Stuffed Full of Stuff
By the time I was in high school, my dad’s medical practice had become prosperous. Growing up, he had often left home on the weekends to pick up shifts, to make ends meet. But things changed as he became more successful, and it changed our home life. It meant, for example, that we had big Christmases. When I was seventeen, we had a very big Christmas, with lots of presents under the tree.
It was the worst Christmas I’ve ever had.
On Christmas Eve, my siblings were watching that great Christmas classic The Godfather(okay, not exactly up there with Clarence getting his wings), when my parents had a big fight. We could hear it upstairs, and my brother and I looked at each other and took a collective deep breath. Suddenly, my father rushed downstairs, grabbed his jacket, and, without saying a word, slammed the door behind him. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. There were boxes everywhere on Christmas morning, and all full of stuff. But what good is stuff when you aren’t connected? When what really matters is absent, how can you feel any true wealth? I remember thinking that I’d rather us have no Christmas presents but simply be happy being together.
It wasn’t just Christmas, either; throughout the year, boxes would arrive at our house. Our home was inundated with stuff: CDs and clothes and books and gadgets. My sorrow and hopelessness at having things but no real joy grew.
The strange thing is, I have the heart of a collector. I love beautiful books and wooden boxes. I love looking through antique stores. But as an adult, I find that rather than over-eating or over-drinking or over-sexing (though I have done each), my most consistent temptation is to numb out by acquiring more things. Which is strange, because I don’t consider myself materialistic or greedy. I hate wasting money, and I don’t think I spend it wantonly. But then again, in our prosperous society, greed easily flies beneath the radar. I’ve never had someone stand in my office and say, “Wow, you have a lot of books. Do you have a problem with greed?” Yet I have a penchant for “taking the edge off” by buying some new book or some new thing. I can get lost in it. It relieves the angst of life for a moment, but often at the cost of a closed and frustrated heart, as having more starts to feel like a prison. Things that satisfy us only temporarily are not satisfying at all.
Which is why each year I engage in a consumption fast. It’s an extended time of many months where I don’t buy anything new except what is essential. You know, deodorant and the like (you’re welcome, world). I train myself to see how much I have and how little I really need. I train my soul to be content. I practice giving away my things and my money to those in need. I fast because I know that otherwise, my mind and heart can get filled up with having and possessing. The American ideal of having more starts to rewire my thinking. And I don’t want to get lost in that. Our lives can so easily get filled, crowding out the space where the Holy Spirit would stand, if we would let Him. We need ways to do that—to let Him stand with and within us. For this reason, fasting is a core practice of The Grounded Life, by which we make space for God to live and move and breathe within us, just as He desires to do.
A Core Practice
Fasting was one of the core practices of the early Church. When leaders in the early Church had to make big decisions, they did so with “prayer and fasting.” Jesus himself fasted for forty days in the wilderness, and he told his disciples that after he was gone from them, they would fast. Fasting is a crucial practice for spiritual life, critical to the development of vibrant hearts.
And what is fasting? It’s a voluntary, temporary reduction in comfort, so that we can redirect our spiritual energy to God. It is detaching from over-dependence on any good thing—even the very gifts of God which we are meant to enjoy (food, drink, entertainment, and so on)—so that we can, for a season, refocus the energy spent delighting toward hungering at a deeper level, even for the very presence of God Himself.
Fasting is a spiritual practice deeply connected to gratitude. When we fast, we learn to say, “I am perfectly okay without that book, that food, that drink, that television, that social media,” so that our soul gains confidence in its joy being with and before God. Fasting leads us to gratitude because in fasting we discover our freedom.
The spiritual principle undergirding fasting is simple: we can’t be filled unless we are emptied. As Khalil Gibran said, “Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potters oven?” Sometimes this emptying comes from suffering, yes. But in fasting, we preemptively empty ourselves. We don’t wait around for suffering to come to empty us. We empty ourselves so that when suffering comes (as it will, eventually), we already know and, more importantly, trust the resurrection pattern of being filled by God in the midst of emptiness. In this way, we learn to be emptied in any situation with the confidence that God will fill us. Jesus demonstrated the highest order of this trust when he went to his death, trusting that God would yet fill him with life.
Jesus often speaks of the necessity of being emptied. “You must lose your life” is, of course, a directive to let go. In John 15, Jesus dilates on the matter, revealing that part of his work in the disciples over the previous three years was to prune them. “You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you.” The word cleaned means pruned, and the pruning he describes is an emptying of ourselves, the stripping of all the ways we try to make life work and be fruitful on our own terms. The only way to live a truly fruitful life, Jesus says, is to be cut back, to be made empty, so that we can be filled with the very life of God.
We all resist this. We hate suffering and emptying and vulnerability, and we will always resist it. I don’t know anyone who, when pain comes, says, “Yippee!” But God’s Spirit loves us enough to lead us through the place where we are laid bare, even when it stings us, so that we can be filled with life. This, after all, is the resurrection pattern which we must come to trust if we are to enter fully into the Reign of God. When we are emptied in this way, we become fruitful, and the wine of our lives becomes comfort for others.
For this reason, James tells us to give thanks for trials. By giving thanks, we see with spiritual eyes that what is happening in us—the development of our eternal souls—is far weightier than “the sufferings of this present age.” In a similar way, in fasting, we can participate in our pruning, so that we become ripe with resurrection life.
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Which reminds me of Jesus’ words: “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
E.g Acts 13:13, 14:23.
Matthew 4:1-11; Matthew 9:15, Mark 2:20, Luke 5:35. In addition to Jesus in the wilderness, there are many other fasting examples in Scripture, such as Daniel’s fast in Daniel 1:12. Most Scriptural fasts deal with food, but for our purposes here we will focus not only on food, but also on other areas of consumption.
Gibran, Khalil. The Prophet. Alfred A. Knopf. New York, NY. 1923. Page 29.
A paraphrase of Matthew 10:39: “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.”
2 Corinthians 1:4.
James 2:1ff. Trials bring the testing of our faith, which causes our endurance to grow, which brings us to wholeness and completion in God.