in search of a flatter stomach? the mixed motivations behind fasting

girl-2786277_640.jpg
Image credit: Pixabay

It is becoming customary, at the start of January, for our church to take some time out, corporately and individually, to pray and fast for the coming year.

Coincidentally, January is also the time I’m keen to lose a few pounds. With Christmas out of the way, I can start planning our summer holiday – and, despite the fact we can’t yet bring ourselves to fly somewhere exotic and warm with our 8-6-3-3 combination of kiddoes, I feel like I need to have a bikini-ready body.

The fact that we will probably end up in Anglesey is beside the point.

If, at some unknown point in the future, I might wish to expose my midriff on a crowded beach, fasting is going to be helpful.

And therein lies the problem. Perhaps the reason that many of us don’t fast is that we’re a little bit scared of doing it for the wrong reasons.

Perhaps we have a complicated relationship with food, and fear that withholding it from our bodies will be more about controlling ourselves rather than allowing God to have control.

Perhaps we are desperate for God to respond to our prayers in a particular way, and fear that fasting will feel like bribing our ‘cosmic Santa’ God to give us what we most desire.

Or perhaps fasting simply feels like ‘work’ within a faith-based salvation. Surely our grace-filled God can’t demand that we carry out such an ancient religious ritual?

blur-1867402_640.jpg
Image credit: Pixabay

I misunderstood fasting for years. I did it – occasionally – because I thought it was a helpful practice, but I didn’t really know why. Nowadays, however, it’s becoming an important spiritual discipline in my life.

On the eve of Ash Wednesday, when many of us might be planning to fast something for Lent, perhaps it’s helpful for me to share what God has taught me as I’ve plodded along:

  1. Fasting is expected (see Matthew 6:16-17). Like prayer, it is not an empty trapping of our religion, but something Jesus upheld which brings us closer to God. Unlike prayer, it doesn’t need to be part of our daily routine (Jesus didn’t fast every day as far as it is possible to tell), but should be a regular part of our lives.
  2. Fasting doesn’t have to be food! Anything which we love, crave, spend a lot of time on, or claim to be addicted to, can be withdrawn as the spiritual discipline of fasting. Social media, alcohol, screentime, a particular TV show…this is particularly helpful when a food fast is not recommended (e.g. in pregnancy, while breastfeeding or where particular health issues are present).
  3. Fasting doesn’t have to be as extreme as 40 days in the desert. It could mean certain times of day (e.g. not snacking between meals, or not eating until the evening), for a few consecutive days (e.g. no social media during a particular week), one day a week (e.g. no TV on Sundays), or for a specified period (e.g. giving up chocolate for Lent).
  4.  Fasting reminds us how much we have. And we have a lot, especially here in the UK. If we never fast, we run the risk of taking what we have for granted, assuming it to be an unchallengeable fact of the modern Western Christian’s life that we are ‘entitled’ to these possessions or that luxury. But God may have other ideas.
  5. Fasting helps us to relinquish our idols. It says to God that we are more serious about him than about food, alcohol, sex, social media, TV, or anything else we may feel is becoming an idol. But I think it says more to ourselves. Fasting reminds me that God is worth more than these things – and that, much as I believe I ‘need’ chocolate to get through each day, what I really need is God’s word. (Matthew 4:4)
  6. Fasting creates long-term habits of holiness. If we are serious about allowing God to develop a more Christ-like character in us, then I think fasting will be involved somewhere along the line. Several years ago, I gave up my favourite soap opera for Lent, using the time to read Isaiah instead. I’d been addicted for nearly 20 years, and was gripping on tightly. But the six weeks without it made me realise I didn’t even want to return to it. The grip was gone, the addiction was gone, and I was free to pursue God a little more than I had before.
  7. Fasting realigns our priorities. It keeps us focussed on God in this distraction-riddled life. I pray more when I’m fasting – because every time I feel a pang of hunger, or desperation for whatever it is that I’ve given up, it’s a reminder to pray. So if there are big needs in my life, or the lives of those close to me, fasting is a great way to prioritise spending time with God, offering Him these prayer requests, over any of the other ‘loves’ of my life.

