abstained from meat but ate vegetables (now that is self-denial!). Esther, before she put her request to the king, asked her Jewish friends to do without food or drink for three days, day and night. That would have been a great sacrifice and would have made a great statement to God. I wonder is there is anyone in this room who has not eaten or drunk for a period of three, 24 hour days in a row? Sometimes fasting is a public event in which many participate; sometimes it is a private act of devotion that Jesus tells us to keep to ourselves (Matt. 6:16-18).
It is interesting and revealing that we are given no commands regarding how often we are to fast or for how long or in what way. Fasting, like the other spiritual disciplines of self-denial, is and must remain an act that voluntarily arises out of a believer’s sense of need or devotion or commitment. Made a schedule, it quickly loses its purpose and fasting is always tied to some purpose.
- Fasting is used in the Bible to heighten repentance and to strengthen prayer.
Fasting is added to prayer in the Bible when there is a special urgency to the prayer, as in Esther’s case when the life of the Jews hung in the balance and depended upon the king’s response to her daring initiative. Add fasting to your prayer, Esther said, and meant that by their fasting their prayers would be strengthened. Prayers are strengthened by fasting in apparently two different ways. First, like kneeling or standing while praying, fasting as an accompaniment to prayer is a demonstration of the state of mind of those praying. They are serious and they are not going through motions; they are weighed down by a great need. Things cannot continue as normally they do. They need God’s help. Their doing without food and drink is an enacted prayer itself: “Lord, look at us; look at our willingness to do without, to suffer with hunger or thirst or both, if only we might be heard; if only you would take our request seriously and hear and answer.”
Fasting as an accompaniment to prayer is illustrated as you remember in the case of Ezra and the exiles, about to leave Babylon on a trek back to Jerusalem. They were about to make a nine hundred mile journey on foot with no military protection. “So we fasted and petitioned our God about this,” says Ezra, “and he answered our prayer.” Why fast? The fast heightened or strengthened the power of the prayer. It made them the more serious and it communicated the urgency of their request to God. The man who is praying to God about something while brushing away from the corner of his mouth the sugar from the doughnut he just ate does not communicate the same sense of urgency in his prayer as a man whose stomach is growling because he has denied himself food because of the situation he is in and the circumstances he is now bringing to God in prayer. And, whatever we may say and however we may wonder about the logic of fasting as an accompaniment of prayer, it is the Bible’s own way of strengthening prayer. It is something our heavenly Father is pleased to see and to reward.
Second, in the Bible fasting is also used to heighten the expression of grief and sorrow, which, I gather, is another way in which it strengthens prayer. That is, for example, when Israel mourned and fasted for seven days after the death of Saul and Jonathan in battle, the fasting was to deepen their collective sorrow and, by so deepening it, to express that sorrow more perfectly to God as a form of repentance and petition. There is, obviously, some virtue in feeling as badly as one should when certain things have happened. We all know and recognize this. We know sometimes only too well that we have not been touched as deeply by some loss, sorrow, or sin as we should be. We feel that we are too callous, too indifferent. And fasting is a way to force ourselves to reckon with what has happened and, as it were, to dragoon our feelings into a proper shape. So, for example, Robert Murray McCheyne wrote,
“The subject of fasting was spoken upon. Felt exceedingly in my own spirit how little we feel real grief on account of sin before God, or we would lose our appetite for food.” [Memoir and Remains, 130]
You are effectively saying to God, “I should have lost my appetite. I should be fasting automatically, given the things I have done. My conscience has not made me feel as bad as I should about my sin so I am going to make myself suffer for it.” Fasting is a way, then, of forcing us to feel as we ought to feel in times of mourning for sin or other kinds of mourning.
But surely that is only fully useful if it is done coram Deo, in the presence of God, as a kind of enacted prayer. “Lord, let my fasting serve both to force me to feel as I ought to feel the tragedies of life and my own sin and to seek the grace of repentance for myself and others.” After all, Saul’s death was the direct result of his and Israel’s infidelity to God.
II. But this thought leads us to fasting’s other purpose. Fasting is also a form of spiritual exercise or training.
We have been considering in our morning sermons in Romans the constant interaction of the indicative and imperative in Paul’s teaching about the Christian life. What Christ has made us to be we are to strive to be. The new nature Christ has given to us by the Holy Spirit we are to activate and put to work. What we are is to define what we are to strive to become.
