1.) "Cutting out and putting in." The Christian life is an ongoing process of repentance and faith. Pastor and author Jack Miller called repentance and faith the "two-step of the Christian life." In repentance we let go of the wrong things, and by faith we grasp hold of the right things. If our practice of spiritual renewal does not include both a "letting go" ("repentance") and a "holding on" ("faith") we are not going to grow. For example, Jesus introduced his own ministry as a call to repentance and faith (Mark 1:15.) He specifically called his disciples to follow him in sacrificial living by "picking up their cross" (Matt 16:24) and warned that we should cut off those parts of our lives which lead us into sin (Matt 18:9). At the same time, he told a parable in which he warned that if a demon is cast out and the house from which he left remains empty it will return seven-fold. That is, if you spend a season giving things up, but don't fill it with good stuff.... well, you could be worse off than before.
2.) "Encouraging faith." Historically, Christians have talked about growing in our faith through the means of grace. These are "prayer", "Bible reading" and "the sacraments." All of these are experienced as part of our personal relationship with God and our community experience of being part of the church. One way that a season of renewal can be helpful is for us to make a commitment to intentionally putting good things into our lives. Renewing our commitment to join with other Christians in a Sunday worship or an evening community group is another great step towards spiritual renewal. Even making a short term commitment towards prayer and bible reading can be a great way to jump start our spiritual lives. Toward that end Pastor Rob and I have made the commitment to publish a daily devotional which accompanies the Gospel of Matthew. We are calling this 40 Days to the Cross, and it will walk through the 28 chapters of Matthew in the weeks leading up to Easter. We have broken the book into 40 sections and will publish one on the new website daily from Wednesday February 18 until Saturday April 4. (Easter is Sunday April 5.) We will publish six each week, with the exception of Sundays - which will give everyone a chance to catch up. Please log in each day to join our community in a group bible study!
3.) "Fasting." While the New Testament doesn't have explicit programs for fasting all Christian traditions have historically found fasting to be a helpful tool for spiritual growth. After all, Jesus didn't give us a fasting program, but he did tell us what to do when we fast by saying, "when you fast..." (Matt 6:16-17) Since that was part of the sermon on the mount, we can assume that it was a message that Jesus frequently returned to giving. But what does it mean to fast? Simply put, fasting is the process of giving up something good, for the purpose of a life that is more conformed to the image of Christ. There is no doubt that the Medieval church often approached fasting through the lens of earning God's favor. But our modern church probably makes a different error. We seldom find any room for the expression of sacrifice in our Christian life. As a result we tend to think that Christian living is characterized by comfort and we have little time for cross carrying or repentance.
Technically speaking, fasting is giving up something good for a period of time. Most often, in the bible, this is expressed by fasting from food for a time. For example: food is good, but we tend to misuse it. Giving it up can show us that "man does not live by bread alone, but by the word of God" (Matt 4:4). Other people have found it helpful to give up certain types of foods (Daniel 1:8.) On other occasions Christians have found it helpful to give up things for a season of time, such as watching T.V. or using the computer. Personally, I have found it helpful to fast from recreational computer use and recreational alcohol use for a period of time, because these are things that I can easily misuse. While they are not evil in themselves, giving them up for a season can help me to use them with more wisdom in the future. Technically speaking, we don't fast from sin... we repent from sin. We don't plan on a 40 day fast from sin, with the expectation that we will do it again after 40 days. We are called to cut off sin -- period. But a time of fasting can increase our awareness of the intricate patterns of sin which weave their strands across our lives. It can also remind us, that we are called to depend on God and it can make us aware of the idolatrous ways that we put our trust in other things. In this sense, fasting can foster repentance.
Furthermore, cutting something out can help create the time and mental energy for us to bring new, good things into our lives. If you have to cut something out of your life to make it possible to read a chapter of Matthew and pray each day... well, then...that is what this is all about.