Don’t Forget that Celibacy Is an Option

As many of you know, I’m in college right now. I’m also happily married. In fact, I can’t imagine doing my adult life single. Several other young couples seem to feel the same way, and I pray God blesses them. Marriage truly is a wonderful gift, and a powerful sign of the relationship between Christ and His Church. That said, I’m concerned with the relentless promotions and endorsements (even some of the prayers) for marriage I see given to my fellow students. As great as marriage is, it’s not the only lifestyle available to Christians. Our Lord Jesus Himself did not go that route, but another. Celibacy is also an option.

Both Jesus and Paul exemplified the celibate call, devoting their entire lives to a sacred mission for God rather than taking on the earthly entanglements1 of marriage. This is not to say, of course, that marriage is at all a bad thing. Indeed, it is rather a very good and natural part of the original creation.2 It remains the bedrock of healthy society and plays an important role in the life of the Church. There are few more potent images of the union which Christ enters into with His Church than the union of man and woman.3

Nonetheless, marriage is at its heart part of this age, the world that is passing away.4 Practically speaking, it was needed to fill the earth with people who could reflect the image of God in worship and service.5 This purpose is expiring in the new creation, which has already begun breaking into the world through Christ’s resurrection and the outpouring of His Spirit upon His Body at Pentecost. The new world is ever present before us as we wait for the return of Jesus, and when He does return marriage will be finished.6

In addition to all of this, marriage is, well, quite a task. I’m not complaining; I love it! Nonetheless, it takes up a great deal of time and effort, time and effort which could be spent by the single person doing a wide variety of other things for the kingdom of God.7 There are serious practical differences in serving God with a family and without one. While of course a married person can serve God passionately and effectively (that is my goal, after all!), the single person can do so with greater flexibility, freedom, simplicity, and even risk. I will never be able to drop everything and risk my life or even just my livelihood for missional and ministry purposes the same way that, say, the Apostle Paul could.

So what I do I aim to say? To all of you unmarried college students and youngsters out there, especially my co-learners at the Bridal Baptist College of Florida, don’t assume that marriage is, must be, or should be in your future. There is an alternative, indeed a radically countercultural (even for Christian culture) one. You can not marry, and you can not have sex. Everyone in our culture outside the Church expects you to be regularly sexually active, either within marriage or without. Sex is in fact almost given god-like honors. “You must not repress your sexuality,” you are told. That would be a sacrilege against the rite of sexual self-expression and satisfaction. It’s unhealthy (ritually unclean?) and prudish/ignorant (heretical?) to deny yourself such pleasures. Even within many Christian circles, these basic tenants are often (at least subconsciously) accepted, only with the caveat that the right place for all of this sexual expression is marriage. A commitment to lifelong celibacy amounts to a polemic, if not a declaration of war, against corrupted modern sexual ethos.

In addition to this, a commitment to celibacy functions as a powerful eschatological sign to the world. Marriage, as I noted before, is proper to the old creation, and will pass away. To commit to celibacy in the present stands, then, as an anticipation and symbol of the future state. In cultures with particularly strong family ties, where getting married and having children can affect all sorts of relationships, social status, fortunes, reputation, or property rights, celibacy serves to declare trust in God rather than these temporary systems. Refusing to marry or engage in sexual activity in the present is a way of showing the world that you are part of a different world, the age to come, in which reproduction is by the power of the Spirit rather than by man, satisfaction is found in union with Christ rather than sexual union, and the family that truly matters is the family born of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, rather than the family born naturally.

In today’s culture, though, celibacy is essentially seen as a death sentence, at least for our social/relational selves. The fear goes that a celibate person is missing out on what makes life count, on true love and intimate personal relations. Yet Christ declares an alternative. He promises and creates a new family, a new web of relationships, in His Church.8 I wrote on this in a previous post, and it matters for the question of celibacy. Lifelong celibacy may rule out relationships of sexual-romantic and paternal/maternal love, but those are not the only kind of relationship which be fulfilling and truly loving. When we come together as Christ’s body, allowing Him to reform our hearts, minds, affections, and interests by His Spirit, then we can more than make up for this lack, supporting those who would commit to celibacy. This is a high calling for those of us who are Church family, demanding that we be genuinely interested in and compassionate towards each other, but for those of us who follow Christ, what else do we expect?

