Help In Hard Places
Dr. Jim Denison
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,To the last syllable of recorded time,And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stage,And then is heard no more: it is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing (Macbeth, act 5, scene 5).
Now, don’t you feel better? But Shakespeare was more right than we’d like to admit. A shocking seven of eight Americans say that our country is worse off than it was five years ago.
George Barna makes his living surveying Americans on nearly every subject. Here’s his summary of the current scene: “For most Americans, the search for meaning in life continues. Despite our technological sophistication and political savvy, millions of adults are desperately seeking the keys that will unlock the secrets to achieve significance in life and bring them greater fulfillment. As a nation, we are exploring many avenues. Comparatively few have arrived at what is deemed to be a reasonable or satisfying conclusion.” The title of his book is descriptive: Absolute Confusion.
The truth is, America is one of the best-fed nations in the world physically, but we are starving spiritually. Our souls are famished. What can help?
Jesus, in a wilderness setting, faced the same temptations we struggle with today, and defeated them all. When we come to our own wilderness, what can we do? Where is there help in hard places? What should we be doing right now?
Fasting (Luke 4:1-4)
“We turn from self to God, seeking strength not in ourselves but in him. We turn from food, possessions, our bodies and ourselves, to magnify God.”
I mentioned in a recent sermon that every day we Americans eat 53 million hot dogs, 3 million gallons of ice cream, and 75 acres of pizza. It seems that fasting is the most un-American of all the spiritual disciplines. We seldom talk about it in our churches; in fact, most Baptists have never really studied this subject at all.
Fasting defined is simply abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. Let’s ask three questions about this discipline, from Matthew 6:16-18.
First, should we fast? Or is this an outdated practice from biblical times, like eating kosher food? Jesus fasted for 40 days. When the tempter showed him a rock—round, white, sun-bleached, looking very much like the loaves they baked in those days—Jesus refused to turn it into bread. He refused to break his fast, choosing not to live “by bread alone.”
In Matthew 6:16 he says, “When you fast ….” Not “if” but “when.” He assumes that his hearers will fast. All through Scripture we find people practicing this discipline. Moses fasted 40 days while receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28); Elijah fasted for 40 days (I Kings 19:8); Daniel fasted from meat and wine for three weeks (Daniel 10:3); Paul fasted from both food and water for three days after his conversion (Acts 9:9) and later said that he “often” fasted (2 Cor. 11:27).
Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline is the best book in recent decades on the subject of spiritual disciplines. He says, “Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way. It is a means of God’s grace and blessing that should not be neglected any longer” (p. 60).
Should we fast? The answer seems obvious.
Second, how should we fast? We’ve answered this question in some detail in the booklet we’ve prepared on spiritual disciplines. For now, let’s observe these facts. We are to fast regularly. Our text puts this in the continuous tense: “As you are fasting ….” We are to fast humbly, not to impress people, like the hypocrites do (v. 16). We are to fast joyfully. We “put oil on our head and wash our face,” a sign of rejoicing in Jesus’ day (v. 17). And we are to fast expectantly, knowing that “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (v. 18). Fasting does not earn God’s blessings, but it puts us in position to receive what God wants to give.
Third, why should we fast? Fasting has clear physical benefits for us. Numerous studies have concluded that periodic days of fasting can cleanse our bodies of impurities, rest the digestive system, and make us healthier people. But the greatest benefit is spiritual. When we fast, we turn from our bodies to our souls, from what we can see and feel to what we believe, from ourselves to God. We learn to magnify God. To be grateful for the food he gives us, for our bodies, our breath, our lives. To focus on him in gratitude and worship.
We want to magnify our Father, to glorify him with our lives, our church, our service. If Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Paul, and even our Lord Jesus needed to fast to defeat the enemy, win spiritual victory, and magnify God, what of us?
Meditation (vv. 5-8)
“In meditation we turn from ourselves to God, seeking power to defeat the enemy, not in ourselves but in his strength and presence.”
Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, tells of a time when he nearly “crashed.” He was watching the physical gauge on his personal dashboard, eating and exercising, and all was well. He was watching the spiritual gauge, spending time in prayer and Bible study, and all was well. But he wasn’t watching the emotional gauge which records our souls, our inner selves, and had to experience depression and come near to burnout before he realized the problem.
Satan has tempted Jesus physically—now he tempts him emotionally. “You can have all this authority and splendor, and avoid the cross with its pain and shame,” he says. But when the enemy tempted him with worldly power he already had emotional and spiritual power. His soul was well. How can this be true for us?