I often picture the Christian journey as a pair of closed fists, holding tightly onto life and independence. As we mature, these fists gradually release, as God gently works in us to loosen our grip on the things which hold us back from loving Him completely.

Fasting, for me, has become a way of submitting my fists to God, asking that He will open whichever fingers necessary in order to let go of what is holding me back, and make more space for that which He would want to develop in me.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Phillipians 3:12-14)

I would like to encourage you that, even if your motivation to fast is mixed or complex, please allow God to work in you through this important discipline. God doesn’t need our  fasting – but we probably do.

And, despite what images come to mind when you hear the word ‘fasting’, the Bible assures us that a life lived for God is more joyous, more full and more exciting than any alternative. Go for it!

20: how Santa draws us to Christ

One of the joys of this blog is being able to share stuff with you which is far, far better than what I’m writing, so it’s a privilege today to point you all in the direction of The Life-Changing Magic of an Untidy Christmas, which was published yesterday over on Desiring God. It has little to do with what I’m going to write about, but was too damned good not to pass on. Have a read, see what you think.

IMG_3444[1]

A friend asked me yesterday whether I had any advice on speaking to small children about Santa, and since our day was also punctuated in other ways by Santa (Monkey and Meerkat had a visit from the Big Man at their preschool Christmas party – and were constantly talking about hanging up stockings on Christmas Eve), he seems a good topic for today’s reflection.

There is so much which is fun about Santa. He’s a novelty – someone who turns up just once a year, but is friendly and kind, and delivers exactly the presents you’ve asked for, all wrapped up in a stocking. How fun is that? And he doesn’t just do this for you, but – somehow, miraculously – for all the children around the world.

The real ‘Santa’, St Nicholas, was also a kind, friendly, generous man – he loved God, and from that relationship came a heart for the poor and vulnerable around him. The legend of him dropping three bags of gold into the slippers of three young women in his village whose father was too poor to afford their dowries – even if it may have been embellished down the years – shows a heart which was sacrifically generous.

During Advent, we have always taught our children that Santa was a real person, St Nicholas, and we tell them this story about his generosity. We use this book, but one which has been recommended to me by a lot of Christian parents is Just Nicholas (we don’t yet have it ourselves). Doing this, our kids have always known that Santa – as we celebrate him today – is not alive today, but that he was based on a real person. (We’ve also told them not to tell their classmates!)

This has not killed the magic for our family – on the contrary, I believe it has added a rich significance which merely believing in ‘Santa’ does not. Because Santa also has his failings. He only rewards you if you’re good. He watches what you do through the year, and keeps a list of your wrongdoings. He’s not interested in a relationship with you.

In short – Santa is only human. To base our Christmas around him would end in huge disappointment.

But celebrating ‘Santa’ as St Nicholas each Christmas is a way of pointing to Jesus in our celebrations. St Nicholas gave freely and sacrificially because he’d received freely and sacrificially from Jesus’ death and resurrection. The baby Jesus who we celebrate at Christmas grew up to be our Rescuer – the One who would put us right with God forever. He would not keep a record of our wrongdoings, but forgive us freely – and His gift would be available to all, regardless of how ‘good’ we were. As we remember St Nicholas, the gracious man who gave of his money, time and energy, we are more able to look up to the God who inspired him.

I genuinely feel that celebrating Santa can be a hugely significant part of our festivities. But elevating him to a position above Jesus is so easy to do – and, although we may not realise it, over-indulging in Santa at Christmas really muddies the waters for our young children. They don’t realise who or what they’re celebrating – nor why. Or else, the sacred and the secular celebrations (Jesus and Santa being celebrated equally, but separately) represent two parallel, but unrelated, Christmas traditions.

