Spiritual life is about learning to think in both-ands. It’s about holding tension. For example: “There is pain in the world,” and “God is good.” When you can think in both-ands, you can find surer footing on the path with God. But walking in tension is not easy. It can feel like walking on a knife’s edge. We are, for example, called to enjoy the pleasures of life and to avoid over-indulgence. We are called to be a people of delight without becoming slaves to pleasure. If you fall too far on either side, you’ll become a dour-faced prude or a wild hedonist. Moralism (the belief you can make life work by being good enough/getting everything right/earning God’s approval) on one hand or hedonism (the misuse and abuse of pleasure) on the other is always the pattern, as one of Jesus’ greatest parables makes clear. We call it “The Parable of the Prodigal,” but it’s really “The Parable of Two Sons.” Each son in Jesus’ story represents how challenging it is to walk in the anxiety of our humanity without resorting to moralism or hedonism in an attempt to control it.
The younger son turns hedonist, demanding his inheritance early (a galactic insult to his father) and promptly wasting it on wild partying, with “friends” and prostitutes. While his younger brother focuses on illicit pleasure, the older son remains at home and remains a staunch moralist, focused on playing by the rules. Each extreme, moralism or hedonism, provides the sense of control which our ego desperately craves—control through either the power of certainty/being right (the allure of moralism) or through being able to drown out, even temporarily, our sorrows (the allure of hedonism). Being right or numbing out each has is its own sort of “high,” its own type of transcendence. Each allows us, in a way, to feel invulnerable to and powerful over our inner doubts and insecurities.
But as followers of Jesus, rather than bouncing back and forth from moralism to hedonism, we are called to turn from both and learn to live in a new place altogether, balancing delight with restraint and discipline with joy. This turns out to take quite a bit of work and a tremendous development of character! What’s the difference between enjoying another glass of wine and abusing alcohol? What’s the line between “one more cookie,” as an act of enjoyment, and gluttony? Or between giving to someone versus becoming codependent with them? It all comes down to conscience; it requires sensitivity to what defiles your conscience and what aligns your conscience with God. No one can write a rulebook for the nuances of spiritual life. It demands, rather, being led by God’s Spirit. It means being led by love, for only when we are in alignment with our own conscience and God’s Spirit are we fully empowered to love others as Jesus does. This will mean a balance of the practice of delight with the cultivation of restraint and self-discipline, and listening always to what is needed in any given moment.
Ultimately, we can only walk this path—the path of life in the Spirit—when we have a healthy God-image. This is perhaps the most stunning message of Jesus’ parable: both sons are on the estate and in the house with the Father, yet neither son understands their Father’s heart! One sees his father as some prudish fuddy-duddy under whose nose he has to sneak fun, the other as a curmudgeonly judge demanding that he get everything right. Each image is a fantasy within their own mind. Neither reflects the heart of their good father. Yet their view determines the course of their story.
In other words, within our practice of delight and discipline, our view of God is revealed. If we are too rigid in our conduct, we do not see the God of all love and delight. If we are too loose in our behavior, we do not see the Holy God who loves us and will never let our soul settle for less than freedom. We must see, at once, both the God who is Generous Father, desiring our joy and our delight, and also the Holy Lover who will not allow us to hide ourselves or numb out through the abuse of pleasure. We must learn to walk the middle path of delight and restraint. If we aren’t trained to live there with God, we may—like these sons—be discontent with how seldom we experience the fullness of God, even though He is quite near to us.
This is why fasting is so crucial. It helps us live in the middle ground. We've pushed back against moralism through The Jesus Paradigm, by making it clear that God’s completed work of adoption cannot be earned, it can only be received. All we can do is learn to say “yes” back to the “yes” God has spoken to us in Jesus. We push back against religious rigidity or legalism by becoming, for example, a people of delight, as we discussed as a part of Sabbath, and by feasting, an expression of hospitality. But we also need a way to push back against hedonism.
Fasting, then, is a course corrector. It’s a way of checking in on our souls and noticing the attachments and affections our soul is developing. If our soul becomes over-attached to any good thing, or “loves the world” too much, it can be detrimental to our spiritual transformation. Jesus said, “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be.” James K.A. Smith piggybacks on the idea, saying “You are what you love.” We need to be aware of what our heart is growing to love, knowing that lesser love can ultimately crowd out our greater love, even the love of God Himself. We need a way to keep our hearts from losing their posture of surrender before Jesus as Lord.
Having a lord, after all, means losing your rights and your entitlement. It means we don’t get to say “yes” to everything just because we want it. Indeed, it means learning to say “no.” Abram said “no” to comfort and “yes” to surrender and trust by leaving Ur—and every familiarity and comfort he had known—and going to a land he did not know. When Mary was faced with the great discomfort of bearing a baby and appearing to all the world like a loose, ungodly woman, for the sake of bearing God’s life in the world, she said, “I am the servant of the Lord’s, let it be to me according to your word.” Paul called himself a “bondservant”—a slave—of Christ Jesus. What kind of posture is that, in all three of them? It’s a posture of someone who has surrendered entitlement and made themself a servant. This is the posture of a disciple! In the Western world, we are constantly bombarded with the message, “You are the center of the universe” and “You deserve it.” A disciple of Jesus does not accept this message. They submit their life, instead, to the lordship of Jesus himself, embracing delight and restraint at the same time, as an act of worship before God.
We are always walking this line: between delight without abusing pleasure, and discipline without becoming rigid. Delight keeps us from being Puritanical, fasting keeps us from being hedonistic. The only way we can walk this line is by the Spirit. Sometimes having that extra cupcake misses the mark (the literal definition of sin), sometimes it doesn’t. Caring for the poor and those in need is a constant scriptural command, but knowing how much to give and when and how takes wisdom. This is not nit picking. It’s in these intimate places and decisions of human heart that matter. If we can learn to be faithful even in what seem like little decisions, the habit of faithfulness will bloom in all of our lives. As Jesus said, “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones.”
In fasting, we find a way to enter into this training of becoming faithful that, ultimately, we would become fruitful.
For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus.'
Remember, for example: God is three and one, All-powerful and All-vulnerable, human and divine, and on and on.
It is far easier to live “painting by numbers,” living by rigid laws, than following our conscience, led by the Holy Spirit. But in some situations, follow our conscience is exactly what we must do, as Scripture attests. In Romans 13-14 and I Corinthians 8, for example, Paul says that certain sins are a matter of conscience, not a matter of clear right and wrong. We tend to be much more comfortable with clear binaries (a or b, in/out, right/wrong), but such simplistic thinking can actually prevent us from walking in God’s Spirit. We actually need God and not just a rule!
Our anxiety stems, as discussed in the first chapter, about whether we are really “in.” Do we really have a place or a future in which we can be ourselves without fear? Are we truly seen, known, and loved? Our anxiety stems from the fear that we will not have such a place nor know such a reality.
See Luke 15:11-32.
Cf. Romans 8, Romans 13:10.
See “Heart of Sabbath” in ‘Chapter 9: The Slow Life: Sabbath.’
I John 2:15.
Smith, James K.A. Smith. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Brazos Press. Ada, MI. 2016.
Luke 1:38, ESV.
See John 14:15, Romans 12:2.
Cf., in philosophy, Aristotle’s Golden Mean.
See, for example, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poorby Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Moody Publishers. Chicago, IL. 2014.
Again, the message of John 15:1-11 is that only in submission and obedience do we become fruitful. Not exactly the mantra of the Western world with its focus on me-first and unrestrained independence.