So, then, I simply ask you all, actually and personally as my fellow youngsters, to seriously consider this. You BCF people, I know they call it the Bridal College of Florida. But there are very few other lifestyles in our culture which can have the same power as committed celibacy, especially in this post-Obergefell world. It is a sign of Christ and His kingdom, comes highly recommended in Christian history, and I honestly believe can and will change your life, if you are willing to take the plunge.

(P.S. I know it may seem odd that I write so encouragingly of celibacy when I myself am married. Yet I need to be, and I know it. I’ve known for a very long time that God designed me specifically to marry. I couldn’t do life any other way. Not everyone is like that. Many people are not. And it concerns me that this valuable and powerful Christian lifestyle is so neglected and marginalized today.)

(P.P.S. I’ve written on this once before, and my friend Clark also wrote on it as a guest writer.)

(P.P.P.S. Speaking of guest writing, if anyone wants to guest write here you can/should hit me up at thenerd@thenicenenerd.com)

Don’t Forget that Celibacy Is an Option

Another Morning Prayer

I ran across a great new morning prayer today, and though I’d share it for the benefit of all. It opens with the Lord’s Prayer, and then goes on thus:

Almighty and everlasting God, in whom I live and move and have my being; I, Your needy creature, render You my humble praises, for Your preservation of me from the beginning of my life to this day, and especially for having delivered me from the dangers of the past night. For these Your mercies, I bless and magnify Your glorious Name; humbly beseeching You to accept this my morning sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; for his sake who lay down in the grave, and rose again for us, Your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Amen.

And since it is of Your mercy, O gracious Father, that another day is added to my life; I here dedicate both my soul and my body to You and Your service, in a sober, righteous, and godly life: in which resolution, do, O merciful God, confirm and strengthen me; that, as I grow in age, I may grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Amen.

But, O God, who knows the weakness and corruption of my nature, and the manifold temptations which I daily meet with; I humbly beseech You to have compassion on my infirmities, and to give me the constant assistance of Your Holy Spirit; that I may be effectually restrained from sin, and incited to my duty. Imprint upon my heart such a dread of Your judgments, and such a grateful sense of Your goodness to me, as may make me both afraid and ashamed to offend You. And, above all, keep in my mind a lively remembrance of that great day, in which I must give a strict account of my thoughts, words, and actions to him whom You have appointed the Judge of quick and dead, Your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

In particular, I implore Your grace and protection for the ensuing day. Keep me temperate in all things, and diligent in my calling. Grant me patience under my afflictions. Give me grace to be just and upright in all my dealings; quiet and peaceable; full of compassion; and ready to do good to all men, according to my abilities and opportunities. Direct me in all my ways. Defend me from all dangers and adversities; and be graciously pleased to take me, and all who are dear to me, under Your fatherly care and protection. These things, and whatever else You shalt see to be necessary and convenient to me, I humbly beg, through the merits and mediation of Your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.
Amen.

May the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with me and all who pray in the name of Christ, this day and evermore.
Amen.

Another Morning Prayer

Gems from Calvin’s On the Christian Life

I’m working on a cool reading list this year to help stimulate and diversify my reading. It’s almost like a scavenger hunt, with categories like “a book with the word ‘Gospel’ in the title” and “a book with an ugly cover.” I just checked off the first one, “a book on Christian living,” with John Calvin’s On the Christian Life. You can check it out on Amazon or for free on Monergism. Anyway, it was a pretty neat little book, and I decided on finishing it that I would post great bits and pieces from this book, as well as the others I will be reading this year, for everyone to enjoy. So here’s Calvin on the Christian life:

…The object of regeneration is to bring the life of believers into concord and harmony with the righteousness of God, and so confirm the adoption by which they have been received as sons.

For when we were scattered abroad like lost sheep, wandering through the labyrinth of this world, he brought us back again to his own fold. When mention is made of our union with God, let us remember that holiness must be the bond; not that by the merit of holiness we come into communion with him, (we ought rather first to cleave to him, in order that, pervaded with his holiness, we may follow whither he calls,) [emphasis mine] but because it greatly concerns his glory not to have any fellowship with wickedness and impurity.

Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely, like other branches of learning; but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation in the inmost recesses of the heart…To doctrine in which our religion is contained we have given the first place, since by it our salvation commences; but it must be transfused into the breast, and pass into the conduct, and so transform us into itself, as not to prove unfruitful.

But seeing that, in this earthly prison of the body, no man is supplied with strength sufficient to hasten in his course [toward holiness] with due alacrity, while the greater number are so oppressed with weakness, that hesitating, and halting, and even crawling on the ground, they make little progress, let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him, and prosecute the journey once begun. No one will travel so badly as not daily to make some degree of progress. This, therefore, let us never cease to do, that we may daily advance in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the slender measure of success. How little soever the success may correspond with our wish, our labour is not lost when to-day is better than yesterday, provided with true singleness of mind we keep our aim, and aspire to the goal, not speaking flattering things to ourselves, nor indulging our vices, but making it our constant endeavour to become better, until we attain to goodness itself. If during the whole course of our life we seek and follow, we shall at length attain it, when relieved from the infirmity of flesh we are admitted to full fellowship with God.

The old saying is true, There is a world of iniquity treasured up in the human soul. Nor can you find any other remedy for this than to deny yourself, renounce your own reason, and direct your whole mind to the pursuit of those things which the Lord requires of you, and which you are to seek only because they are pleasing to Him.

For so blindly do we all rush in the direction of self-love, that every one thinks he has a good reason for exalting himself and despising all others in comparison. If God has bestowed on us something not to be repented of, trusting to it, we immediately become elated, and not only swell, but almost burst with pride. The vices with which we abound we both carefully conceal from others, and flatteringly represent to ourselves as minute and trivial, nay, sometimes hug them as virtues. When the same qualities which we admire in ourselves are seen in others, even though they should be superior, we, in order that we may not be forced to yield to them, maliciously lower and carp at them; in like manner, in the case of vices, not contented with severe and keen animadversion, we studiously exaggerate them. Hence the insolence with which each, as if exempted from the common lot, seeks to exalt himself above his neighbour, confidently and proudly despising others, or at least looking down upon them as his inferiors. The poor man yields to the rich, the plebeian to the noble, the servant to the master, the unlearned to the learned, and yet every one inwardly cherishes some idea of his own superiority.

Honestly, I could probably go on, but this should be enough for now. This last one in my opinion is particularly powerful. On the Christian Life is a great little book. If your appetite is whetted, check back at the top where I provided links. Deus benedicat!

Gems from Calvin’s On the Christian Life

You Should Really All Know About Lectio Divina

I just got through the Spiritual Formation 101 course at the Baptist College of Florida. It was a good and useful course, which has, in combination with a few other factors, actually done wonders for my devotional life and prayer life. I was, however, disappointed that in all of our discussions on prayer, meditation, and Scripture reading the topic of lectio divina never came up. This traditional practice has lots of a long history in Christian devotion and, from my initial experiences with it, is quite beneficial. Yet for some reason in the world I’ve grown up in (evangelical Protestant/Baptist) I’ve never heard it mentioned.

So what is lectio divina? It is a Latin phrase meaning “sacred reading,” and it refers to a specific practice combining Scripture reading, prayer, and meditation. Its origins can be traced back as far as Origen (3rd century), but it its current form it goes back to medieval monasteries, where it was finally put into four steps. The goal of lectio divina is to commune with God personally while/by reading Scripture. My explanations will be mostly pointless without giving the details, so I’ll just jump into the four steps:

