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Fasting – Why We Choose To Do Hard Things (LENT)

Date: 04/03/2018/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Why do we choose to do hard things in life?

For this Sunday, Miak and I had decided I would preach on “Fasting” but I was wondering what’s something new I could offer that I have not preached about in the past Lent seasons. As I was conversing with Heather and John in the beginning of this week regarding worship for this Sunday, their thoughts and questions prompted me to decide to take a more wide-angled approach. Instead of talking about fasting specifically, I wanted to start by asking you a question: why do we choose to do hard things? The Lent period is a good season to ask this question because we talk about discipline, fasting, engaging more deeply in spiritual practices, etc. Fasting for example is neither the easiest nor the most pleasurable thing to do. In fact, it’s the utter opposite of what we are most comfortable with. Food sustains us and we sometimes even seek comfort in food. Coming together with family and friends around the sharing of food is also a very cherished and familiar practice. So fasting goes against the grain of all that we’re comfortable with. Whether one chooses to fast from a meal or from eating chocolates or from the constant use of social media, fasting is neither the easiest nor the most pleasurable thing to do.

So why do we choose to do hard things in life? In the wider context, it’s not just about cutting down or cutting out an activity for a period, like in the case of fasting. When I say choose to do the hard things, I mean sometimes we also choose to take on something extra that is difficult or time and energy consuming. It’s not just about cutting down or cutting out. Why do we consciously make the choice to do something that may be costly, challenging or inconvenient to us?

I’m sure you have some ideas why because a lot of you already do hard things in life and ministry but before I tell you my answer, I wanted to walk through the process with you. I read this article by Mark Manson recently and it’s entitled ‘How to Grow the F*ck Up: A Guide to Humans’. I apologize beforehand to those who may feel this title is offensive. Just to clarify that I’m not swearing. I’m just reading out the title. J But in this article, he explores and explains about human development in a way that I think helps cast some light on what we are talking about today.

When we were children, we learnt to do or not do things based on pleasure and pain. If I touch the stove and get burnt, I feel pain so I learn not to do again. If I eat ice cream, it’s very pleasurable so I might try all kinds of ways to get my hands on some ice cream, even if I have to sneak into the kitchen or steal it from my brother. As we grow a little older, we realize that there are consequences to our actions. Maybe I get caught stealing the ice cream from my brother and I get scolded by my mum. We will then form certain learning principles from the various situations we encounter. “If I steal ice cream from my brother, I might get scolded so in order to avoid the pain of my mum’s displeasure, I will only eat ice cream when I have permission to do so or when I won’t get caught.”

“This, quite literally, is maturity in action: developing higher-level and more abstract principles to enhance decision making in a wider range of contexts.

What happens when we get older is we begin to understand that there are multiple consequences to any single action and many of them affect us either indirectly or at some point in the future. General rules and trade-offs are understood as the way these consequences function. Mom and Dad get angry if I steal something; therefore, I will not steal, even if it feels good. My teacher will punish me if I talk in class; therefore, I will not talk, even if I want to.

The knowledge of pleasure and pain is still there in older children. It’s just that pleasure and pain no longer direct most decision making. They are no longer the basis of our values. Older children weigh their personal feelings against their understanding of rules, trade-offs, and the social order around them to plan and make decisions.

This is an improvement, but there’s still a weakness in this adolescent approach to life. Everything is seen as a trade-off. Older children and adolescents (and a shocking number of adults) approach life as an endless series of bargains. I will do what my boss says so I can get money. I will call my mother so I don’t get yelled at. I will do my homework so I don’t mess up my future. I will lie and pretend to be nice so I don’t have to deal with conflict.

Nothing is done for its own sake. Everything is a calculated trade-off, usually made out of fear of the negative repercussions.

But you can’t live your entire life this way, otherwise, you’re never actually living your life. You’re merely living out an aggregation of the desires of the people around you. To become an optimized and emotionally healthy individual, we must break out of this bargaining and come to understand even higher and more abstract guiding principles.

Bargaining with rules and the social order allows us to be functioning human beings in the world. But ideally, after some time, we will begin to realize that the whole world cannot always be bargained with, nor should we subject every aspect of our life to a series of transactions. You don’t want to bargain with your father for love, or your friends for companionship, or your boss for respect. Why? Because feeling like you have to manipulate people into loving or respecting you doesn’t feel right or good. If you have to convince someone to love you, then they don’t love you. If you have to cajole someone into respecting you, then they don’t respect you. The most precious and important things in life cannot be bargained with. To try to do so destroys them.

Adulthood is the realization that sometimes an abstract principle is right and good for its own sake. The adult does what is right for the simple reason that it is right.

An adolescent will say that she values honesty — because she has learned that saying so produces good results — but when confronted with the difficult conversations, she will tell white lies, exaggerate the truth, and fail to stand up for her own self-worth.

An adult will be honest for the simple sake that honesty is more important than pleasure or pain. Honesty is more important than getting what you want or achieving a goal. Honesty is inherently good and valuable, in and of itself. An adult will love freely without expecting anything in return because an adult understands that that is the only thing that can make love real. An adult will give without expectation, without seeking anything in return, because to do so defeats the purpose of a gift in the first place.”