Well, in Titus 2:11-12 we read:
“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age…”
Godliness, while it certainly means other things, definitely means and definitely requires saying “No” to things our flesh wishes to say “Yes” to. It must because that is what Christ’s redemption has made of us: Christ has redeemed us and the result of his redemption is that we have become “No-sayers” to ourselves, to temptation, and to sin. What Christ made us to be, we must now devote ourselves to being. We must say “No!” to temptations, “No!” to worldly desires that would interfere with the devotion of our lives to Jesus Christ. You may remember Bunyan’s character in The Holy War named Captain Self-Denial. Of this character, who was given charge of the defense of two of the five gates of the City of Mansoul, the Ear-gate and the Eye-gate, Alexander Whyte said this:
“Young Captain Self-denial was a perfect hero at saying No! and at saying No! to himself. It is a proverb that there is nothing so difficult as to say that monosyllable. And the proverb is Scripture truth if you try to say No! to yourself. It takes the very stoutest of hearts, the most noble, the most manly, the most soldierly, and the most saintly of hearts to say No! to itself, and to keep on saying No! to itself to the bitter end of every trial and temptation and opportunity.” [Bunyan Characters, iii, 166-167]
No, no, no! I will not look at that. I will not say that. I will not think that. I will not feel that. No! Christ has redeemed us to be “No-sayers” to sin and to self and so it is our calling to say “No.” Well, fasting and other biblical forms of the practice of self-denial are means by which to strengthen our capacity to say “No!” You say it to lawful things so that when you need to say it to unlawful things you have the strength to say “No” and to make the “No” stick. Like the muscles of the body, spiritual muscles grow by exercise and training. It is this use of fasting that we find so often in the journals and diaries of godly men and women. Here is one of Thomas Shepard’s journal entries: “I kept a private fast for the conquest of my pride.”
As one wise man wrote,
“Self-indulgence is the enemy of gratitude, and self-discipline usually its friend and generator: That is why gluttony is a deadly sin. The early desert fathers believed that a person’s appetites are linked: full stomachs and jaded palates take the edge from our hunger and thirst for righteousness. They spoil the appetite for God.” [Cornelius Plantinga Jr [Reformed Journal (November 1988)], cited in Whitney, 159]
In other words, a soft life does not make for godliness. And our lives, brothers and sisters, are in many ways extraordinarily soft, very comfortable, and full of pleasures to a degree that previous generations of human beings would find utterly astonishing. We eat all manner of tasty food, we have whatever we wish to drink, we travel in air-conditioned comfort, we have aspirins for our headaches, if our teeth hurt we get them fixed, and on and on it goes, things that were almost never true of anybody until the most recent period of history. So how do we harden ourselves to the Christian life which is, in the nature of the case, a life of self-denial, of the denial of our will for the sake of Christ’s will? Well, we practice. We make our soul lift weights as it were. We force ourselves to deny things we need and enjoy precisely so that we can do it when as Christians we should and must.
Certainly this is what lies behind Paul’s remarkable statement in 1 Cor. 9:24-27:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
If Paul were living today, he would be the kind of man who got up to run in the morning and always had his stopwatch with him. He would run and sprint to the end of his run and would immediately click that stopwatch to make sure that he had done it faster that day than he had the day before. He is not out there for his heart; he is out there for his soul! There are many things to notice in that short paragraph, but tonight I want to draw your attention to Paul’s memorable statement, “I beat my body and make it my slave…” Typical of Paul, he mixes his metaphors. First he’s the boxer, now his body is the one being beaten, and then he leaves the athletic imagery behind altogether and makes his body his slave. But clearly he is talking about the spiritual training or exercise of his will so that he might live as he ought as a follower of Christ.
It is striking to read the commentaries on this passage. These commentators, good men many of them, fall all over themselves to say that Paul certainly does not mean literally that he beat his body. It is a metaphor, a figure of speech. And, no doubt, that is not what Paul means primarily. He is talking about any and every way in which he subjects his will and the desires by exercise and training to the lordship of Christ. But it would be very difficult, in my view, to argue that the great apostle’s statements here could not be used to justify almost any way – including self-flagellation – in which a man or woman sought to bring to heel his or her desires for comfort, peace, or ease, those desires that would make him or her live a less faithful and fruitful life for Jesus Christ.