  1. Read — The first step of lectio divina is to read Scripture. Usually, you will not want a very long passage for this. Generally a verse or two will be plenty, though of course you are not limited and depending on how long you want to spend and how much focus you have you might read much more. A great longer text might be psalm, for example. I like to pick out a verse or two that particularly strikes me from whatever large reading I am doing at the time.
    Anyway, once you’ve chosen your text you read it slowly and carefully, focusing on it as exclusively as you can. You will probably want to read it multiple times, traditionally four. Pay close attention to words and phrases that stick out to you, and try different emphases each time you read it.
  2. Meditate — The next step is to meditate on what you’ve read. This is not a time for technical analysis or study, but more personal reflection with Christ as the central concern. You want to remove anything but the text and how it relates to Jesus from your mind, and focus on that alone. What does God want this word to show you about His only begotten Word through His Spirit? Stop and reflect on all of this for a few moments, minutes, or I suppose even hours if you’re hardcore enough. Don’t stop the answer to that question, but instead if an answer comes to mind focus on the reality in Christ. Does this text reveal that Christ brings peace for weary sinners? Then rest in His peace during this time.
  3. Pray — Having reflected on the text and listened to God in Christ through the Spirit, you then respond to Him in prayer. Whatever you have gathered from your time of meditation, respond to God in an appropriate way. Did His glory impress itself on you? Then respond, “Glory to You, God!” Was your sin exposed to you? Repent and ask for forgiveness. Whatever you have heard in reading God’s word and meditating on it, pray to the Author about it.
  4. Contemplate — Finally, the last step in lectio divina is to stop and be silent. You’ve read, meditated, and prayed. By this point you should just rest and listen. Do not try to move on yet, but rather spend a few moments, as it were, resting in the arms of God. Anything God has said, let it sink in further. Whatever you have said back to Him, let it stand unadulterated and unqualified for a moment. Just be silent, and sit with Your Father.

If the appeal and potential benefits of this practice are not obvious to you, then I don’t really know what to tell you. This is, as I mentioned, a traditional part of Christian devotion, which is quite intimate and fruitful. If you want to try something new, which is nonetheless ancient, in your walk with God, I cannot recommend it highly enough. I pray someone will benefit from it.

You Should Really All Know About Lectio Divina

One of the Few Things That Can Make Me Angry

I am not an angry person. For the most part, I just deal with people and don’t worry about their nonsense, shenanigans, rudeness, or offenses. When I do think about these things, it’s usually analytically, thinking about the wider patterns in society of which they are a part, and about any theological issues involved. I already digress, though, so back to my point. I don’t generally get angry, and it usually takes some repeated problems to make it happen. Most issues don’t spark any fire any me.

There are a few things, of course, that do. Talking about abortion for more than 5 minutes. Bullies. A handful of politicians. But none of those are the subject of this post. Instead, this post is about what angers me if I think about it for too long: nonchalant money wasting.

What specifically do I mean? I work at a Papa John’s. I see almost every day people spend $20-40 on pizza and cookies. Likewise, I walk into stores and see $1000 TVs that people actually buy. On Black Friday, so many people practically turn into a raging mob trying to throw their money at companies for things that usually aren’t important. College kids buy Starbucks several times a week, or even daily. Well off couples plunk down hundreds of thousands for houses much larger, fancier, and prepared than they actually need. Half of our society, if not much more than that, revolves around buying and selling, and when your society is the size of ours, that guarantees most of the business being done isn’t essential to life and well-being.

So, so much of this money is just wasted. Hundreds of millions of dollars essentially go down the toilet, serving no purpose but to give us some momentary pleasure, distracting entertainment, or a few extra moments of convenience. I could multiply examples, and in fact a part of me is simply dying to do so just to illustrate the severity of the problem and get out some of the frustration that builds even as I think about this subject to write on it. But stop and think for yourself: how much money do you spend in your average week, even average day, that you could quite easily get by without spending? What about the expenses that you could get by without just by putting in a little extra effort?

I know I do this. I try to avoid it, but I do not always do so, and plenty of times if I step back and think too hard about it I get frustrated. But why? Why does this all so rile me? Why does all of this make me so angry?

The reason, which may be obvious to some of you, for my ire is the African child with a stomach bloated from malnutrition and starvation, the Afghan mother struggling to find some kind of health care for her baby, and the old redneck lady who can’t afford to keep electricity hooked up in her trailer. People like these and those in many other situations around the world are suffering in extreme poverty (or at least serious relative poverty for their society), and try as they might they can’t do anything about it. Most of them aren’t just a little bit poor, either. According to Compassion International:

Globally, 1.2 billion people (22 percent) live on less than $1.25 a day. Increasing the income poverty line to $2.50 a day raises the global income poverty rate to about 50 percent, or 2.7 billion people.

This means that for every one of us who can afford to spend $7 for lunch at Chick-fil-A almost whenever we want, there is someone else out there who would have to go without any other food for at least 2 or 3 days to afford that opportunity. 