In Zechariah’s day, God’s people felt disappointed by their return to Israel. It wasn’t all they had expected, so they started to grumble, and turned to idols. But, through Zechariah, God made it very clear that these idols had no power whatsoever – His people needed to return to Him, who was able to do all things:

Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime;
    it is the Lord who sends the thunderstorms.
He gives showers of rain to all people,
    and plants of the field to everyone.
The idols speak deceitfully,
    diviners see visions that lie;
they tell dreams that are false,
    they give comfort in vain.
Therefore the people wander like sheep
    oppressed for lack of a shepherd. (Zechariah 10:1-2)

In today’s terms, an ‘idol’ is anything which diverts our attention from God. Perhaps this sounds a little dramatic for something as innocent as Santa. Or perhaps it’s the innocuous parts of our culture which have the most potential to draw us away from Jesus.

* If you have children, think back over the last few weeks. How many of your activities/celebrations have been about Santa? How many about Jesus? Or do you combine the two?

* As an adult, what are the secular Christmas traditions (like Santa) which threaten to draw your attention from Jesus?

Lord God, you’ve commanded me not to make idols – and yet I do it unthinkingly in so many ways, not least at Christmas when so many festivities claim my attention and focus. Please re-orientate my gaze onto You, trusting in You for the satisfaction I can’t find elsewhere. Amen.

random advent

I am the Queen of unrealistic ambitions.

Approximately every five days I have a new business idea, or personal goal, or family-related plan which I will never – I repeat, NEVER – be able to see into action.

And so, it’s fully understandable that I began this year with the aim of writing an Advent devotional ready for this Advent.

I mean – what was I thinking??? I have four kids who each present their own set of challenges. A husband who presents more. I’m a school governor and chair of the PTA. I lead a house group, help run a toddler group, am on the Sunday kids work rota and occasionally lead worship. If I’m in bed before midnight, I count it as a minor miracle – and that’s with a pile of dirty laundry dumped by the machine, pots sitting unwashed, emails unreplied to and our bedroom still resembling the aftermath of a hurricane. (Still. After I’ve spent the whole year trying to get round to tidying it.)

So no. The Advent devotional didn’t happen. But then I realised something. I always begin Advent full of good intentions about sticking to a devotional, focusing my mind in the busy lead-up to Christmas. And it lasts for two weeks, max, before I lose the habit and drift off. Just like my over-ambitious life plans, even trying to read something for 10 minutes a day for 25 days is an unachievable goal.

Now it struck me that if I’m like this, maybe others are too. And doesn’t this, in itself, bring us back to the Christmas story? Our good intentions, our ambitions, our desire to get things right – we can’t possibly keep this up. And when it inevitably falls flat on its face – in life, or in the stresses peculiar to December – we are left with a small baby in an animal feeding trough, born as a refugee into a political unstable country. His vulnerability, at birth and at death, would become our strength.

So here’s what I’m planning to do: write a little thought here on the blog every day this Advent. I’ll share anecdotes from my day, or things I’ve been thinking about – and I’ll try and include a short Bible passage too. You’ll bump along with the Desert household as we carry out our Christmas traditions and enjoy the season – but, inevitably, you’ll be the first to know when things don’t go to plan.

If you’re looking for exegesis or coherent thought, then this probably won’t be for you. If you like the idea of ‘doing Advent’ alongside another desert wanderer, then please join me. I’m going to call it ‘Random Advent’ – I did think of joining the words together in some overly fashionable way, but #randvent just sounds like the wrong kind of hashtag. This is not that kind of blog.

I’ll be updating on Facebook and Twitter, obvs, so please like/follow me on those media if you don’t already, but the easiest, surefire way of receiving each Advent thought is to sign up to email alerts. You can do that on the right-hand column of this blog – just type your email address and click on ‘follow’.

I’m not promising it’ll be anything profound, but perhaps as we offer God our mundane and simple, He will do something extraordinary. It worked for Mary and Joseph.

what we want for our kids: gender equality

This blog post is part of a series, considering what we want for our kids. If you haven’t read the previous posts, then please click here for the first post, which will take you to the others, as what follows will make more sense in context.