Biblical meditation is very different from Eastern mysticism, with its desire to focus on us, our inner selves. Biblical meditation is focusing the mind and spirit specifically on God. There are four methods which can help.
Meditate on God’s word. Jesus has clearly been doing this, so that he can quote Deuteronomy 6:13 from his heart and hear its truth in his soul. We can do the same. Find one verse or a small passage, and focus your heart and soul on it. Put all your senses into it—see it, hear it, smell it, feel it. Dwell in it, with God.
Meditate on God’s creation. Find just one thing God has made and study it. I remember studying a leaf one day, and becoming amazed at its intricacy, detail, and design. If God devoted such attention to a leaf, what is his attention to my life?
Meditate on a life issue. A problem for which you need God’s help, or a good thing which has happened to you. Ask God to give you his mind on the subject.
Meditate on a news event. Seek God’s mind about it. I’ve been reading George Stephanopoulos’s fascinating book on the White House, and am especially intrigued with the way men and women in Washington view power. All that matters in the White House is access to the president, being able to cite his support, having his ear. Even with all the scandals, that’s power. Yet I have the ear of God Almighty. Now, that’s power.
Make time for your soul to meditate on God’s word and creation, your life, your world. And God will give you his power, enough to defeat the enemy whenever he attacks.
Scripture (vv. 9-12)
“In the discipline of Scripture study we turn from reading the word of God for ourselves to using it in God’s purpose and will, seeking hope not in our own ideas but in God’s promises.”
When I first visited the British Museum, I stood alone before two of the most ancient biblical manuscripts in the world, moved nearly to tears. Behind me hundreds of people gaped at the Beatles display. The clear picture was this: the Bible is outdated, irrelevant.
Is this so? How can we use God’s word as Jesus did, defeating the deceptions of our common enemy? To physical temptation, Jesus fasted; to emotional temptation, he meditated on God’s word; now, to spiritual temptation, he studied Scripture. Satan misquoted the Bible; Jesus answered with the word and will of his Father: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut. 6:16). How can we know and use the word of God like this? Listen to II Timothy 3:15-17.
Why study the word of God? The Bible feeds our souls (v. 15). It makes us “wise for salvation”—not just when we come to Christ, but all through our Christian lives. It is the “bread of life.” The Bible reveals God (v. 16a). It is “God-breathed,” meaning that God reveals himself to us through these words. This is his self-portrait to us. If we want to know God, we start here. The Bible equips us for life (v. 16b). Scripture “teaches” us as a road map for effective living. When we get off course, it “rebukes” us, then “corrects” us. Finally, it keeps us on track by “training in righteousness.”
Here’s the result: we are “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (v. 17).
Now, how do we study Scripture so that it works in these ways in our lives? How do we move from reading the Bible to using the Bible? Satan quotes Scripture, out of context and improperly; Jesus uses God’s word to defeat his enemy. How do we avoid the former and follow the latter?
Study the Bible systematically. Not just occasionally, but daily. Not just a few verses, but a chapter and a book in context and in order. Develop a systematic habit of Scripture study. Jesus could quote any part of God’s word, for he had studied it all. I have a plan whereby I read through the Bible each year, and have found this to be essential to my ministry and my soul. Adopt some systematic strategy for reading the Scriptures.
Study the Bible specifically. Focus especially upon a book, or a chapter, and seek to know it in detail. Read the commentaries for help. Research the meaning and application of the text. Right now I’m studying the book of Revelation in my morning time with God, word by word, and am fascinated by the depth of its truths. I’ve been in Revelation 1 since January, and just finished this week. Focus on some book, or chapter, or theme, and mine its riches in depth.
Study the Bible spiritually. Ask God to speak to you through its words. These pages are “letters from home,” as Augustine put it; this is “God preaching,” as J. I. Packer said. Ask God to speak to your soul, your need, your day, and he will.
I’ll never forget giving a Bible in the Malay language to an elderly woman in East Malaysia, and seeing her hands tremble and eyes tear up as she took the word of God and held it close to her heart. She could have defeated the enemy with it. Can we?
Note one last fact from our text: verse 13 says that the devil “left him until an opportune time.” The tempter never finished with Jesus until his death and resurrection. He will not finish with us until our death and resurrection.
If Jesus needed fasting, meditation, and Scripture to wage war with our enemy, do we? Do you and I need the same armor, the same ammunition, the same strategy? If we want to know God personally, share him passionately, and live our faith victoriously, do we need these disciplines? They enable us to receive the power, strength, and grace he wants us to have. These disciplines are God’s gifts to us.
Will you open them?