In the face of such intense and rampant poverty and suffering, the waste I see every day becomes absolutely disgusting. The constant churning of spending more and more money on frivolous or disposable things by whim appears to be pure evil, the evil of a world system under the sway of the evil one. Fancy new gadgets, savory steak dinners, and luxurious vacations are shoved into our faces daily by advertisers desperate for our money, money which could be better spent for the sake of mercy on the poor. And we take the bait! We buy into the system and throw away our money together with our souls for the sake of temporary pleasures, ignoring the billions of people who could never afford our 40-inch TVs or 6-inch iPhones in a hundred years.

Naturally, I’m not saying that we can never spend any money beyond what we absolutely have to have. Moderation is always allowed. But we don’t usually try or think about moderating our spending in order to give. In the US, concern for extreme poverty is extremely low1, and giving is pathetic2. That is what makes me angry. The lack of care, and the lack of action proving care, is what frustrates me.

So let’s fix it. Give. Go. Help. Pray. Send. And waste less money on the stupidities of American consumerism when you can be giving it to those who need it to survive.

If anyone has this world’s goods and sees his brother in need but closes his eyes to his need — how can God’s love reside in him?

1 John 3:17

One of the Few Things That Can Make Me Angry

Notes on 1 John

My devotional reading has recently taken me through 1 John. I found some things in the book particularly edifying and decided the thoughts they inspired might be worth sharing. So here are my lightly edited notes straight from my journal. (After this, you should totally reread 1 John if you haven’t done it in a while, because it really is a great little book.)

1 John 1

  • Summary: John has seen and knows intimately the light that is Jesus Christ, and wishes to make Him further known to his audience, that they all together may walk as one in the light with Christ, cleansed of sin and united in joy.
  • Details
    • First off, John does not separate at all between the historical and the theological Jesus. As far as John is concerned, the Jesus he touched and heard and saw in the flesh was indeed even in the flesh the Word of life, the eternal life and Son of God, by whom man has fellowship with the Father.
    • Everything about eternal life for John is oriented around Christ. He is eternal life. He is the Word of life. Eternal life comes through faith in Him. Knowing Christ is the essence of eternal life. Jesus Himself is the way, the truth, and the life. Any conception of eternal life that is not ultimately part of our conception of Jesus is broken.
    • God is light, as is Jesus, and in Him is no darkness. Therefore if we walk in Him, in His light, our sin is exposed and burned up by His radiance. Yet this painful process leads some to hide from God’s light, and they deceive themselves if they say they walk with God. Only if one is in darkness can his sin be hidden, even from himself, and thus those who claim to lack sin are indeed in darkness, for the light exposes more and more sins. Yet only this exposure can cleanse sin, and in fact this paradox is precisely the paradox of justification by faith: our only hope to be made right with God in Christ is to own up to how badly we are wrong with God in ourselves.

1 John 2:1-27

  • Summary: The true believers, unlike the heretics, keep God’s commands and love each other, even in the midst of trouble, because they know the Father and have victory in Him. The ungodly world is passing away, and so we must cling to Christ rather than any of this age, in spite of all the false teachers set to lead us astray, who would sever us from Christ by denying Him.
  • Details
    • The true Church can be known by its fruit, to at least a degree. We follow God’s commands, rather than living unlike Christ.
    • In the midst of controversy, love is still essential, and perhaps more essential than usual, for the Church.
    • The world under the evil one is conquered and passing away. All of its structures and delights are fading, so we best not get caught in them, a trap the world-denying Gnostics could easily and ironically fall into.
    • The spirit of the antichrist is alive and well, energizing false teachers, but true believers remain faithful in spite of them. God teaches His Church the truth.

