Sunday, March 13, 2011

Fleeing Discipline

At the beginning of Lent I have become aware of the difficulty of establishing a meaningful Lenten fast. Let’s pick a common item that many people select for their Lenten fast, sugar; not just chocolate but sugar itself. And what about adding to your fast not only sugar, but also white bread and potatoes, major starches that convert to sugar as soon as we eat them. There are other offenders, but enough is enough!

The difficulty with fasting can emerge almost immediately. The reason for selecting this type of fast is often an acknowledged need for weight control. That is legitimate, but be aware that we are already starting our fast with a mixed motive, and sometimes the spiritual nature of such a fast is fuzzy at best. We often decide on our fast on a whim, an impulse, rather than on a clear decision that has a spiritual component.

A decision to begin a fast is not necessarily a spiritual decision, no matter how laudable it may be. For a fast to be successful it needs to be undertaken with a clear decision, not just a decision in light of our usual eating habits, but a decision that involves a prayer commitment to begin the fast, and by grace maintain it during Lent.

There is something more fundamental involved. On facet complicating such a fast is physical desire. The underlying Greek word is “epithumia,” most often translated “lust.” When we say “lust” in our society, our minds tend to wander along one well-worn track, so instead I will just use the word “epithumia,” which includes not only gross lust, but all the lesser forms of more subtle desires.

Never underestimate the power of old fashioned epithumia, even in its lesser forms. Lust, or epithumia for sugar, isn’t as notorious as sexual lust, but it still exercises a power of its own. As a lesser power it flies beneath the radar of our sensitivity. Mild and subtle epithumia is still a power, and a dangerous one.

Another facet to be considered is habit. We live patterned lives. In its constructive form habit is a survival skill, a necessity. Habit, in this sense, is good, and it is vital in ordering our lives. A Lenten discipline forsaking sugars and major starches establishes fitfully a new habit, and usually just a temporary trial habit for forty days.

Not all habits are good habits. There are things that we do that are in themselves perfectly acceptable within limits, but something happens and the pleasures slides from simple enjoyment to excess, and eventually to compulsion. The good thing has degenerated into a bad habit.

Changing a habit is like changing a dance step; everything else around it has to shift in order to accommodate the new pattern, and then something in us begins to cry out, “Change back! Change back!”

A third factor is that certain disciplines are exercised in the most necessary of areas. In short, we need to eat. However there is a difference between needs and wants, but both needs and wants are subject to desire. The desire for something sweet is not, so far as I know, a need, but rather a want; but it is a common want and the majority of humankind enjoys the basic taste of something sweet, even as we desire the taste for something salty, or something spicy.

John, in commenting on temptation, tells us that the love of this world includes the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. That is the basis for Eve’s fateful decision. She saw that the forbidden fruit was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and she desired it to make her wise. Those three lusts are entwined in varying proportions in our experiences of temptation, even in the lesser epithumia for sugary sweets.

A physical desire for something sweet begins to arise and we look around to see what is available, surveying all the chocolates and candies on the candy aisle. Then we rationalize why we have the right to exercise our desire for something sweet, after all making an exception is our prerogative. Then we take and eat, and like Eve, we have to hide our embarrassment at breaking our self-imposed discipline.

Here is the proverbial bottom line. If you are undertaking a Lenten fast, make it not only a discipline, but a spiritual discipline, a prayer commitment to God, with a definite scope and time limit. Limit the scope. It has to be something that you actually think that you can manage with the help of grace. You may not want to go as far as fasting from white bread and potatoes. Fasting from candy and desserts may be quite enough. The forty days of Lent act as an ancient and very acceptable limit for this type of fasting.

When you feel epithumia arising, use the rising desire as a reminder to pray; draw into the Presence of God and pray. Then snack on something else that is not on your temporarily forbidden list. Remember that a properly appointed fast does have a time limit. There is nothing wrong with something sweet. God made sugar to be enjoyed, and after all is said and done, He doesn’t really expect us to become diet Nazis.