I told you once before of the practice of William Gladstone, the earnest Christian who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain four times during the 19th century. He was the towering political personality of the Victorian period of British history. Mr. Gladstone was a devout man who saw very clearly the implications of his faith for his ministry to those who were less fortunate than himself. By 1849 Gladstone was involved with other Christian men and women in a ministry to prostitutes. The girls were given a place to stay and an opportunity to attend school to learn a trade as a way of bringing them out of that sinful and destructive lifestyle into one that was fruitful, safe, and honoring to the Lord. There was temptation in such work, of course, and Gladstone was acutely aware of the fact. Indeed, he admitted that he felt the power of the temptation. The girls were often attractive and would be easy pickings for a powerful man. In any event, so seriously did Gladstone take the temptation that he would privately scourge his back from time to time. You know how that is done: with a whip that usually has something at the end of the whip cords that would cut as you whipped your back. It was a method of subduing the flesh and training the will that had been favored by Christians in ages past. Whether Paul would say that he had in mind such a practice when he spoke of “beating” his body and bringing it into submission is a fair question. We tend to associate this kind of piety with Roman Catholic ideas and the practices of the Middle Ages. But, in my view, only those who take with real seriousness the need to train oneself to be godly and to subdue the desires of the flesh and to train the will to say “No!” are in a position to quibble about the best ways, the most effective methods for doing that. And people who are genuinely in earnest about “beating their bodies to make them their slave” are, I suspect, the least likely to criticize William Gladstone. [Cf. Bebbington, William Ewart Gladstone, 67-68] The real question, in any case, is that of motive. If a man is seeking to train himself to say “No!” to himself and his sins by refusing to stop when inflicting pain upon himself, as fasting does, who can criticize the method so long as it is not obviously sinful in itself?
We know that Paul made the Nazirite vow at least once during his Christian life. I suspect he did so on a number of occasions. We know he fasted. What else he may have employed as training in self-denial as the exercise of the spiritual muscles around the spiritual mouth by which “No!” is said and made to stick, we do not know. But let us take note. In Paul’s case, simply accepting his calling and following where it led him produced more practice in self-denial than the Christian life of any forty or fifty ordinary Christians nowadays.
In any case, the principle is perfectly obvious and incontrovertible. As Philip Doddridge put it in his classic work, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, “A soft and delicate life will give force to temptations…” But, if that is so, a hard life, at least in some respects, is necessary to train the will toward godliness. And the biblical pattern is then not only to make use of the hard things that come our way unbidden, to see the troubles, trials and sufferings of our life as opportunities for the exercise and training of our will, but to put some hardness in ourselves; and so fasting and other forms of abstinence and self-denial. And there are many other forms of abstinence. Listen to this from Henry Scougal’s spiritual classic, The Life of God in the Soul of Man [106-107].
“He who would mortify the pride and vanity of his spirit should stop his ears to the most deserved praises, and sometimes forbear his just vindication from the censures and aspersions of others, especially if they reflect only upon his…conduct, and not on his virtue or innocence. [That is, you can practice abstinence and self-denial by avoiding occasions of your own praise and by absolutely refusing to defend yourself when criticized, even unjustly.] He who would check a revengeful humor, would do well to deny himself the satisfaction of representing unto others the injuries which he hath sustained; [That is, you can practice self-denial and abstinence by keeping your mouth shut about the unkind things people have said about you or done to you and act as if they had never happened. That is an extraordinary form of self-denial.] and if we would so take heed to our ways that we sin not with our tongue, we must accustom ourselves much to solitude and silence…until we have got some command over that unruly member.” [That is, you can practice self-denial and abstinence by forcing yourself not to talk as a way of gaining some mastery over what comes out of your mouth. If you just stop talking when very often you would have talked a lot, you are gaining control of what comes out of your mouth.]
These too are the ways of the Christian spiritual athlete. You know Amy Carmichael’s famous verse:
From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
Not thus are spirits fortified,
Not this way went the Crucified;
From all that dims Thy Calvary,
O Lamb of God deliver me.
Well a Christian man or woman who prays that prayer will do something about it as well. Fasting is just the simplest and most often used means of training yourself out of a soft spiritual life and out of a weak will that puts up little fight in the face of your temptations.
But now, let me end where we began. What we are after is a deeper, more intimate, more constant communion with God. The problem with our temptations and our sins is that they interfere with that communion. They make a separation between ourselves and the Lord. What spoils that in the Christian experience are worldliness and the spiritual distraction that comes with worldliness. What fosters that communion is a life lived in the active intention of loving and serving the Lord. The practice of abstinence, of self-denial, is training in that life for that end. That is why the godly have recommended such practices and used them from ancient times. What we are after is a life that God will see fit to inhabit with greater and greater measures of his presence, the experience of his love, and the power of his Spirit. We want more of God and so we need to live a life that he will be pleased to bless with more of himself. The way to prepare to live that life and then the way to live it is to practice, train yourself, and exercise your powers of self-denial.