Oh, and here’s a disclaimer (I could have written a few): this is not a complete theology of gender! It is deliberately and unashamedly focused on how we as Christians raise our children to promote gender equality.

This is perhaps the most sensitive of the three ‘sub-heading’ topics I’ve written after the seemingly controversial post about whether it was OK for my daughter to aspire to being a mum. I decided it was wise to break that one down into the three areas I felt were potential sticking points: status, financial security, and now gender equality. And, let’s face it, most of us get more than a little bristly at the thought of women being expected to fulfil stereotyped roles, so it was no surprise that, at face value, my words were challenged. But as Christian parents, how should we aspire to, and encourage, gender equality in our children? What is the basis of this equality? And what does it look like in practice?

1) Gender inequality is an outcome of the Fall. Sexism can work both ways, but as the issue usually involves the dominance of men over women, it is this that I’m going to focus on. And the fact that there has been such dominance throughout history should come as no surprise to any Bible-believing Christian:

To the woman he said,

“…Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”(Genesis 3:16)

In other words, gender inequality is not ‘just because’. It is a direct consequence of our sin. God designed us to live as equals, side by side, with a joint mission to accomplish (Genesis 2) but sin brought an inequality to the relationship between the genders that will never be resolved until the new heaven and new earth. And this was not just a curse on women. The suppression of women throughout history will have undoubtedly lost the world a whole host of strong female political leaders, breakthrough female scientists, wise female strategists and inspiring female artists – it is men, as well as women, who have suffered this loss, and therefore the curse is felt by both women and men.

2) The curse of gender inequality will always be present in our world. For every win of the feminist movement, there are a handful of ‘new’ and discriminatory practices taking root in all corners of the globe. Some are old practices recently brought to the attention of the media (FGM for example) – others are new. Twenty years ago the pay gap between men and women may have been larger – but at least women didn’t have to worry about social media trolls and increased online sexism based on how they looked or what they believed in. One demon is abolished, and another is birthed. It’s because, quite simply, gender inequality is a product of the Fall, a result of our sin – so, as long as humankind remains sinful, it will remain discriminatory.

3) The belief that gender inequality is part of living in a fallen world is both sobering and hopeful. Just because discrimination will remain till the end of this life doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight against it. On the contrary – because it is not of the Kingdom, therefore we do not subscribe to it. We have been saved, and life in the Kingdom starts NOW – so, just as we fight against poverty, war, racism, hatred and other results of the Fall, so we must also practise a different way when it comes to gender discrimination. We go about our lives as equals – and teach our children to do the same – challenging any discriminatory behaviour when we encounter it – not because of a secular feminist agenda, but because equality is a characteristic of God and His kingdom.

This is all well and good if it actually ‘works’ – but, of course, because we live in a gender-biased world, our children will be subject to all sorts of influences outside our control, and even we as ‘gender-aware’ parents probably imbibe some of the unhelpful gender-skewed culture around us without even realising. So how do we remove our blinkers and start to teach our children God’s way when it comes to gender? Here are two important perspectives which have been important to me while thinking through this issue:

  • Godly feminism is about who we are – i.e. children of God, rooted in Christ – not what we achieve. Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,for you are all one in Christ Jesus” – Gal 3:28. Are we teaching our children that they are valuable, not because of gender or achievement or subversion of gender roles, but because they are made and loved by God? Realistically, it is highly unlikely that my daughter will ‘just’ be a mum when she hits adulthood – real life usually demands a salary of some sort, and besides, I have every belief that God has given her the most incredible gifts to contribute to wider society, as well as her own children (should she have them). But if my opinion of her is based on what she ‘achieves’ according to the world’s views, this doesn’t show her the God who loves her because of who she is. It also devalues the role of motherhood, every bit as important as fatherhood, and not something to campaign against just because there are ways in which some families and societies are ordered which do constitute a form of female suppression. Nowadays, investing in motherhood can be a true feminist option: a ‘right’, a ‘choice’ that many have the freedom to make to whatever extent they like. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – but, rather, let’s be willing to think creatively and boldly about family, work, vocation and the Kingdom of God. It may not look as we imagine.