-Mark Manson, How To Grow The F*ck Up: A Guide To Humans

So why am I sharing all this as background? Because if we are honest with ourselves, so many of us act more like adolescents than adults, myself included. For example, how many of us have told white lies in order to avoid conflict? How many of us do things just because they are the right thing to do, without much concern for reward or pain? Reading this article made me realize how much more adulting I had to do. There are many areas in my life that need maturing and growth. I reflected and asked myself: can I be honest for the simple sake that honesty is more important than pleasure or pain? Can I be honest even when it’s difficult? Can I love freely without expecting anything in return because an adult understands that that is the only thing that can make love real? Can I give without expectation, without seeking anything in return, because to do so defeats the purpose of a gift in the first place? These are all very difficult things and if this is the definition of a mature adult, I am still so far from being one. Perhaps on some days I come close but on other days, I act more like an adolescent than an adult. And I suspect I am not alone. Many of us are probably struggling to get there too.

Yet, this is the type of growth God is also calling us to. We often talk about wanting to grow together spiritually but what does that mean exactly?

Growth often entails choosing to do the difficult things, not just the easy or comfortable or familiar. We are called to a new life of transformation in Christ. We are told true spiritual growth means we are to become more like Christ. We are called to a renewed mindset. We are called to die to the old ways and to come alive, to be ressurrected in the power of the Spirit. This is the message of Good Friday and Easter. This is what the season of Lent is moving us towards – the dying and coming back to life. Not just coming back to your old life but to a new one! A new life where you’re truly and fully alive in the Spirit! The life that God created us to live! One of our lectionary passages today focuses our attention on this and how it’s all connected to the message of the cross.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (NLT)
18 The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. 19 As the Scriptures say,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise
and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.”[a]

20 So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. 21 Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. 22 It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. 23 So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.

24 But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles,[b] Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.

Paul sounds a little arrogant here as he challenges and proclaims that God has made the wisdom of the world look foolish. But the reason he does this is because at that time, Greek philosophers were debating over the meaning and purpose of life and the Jews thought they already had all the answers. And the message of the cross would have felt like foolishness to many people. In what way would the cross seem successful or powerful in the eyes of the world? It wouldn’t. Not in those times and definitely not in ours. Jesus didn’t successfully overthrow the oppressive governing system at that time. In fact, he died in their hands. What Jesus did on the cross only seemed foolish and weak to many because it’s about how one man laid down all he had, everything he believed in, even his own life, for the sake of others. And for what? Many at that time, whether Jew or Gentile, didn’t understand.

But we know now the cross means something more. It’s not just about an ordinary man dying a common death on the cross as a criminal. As a human being, Jesus exemplified all that a true adult is meant to be — being honest without fear, giving generously without expectation of return, and loving freely and fully without guarantee of being loved back. But Jesus not only embodied all these values and lived a good life. If that’s all he did, if all he was was a mature adult, that would be a little sad. But Jesus wasn’t just a good man. He died and he was raised again. He was both divine and human. Through Jesus, God showed once and for all that love is stronger than death, that love conquers all. And it is not done in a way that we humans understand or are familiar with. God’s power and wisdom is found in Christ through this demonstration of great unfathomable love.

So how do we become more like Christ? How do we nurture adult values where we are able to identify something as inherently right and stick to it? How do we cultivate the courage to do the difficult things just because it’s the right thing to do?

By fostering a deeper dependence on God and following Jesus. You see, the message of the cross is powerful not only because of what Jesus laid down. It’s also about God’s power to bring back to life. In v.24 Paul says “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Do you know Christ in this intimate way? Do you experience God’s power and wisdom in your life? God’s wisdom and power as revealed through the death and resurrection of Christ is still available to us today. Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. And as we learn to depend on God more deeply and follow Christ more closely, God’s wisdom and power is revealed in us as well.

“The only things in life of real value and meaning are achieved without conditions, without transactions. The best way to do this is through example. The best way to teach an adolescent to trust is to trust them. The best way to teach an adolescent respect is to respect them. The best way to teach someone to love is by loving them.” –Mark Manson

That’s what Jesus did. He taught us to love by loving us first. Then he calls us to follow him in loving others the way that we have been loved. All this begins with experiencing God’s power and wisdom this Good Friday and Easter.

What needs to die in you? What needs to be given new life in the Spirit? What difficult thing are you choosing to do in this period? What area of growth has the Holy Spirit been nudging you about?

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So why do we choose to do the hard things?

1) Because sometimes that’s what we’re called to do as part of our growth. As children of God, there is the call of God upon our hearts and souls. There is an urging, a prompting, a sense of rightness that this is what we’re to do. It may not always be fun. It may not always be easy but it is worthwhile.

2) Helps us foster a deeper dependence on God as we become more like Christ. It’s meant to help us become more aware of God’s presence and work in our lives. Because it’s hard, we know we can’t do it in our own strength. Because it’s difficult and challenging, we need to rely on God’s wisdom and power to carry it through.

3) Helps us recognize the needs of others and deepen our empathy. For example, when we fast from food, we realize what a difficult life those who have no regular access to food have. We have so much access to food that our biggest problem sometimes is deciding what to eat. Imagine what it’s like for someone who doesn’t even have a choice whether they can eat or not?

4) Transformed people and communities have the power to change and impact the world

God is calling us to be a people, a community transformed in Christ likeness. People who are willing to do the hard things, even if it would cost us our lives. Are we ready to be used by God to impact our world?