1 John 2:28-3:24

  • Summary: In Christ we are righteous children of God, though the true fullness of this is yet invisible as we wait for Him to be revealed, since our life is hidden in Him. Yet in present, we see the change brought about by this new life in righteous living and active love, for those who lack such things but instead sin and hate are of the Devil.
  • Details
    • Can Bobby Grow’s claim that there is no warrant for a spiritual test here be completely supported? I’m not sure about that. Nonetheless, I do get a generally corporate and “in Christ”-ian feel from this passage, so certainly the focus is shifted away from individual assurance to identifying the true Body of Christ against the false.
    • Christ’s life is a life of radically self-giving love, and of righteous living, for this is exactly what He did from birth to the Cross. That life is also the life into which we have been born again as His people.
    • Our true nature is mostly invisible, even to ourselves, in this time-between-the-times, for it is the nature of Christ, who is hidden from our sight until His return. Thus we still sin and see ourselves in sinful terms, despite our true nature as children of God. Yet we are children of God, who do not sin but rather love.
    • Love is only love when it is real and active. That is the kind of love Christ showed for us, which even animated His Passion.
    • I should make every effort to abide in Christ, which practically means in specific devotion, worship, and Church life, so that I may share in the revelation of His life when He returns. If I want the good resurrection, I must be found in Him. If I am to be found in Him, I must stay connected to Him by the means He has provided.
    • I should always have hope even in the midst of my deepest sinfulness, because what I truly am is God’s child, and something too wonderful to know yet, hidden in Christ. No matter what I see in myself now, the new reality is there and will be revealed.

1 John 4

  • Summary: We who believe in Jesus as the Christ come in the flesh are from God, just as Christ and therefore this doctrine are from God, and those who reject this are of the spirit of the antichrist. That spirit works not love, but deception. True love is bound up with God’s self-revelation of His love in giving His only Son for us, so to reject the identity of the Son is to reject love, and thus the God who is Himself love.
  • Details
    • The spirit of the antichrist has been in the world for at least these past 2000 years, always trying to deceive and draw people away from Jesus as the Christ come in the flesh. He still does this today, but he is restrained by the overcoming power of God, Father, Son, and Spirit.
    • Those who have been born again believe in Christ. Period. Those who do not listen to the truth of Christ are of the antichrist, or deceived by him.
    • Love is bound up with this doctrine, and remains our first and foremost imperative. The God who has revealed Himself as love in Christ’s flesh has given us new life out of love, and therefore our life now ought to be shaped and driven by His love.
    • “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God — God remains in him and he in God.” This is the great ecumenical truth. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is the binding prayer behind all true Christianity.
    • Fear makes no sense in this context of love, trembling over judgment. If we are in Christ by faith, and we share in His love, by what means will we not be freed from condemnation by that love?

1 John 5

  • Summary: All of us who believe in Jesus as Christ are God’s children, and so most rightly love each other and obey God’s commandments, for by faith in Christ we are able to overcome the sinful world. We ought to believe this, because God has testified about His Son in His baptism and crucifixion, and by believing this we have life in Christ. If we have life in Christ, our prayers are powerful and unhindered, and will deliver those in sin. Yet Christ does protect us from sin as children of God, unlike the evil world under Satan’s power. Therefore let us be children of God, loving each other, believing in Christ, and keeping away from idols.
  • Details
    • Faith and love are inseparable in Christ, and thus all who truly believe in Christ also truly love Him, the Father, and everyone else who is in Christ. There is a natural communion of love and truth in God’s new household.
    • Obedience also naturally belongs in this overall category of faith and love. By faith, we obey God, in particular His command to love, and as these effects work themselves out we overcome the sinful and hostile world around us.
    • God Himself testifies that Jesus is the Son of God in whom we have eternal life. Therefore all are bound to believe it. Those who deny it lie.
    • Baptism and crucifixion were the most public acts of Jesus’ life. Of course they were God’s testimony. And yet it is a counterintuitive testimony, indeed, for in both Jesus was treated as a sinner. He became sin for us, and precisely doing this is an act of the Son of God.
    • Eternal life is simply life in Christ. This says nothing, to be honest, about whether it can be lost, for it is not clear from this passage whether one can leave Christ.
    • God answers our prayers which accord with the love, faith, and obedience which ought to characterize life in Christ. He may even rescue a dying soul by such prayers.
    • Christ protects us from sin, making a sharp divide between us, born of God and knitted together in faith and love, and the evil world, which includes idolaters who deny that Jesus is the Christ in the flesh.
Notes on 1 John

Pizza Hut, Suffering, Resurrection, Fasting, and the Flesh

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 

Philippians 3:10-11

Suffering and Resurrection

In my studies recently, I have come more and more to see suffering as key to the broad concept of salvation. Don’t get me wrong; right off the bat I want to point out that I don’t think suffering is some kind of requirement to be saved, or believe in something like “justification by suffering” rather than by Christ. But what I have seen is a basic order and connection being a major theme: suffering and vindication, death and resurrection.