 

  • Godly feminism is not about trying to get one over everybody else – and those of us who call ourselves Christians must resist a worldview of unhealthy competition and ladder-climbing. The Bible’s teaching on equality is radically different: it is that, rather than compete with one another, we all submit to one another. The problems come when this submission is not equal. The Biblical model is that women submit to men, men submit to women, and we all submit to Christ (Ephesians 5:21 says “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”.) The world says we reach equality when we strive to equal the achievements or status of the opposite sex – but the Bible says we reach equality when we self-sacrificially serve each other’s needs. Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” This – not aspiring to be better than everyone else, but serving each other’s needs – is how true equality is achieved, and will be achieved in the new heaven and new earth. Are we teaching our children to respect others, of all genders and backgrounds? Are we teaching them to serve sacrificially and without reward? Are we teaching them not to think less of themselves, but to think of themselves less?

Drawing these perspectives together, we see that the Biblical model of gender equality is based on healthy amounts of self-worth and humility. A distortion of the former leads to oppression of others – a distortion of the latter leads to being oppressed by others. Neither results in equality.

As Christians, we have a unique basis for these two qualities. We have self-worth through knowing that God made us, that He has entrusted us with caring for the world, that He so desperately wants a relationship with us that He sacrificed His only son in order that we could enjoy life with Him forever. We have humility because, in light of these truths, we realise that our skills and knowledge, our passion and vision, are so small in comparison to the God who gave us life. And we are aware of all the ways in which we hurt this God, this ever-loving, slow-to-anger Father – how we don’t deserve to sit in His presence, yet are able to do so through grace alone.

So, in light of this, with regards to our parenting:

1) Let’s affirm our children’s self-worth as much as possible. Christian parents, this is an easy job if you’re reading the Bible with your kids, as there’s so much packed in there about our identity being in Christ. We are so totally precious and loved by God that our gender is not even a consideration when totting up our value. When my kids do things that make me proud – winning ‘Star of the Week’ or getting full marks on a spelling test – I praise them, but always make a point of telling them that even if they were the worst behaved that week, or got 0 on their test, I would still love them just as much. It’s a little crass, and I always cringe as I say it, but I’d rather do crass than raise children who associate their value with their achievement.

There is plenty of gender discrimination in the world and, sadly, in the church – but I think much of it stems from how women are seen and treated in their families. A woman who has a secure base – parents and/or a husband/partner who believe in her – will find it easier to overcome discriminatory obstacles in everyday life and in the workplace. Raise your girls (and your boys) to be confident in the abilities God has given them. And raise your sons (and your daughters) to honour the gifts God has given to the women (men) around them. If you’re married, model a positive relationship of mutual respect and division of labour – your children will model their future households on this. Show your children how they deserve to be treated – and show them to recognise signs of ill-treatment.

2) Let’s encourage humility in our kids when relating to others – and let’s model it ourselves. We often think that we need to raise our girls up to believe they can do anything – but it’s equally important to raise our boys to understand what it might mean for them to allow girls to do anything – a stepping aside, a demotion, a position which holds little ‘status’ in the world’s eyes. Far from the arrogance and ladder-climbing we see in misogynistic cultures (and, occasionally, in some secular feminist writings too), teach your boys and your girls to follow Christ’s example, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…” (Philippians 2:6-7).

The most humble person in history was a man – Jesus Christ – and, if we look to him, we will find enough self-worth and humility to serve one another as equals. I relish the day when gender discrimination will be a thing of the past – but, for now, let’s be encouraged by the work of the Holy Spirit in us and our children, shaping us to be more like Jesus, who stood for equality right up to death.

 

For the first time in five years of writing this blog, I’ve received editorial help from another, so feel it only right that I should credit her here. Thank you, wonderful friend, for reading this through, for your gracious comments and wise alterations, and for articulating on my behalf where I was getting tangled in knots.