Denial Is Not a River in Egypt
By Audrey Stallsmith
I am at the moment, somewhat sulkily, undergoing my first personal fast. Although I have done it once or twice for fast-and-prayer church services before, I’ve always been too self indulgent a person to carry the discipline any further than that.
In fact, I have successfully avoided most such disciplines by simply keeping them vague and unfocused in my mind. In other words, by not thinking about them! So I deliberately never got around to considering whether they were necessary.
But, although I’m genetically fortunate that my self-indulgence in matters of chocolate and ice cream isn’t all that obvious to others, a recent blood test showed me that it was beginning to affect my health. Then I had to consider how it was affecting my spiritual health as well.
Although I began to feel that fasting was something God wanted me to do, I didn’t yet see the purpose. “I’m not much of a talker,” I complained. “There’s no way I can pray for several hours.” Then God pointed out to me that it would be a good opportunity for me to write one of these articles—namely one on self-denial, a subject I had avoided for obvious reasons!
I decided to start off easy by simply skipping breakfast, the meal it would be easiest for me to do without. So I am not really suffering. But perhaps it’s true that fasting makes the brain clearer. Or perhaps that clearness is just because I’ve finally had to face the subject of sacrifice rather than keeping it deliberately vague. Because I realized right off that suffering isn’t the point of self-denial. The whole purpose of such discipline is the same as it is for army recruits. To teach obedience.
We Americans, after all, are independent types, always advised that we shouldn’t be subject to anyone. So it doesn’t come easily to say, “Yes, sir!” to a higher authority. The military therefore has to put its recruits through a grueling course of hardships. This accomplishes two--what seem to be contradictory—purposes. The strengthening of will power and the breaking of self-will.
Up to that point many young people have had no goal except to please themselves. So they need to have taken from them, as Colson notes in The God of Stones and Spiders, “the notion that life somehow gives us the right to have every whim and desire satisfied. . .a looter’s ethic.”
Those recruits have to be taught how to subject themselves to a higher purpose. Although this seems enslaving, it is—in fact—just the opposite. “Illimitable liberty,” G. K. Chesterton writes in Seven Suspects, “is itself a limit. It is like the circle which is at once an eternity and a prison.”
Child actors, for example, often turn out badly because they succeed too early. They have that illimitable liberty, success, money, nothing much left to strive for, and no fences to contain them. Is it any wonder they frequently seem to fall off a metaphorical cliff?
“In a materialist society,” Malcolm Muggeridge writes in Jesus Rediscovered, “pleasure alone is sacred. . .to pursue happiness is the surest way to miss it altogether. . .(that) soon resolves itself into the pursuit of pleasure, something quite different. . .Where, then, does happiness lie? In forgetfulness, not indulgence, of the self.”
In On Happiness Pierre Teilhard de Chardin agrees that “happiness has no existence nor value in itself, as an object which we can pursue and attain as such. It is no more than the sign, the effect, the reward. . .of appropriately directed action: a by-product. . .of effort. . .no change brings happiness unless the way in which it is effected involves an ascent.”
But, before we can ascend anything, we have to strip off some of the weight that is holding us back. Like those spoiled children or the new army recruits, many of us don’t realize just how selfish we really are until we are asked to give up something. “When a man begins to abstain,” George McDonald notes in Creation in Christ, “then first he recognizes the strength of his passion.”
“Never soul was set free,” he goes on, “without being made to feel its slavery; nothing but itself can enslave a soul, nothing without itself free it.” The ultimate goal is, he suggests, to “be in no slavery to my body, or my ancestry, or my prejudices, or any impulse whatever. . .We must possess them (things)," he concludes inexorably. "They must not possess us."
The purpose of discipline then, both for the soldier and me, is to teach us to control self—so we can put that controlled self at the service of its commander. If we practice obedience in the small things, it will become automatic in the fiercest heat of battle when it is most necessary. For the soldier, of course, his superior officer simply represents his country—the higher purpose. But, for we Christians, our Commander is the highest purpose.
Most of the things we are asked to give up are not wrong in themselves. But, by letting go of them when asked, we are allowing God rather than ourselves to be in charge. Breaking the addiction to doing things our way.
It may see strong to call this an addiction, but many of us fall into panic when we can't get what we have always gotten. If, for example, somebody else were to take my accustomed seat in church, I probably would be temporarily floored. These little habits we build up become part of our "security system," when our trust should be in God.
There are, of course, some people who seem to make up sacrifices for themselves just to flaunt their asceticism. But a man such as that, MacDonald points out, “doing the thing God does not require of him . . .puts himself in the place of God, becoming not a law but a law-giver to himself, one who commands, not one who obeys.” In other words, such a man contradicts the whole purpose of self-sacrifice.
“To yield self,” MacDonald asserts, “is to give up grasping at things in their second causes. . .and to receive them direct from their source—to take them seeing whence they came.” So discipline reminds us that everything we have came from God, and he has a perfect right to take it back when He pleases. It puts us on the level of reality.
Of course, I am not recommending that everybody take up fasting. It would be impossible for those of you who have certain health problems. But there are much more important things we can yield, once we have learned to give in on smaller issues.
For instance, once when a public servant had offended me, I prepared to fire off an angry letter to his boss. I was brought up short with a definite, “No. He was having a bad day, and it was just as much your fault as his. You are just angry because your pride was hurt.” Pride, I can clue you, is much harder to give up than a meal or two.
But such a sacrifice can lead to blessing, because, as MacDonald points out, "when a man gives up self, his past sins will no longer oppress him." We often continue to harp on the sins God has forgiven, because it hurts our pride that we could have done such things. But persisting in the belief that we "are better than that" is just a form of delusion.
As I discovered, self-denial is often hindered by plain old denial. When we “have it good” as so many of us do in America even in hard times, it’s hard to admit that discipline is necessary. Just as, when we think we are good, we don't see the need to put ourselves under God's control. But, as de Chardin makes clear, “If we are to be happy, we must first react against our tendency to follow the line of least resistance.”
Self-limitation reminds us that we are not the One in charge. "It is the desire to be God rather than to worship God," Stephen Brown reminds us in If God Is In Charge, "that creates an almost unbearable tension in the Christian. . .you aren't responsible for the world. Only a fool accepts responsiblity without authority."
We can call ourselves servants or soldiers, but perhaps the best description is sons and daughters. Because that is what God has said we are--his beloved children. We live in His house and all that we have comes from Him.
Like any good father, he is, as MacDonald says, "bound to punish in order to deliver us--else is His relation to us poor beside that of an earthly father. . .the eternal love will not be moved to yield you to the selfishness that is killing you." Can we believe that as MacDonald writes, "He does not think about Himself but about them (his children)? That he wants nothing for Himself, but finds his blessedness in the outgoing of blessedness?"
Our example in this is, of course, Christ who gave up His own life when it was required of Him by His (and our) Father. And Who, even in the agony of feeling abandoned by that Father continued to call him "my" God.