What do I mean? Throughout Scripture, one of the ongoing realities is the suffering of God’s people at the hands of enemies, and His promise to both save them and vindicate them, prove that they were in the right, against their enemies. This can be mostly clearly seen first in the Exodus. God sees His people suffering under Egyptian oppression, declares that He is their God and they are His people, and proceeds to rescue and vindicate them. This continues to be the pattern as Israel faces many other enemies, especially those who taunt them and boast. In the Psalms there are repeated prayers for God to alleviate suffering and prove the righteousness of His people or His chosen king. This theme is also present very much in the prophets, especially Isaiah, though certainly in all the rest as well.

In between the Old and New Testaments, the theme of martyrdom in this regard grew especially strong. The Maccabean revolt etched into the Jewish worldview the importance of individuals who heroically suffered for God, even unto death, in the hope of future vindication and even resurrection. This set the context well for Jesus, who completely fulfilled this ideal of suffering and vindication in His own personal, physical death and resurrection, as the Scripture says:

He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death —
even to death on a cross.
For this reason God highly exalted Him
and gave Him the name
that is above every name.

Philippians 2:8-9

And as well:

Therefore I will give Him the many as a portion, and He will receive the mighty as spoil, because He submitted Himself to death, and was counted among the rebels; yet He bore the sin of many and interceded for the rebels. 

Isaiah 53:12

I could produce a host of other texts, but that shouldn’t really be necessary. God has always saved His people as they patiently endure suffering, and ultimately proves them right over and against their enemies. The final climax of this is resurrection to undo the suffering and shame of death, a fate which so far only Christ has experienced in fullness.

This last part is the key. Jesus in His own self summed up the redemptive motion that God had been up to with His people since the beginning: He suffered, He died, and He rose to new life. We have been saved by Christ’s fulfillment of this dynamic between God, His people, and the world.

The significance of that for our own lives in particular is the realization of how Scripture connects these things to Christians. Just as Christ suffered, those who are in Christ are expected to suffer1. Yet this suffering is not seen as simply an isolated kind of event, a problem that will happen to us with no inherent meaning or significance. Our sufferings are directly connected to the suffering Christ experienced. His death is our death, and our sufferings are His. This means that the same end that Jesus experienced after His suffering—public vindication and physical resurrection—will also be applied to us through the Holy Spirit2.

I’ll step back and sum up the idea. We are saved through Christ’s suffering and vindication, His death and resurrection. We are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit. Therefore our sufferings as Christians assure us that we are involved in His life, His saving life, and so our story will end in the same way as His: new life and eternal glory. Moreover, our sufferings can produce fruit in us of Christ’s resurrection life here and now, not just on the last Day.

Suffering and the Flesh

I want to look at that last statement a bit more. First Peter 4:1-2 say this of suffering:

Therefore, since Christ suffered in the flesh, equip yourselves also with the same resolve — because the one who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin — in order to live the remaining time in the flesh, no longer for human desires, but for God’s will.

What does this mean? Does suffering sanctify, and if so how? Why does it say that the one who has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin? The answer to these questions, I believe, lies in a proper understanding of the “flesh.” Contra the NIV, “flesh” should not simply be taken as “sinful nature.” The flesh appears to be, Biblically speaking, a reference to the merely natural aspect of human nature and existence, the part of human life which is not truly distinguishable from animal life. The one who lives according to the flesh lets natural desires run his life: the drives for sex, food, survival, security, etc. None of these things are evil things, but when the desires for them are unchecked by anything higher than mere man, they run rampant and destroy. Yet “flesh” in this sense can also be used more neutrally. Jesus being descended from David according to the flesh merely means that David is His ancestor from a natural, physical point of view.

I think that it should not take much detailed explanation and defense to show how this makes sense of the use of “flesh” in Scripture. So if we tie that the concept of suffering for Christ, it is not difficult to see how suffering kills sins. When we share in Christ’s sufferings, we learn from experience to deny the desires of the flesh, and indeed the more you actually suffer and deny the flesh, the more you become able to do so, just as is the case with all learned behaviors. When we learn to deny the flesh by our sufferings for Christ, we find that we are more inclined to seek satisfaction in Him than to fulfill our natural desires. We become liberated from the constant compulsions to satisfy our desires for food, sex, security, and survival which so inhibit our abandoned pursuit of Christ as we continue to deny these desires in suffering for His sake.

Suffering and Fasting

This brings me to the most recent realization in conjunction with these themes. See, not all of us experience Christian suffering. Most of us do suffer at some time or another, death or sickness or poverty or broken hearts. Yet few of us suffer for Christ, voluntarily accepting suffering precisely because of our commitment to Him. Instead of by choice for God, we suffer by external factors which we try to escape or mitigate. This kind of suffering, while empathetic and in need of grace, is not the suffering that trains us to kill sin. But this is something of a blessing. We do not suffer for Christ because we have a degree of religious liberty, and are allowed to worship as we please. So we are free to pursue holiness and share the Gospel. On the other hand, we miss out on something, because God gives His people blessings through suffering3.

So what? Are we forced to miss out on these blessings as long as live in a safe place for Christians? By no means! For if indeed suffering for Christ sanctifies us by training us to deny the desires of the flesh, there is another way to experience these same benefits. This can be done by a discipline taught and practiced by Christ, used widely in the Church’s past, but mostly neglected today. What is this? Why, fasting, of course. 

See, fasting makes it possible to deny the flesh and seek Christ in a very tangible, voluntary, and powerful way. When we fast, we make a commitment that binds us for a time, pressing us to neglect our natural desires (particularly food, which is easily the most powerful) so that we might instead devote ourselves to prayer, Scripture, and love. When we do this regularly, we develop the habit, enriched and sanctified by the Spirit through these devotions, of denying self for Christ’s sake. This is, in fact, what Christ Himself did to prepare for His ministry. In order to maintain His strength, resist all distracting temptations, and train for the hardships of His ministry which would climax in death on a cross, He spent 40 entire days fasting. No food for over a month, denying His natural desires, His flesh, for the sake strengthening His resolve in the Spirit. This was the very first thing the Spirit led Him to do after His baptism, and the foundation of all He would do later. If He could actually dedicate Himself to God for 40 days without food—if He could push through that kind of intense hunger and desire—then He could withstand anything else He would need to do, even be crucified.

Following this pattern that Jesus Himself set down is exactly what we need. When we fast, we participate in Jesus’ life and death, His saving sufferings, and by this we kill the power of sin in our lives by the Holy Spirit. When we fast, we experience in part the benefits of godly, Christian suffering. Fasting is a powerful and necessary part of our spiritual disciplines by which we grow in Christ through the Spirit, alongside prayer and Scripture.

Oh, and Pizza Hut

I should add one more thought to this before I finish. See, while fasting is criminally neglected among modern church practice, it’s not altogether absent. It still does happen. Yet even when it does, I’ve noticed that it is rarely the traditional practice of abstaining from eating, or even any other basic human desire. I see people fast Facebook, sweets, sodas, Twitter, or sometimes even the entire Internet. These are useful and sometimes necessary fasts which can benefit our spiritual health. But I get the uneasy feeling from the sheer flood of these kinds of fasts that the full fasting of food has become a rarity, and that this is because in the American church we, well, have an idolatrous love of food. We are widely and deeply guilty of the sin of gluttony.

I believe this applies to most of you reading this, along with myself. We love food too much. We let it drive and control us. There’s a reason I often crave a Pizza Hut buffet, and every time I go I eat more by myself than many families get for a whole day around the world. There’s a reason that I cringe, fear, and delay when I think about fasting food. I am an idolatrous glutton, and for that I repent and impose upon myself a fast that I might learn to deny the flesh for Christ. Yet I am not alone, and I can only pray that more of us will gather the conviction to crucify our natural desires, even the desire for food, that we may be freed for holiness.

In fact, that last sentence is pretty much the whole point of this post. So with that I’ll end with a good quote:

Fasting is wonderful, because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed, while it cultivates and raises truth like a flower.

St. Basil the Great

Pizza Hut, Suffering, Resurrection, Fasting, and the Flesh