“Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. People came and asked him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the Pharisees’ disciples fast, but your disciples do not fast?'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Why do you do the things you do? While there very well may be an intentionality to some of them, can I suggest that the reason you do most of the things you do is that they are the things you do? That may sound like I’m talking in circles (I’ll chalk it up to my head still spinning from last night’s presidential debacle…I mean debate), but let me explain. You and I do most of the things we do because we are accustomed to doing them. Again, there are obvious exceptions to this, but most of our lives run on autopilot. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When we autopilot through the little things, it frees up our attention for the big ones. But if we’re not careful, we can put things in the wrong category. Let’s talk about how.
Fasting was a big deal in the culture of first century Israel. Religiously conscientious Jews fasted at least once a week, and the most faithful did it twice. These fasts would last from sunup to sundown (meaning you just had to eat breakfast early and dinner late on those days), and were in theory to be times of focused prayer for the participants. Well, when you do something on a consistent, regular basis, there’s a good chance that it will slip over into the category of things you do by autopilot. It becomes one of those things you do because you do it.
While this isn’t a bad thing for many of the things we do, when it comes to religious activities, things get a bit more complicated. Right now the church in America is in a rebuilding mode. Churches are trying to figure out how to get rolling again on the other side of COVID. More to the point, they are trying to figure out how to get people back in the doors again. I was talking with a wise woman in my life the other day about this and she made the observation that a big part of the struggle for many is that they’ve gotten out of the habit of going to church.
I knew immediately that she was right. I’ve used the same line of reasoning when encouraging families who were struggling with consistent church attendance. I’ll say something like this: “A big part of coming to church regularly is making it become a habit for your family. Once you’ve made it that, staying consistent with it won’t be quite as hard.” If you want to really get connected to a church, going consistently and regularly needs to become something you do because you do it.
The same thing goes with any spiritual activity. When I wake up in the morning, my mind goes to prayer. Before I even open my eyes for the first time, in my mind and heart I’m having a conversation with the Lord. When I’m up and out of bed, I’m turning on my Bible app to do some reading and writing. Those are things I do every single day. I do them because I do them. If you want to get more consistent with Bible reading and prayer in your own life, they’ve got to become things you do because you do them. Pick any other spiritual discipline…like fasting, for instance…and the same thing applies. Just because something is a habit doesn’t mean it is a meaningless one.
This, though, is where the danger enters into the picture. When it comes to habits whose stated purpose is the growth and strengthening of our relationship with Jesus, while we want them to become things we do because we do them, we don’t want them to become things we do solely because they are part of our list of autopiloted activities.
The same thing applies to any relationship. Lisa and I strive to make the first few minutes when we are finally both home in the afternoons about the two of us. We go to some room in the house without any children and talk about our days. That’s a habit we are in. But, if we do it only because it’s a habit, the relationship building aspects of it can easily be lost.
The disciples of John and the Pharisees and their disciples all regularly participated in the fasting that was expected of them by the culture. Jesus and His crew didn’t and this bothered them. Aren’t you good and faithful Jews? Shouldn’t you be keeping the Law? What they revealed and what Jesus called them on, which we’ll talk about over the next few days, was that fasting was in danger of becoming merely rote for them and not the intentionally pursued spiritual exercise it should have been. Most notably, they had gotten so fixated on the fasting itself (and, to a certain degree, the public reaction to their faithfulness to tradition) that they had missed the fact that the true object of their fasting was standing in front of them. They were in fact fussing at Him for not fasting.
This is the danger. Are we pursuing the spiritual exercises we pursue simply because they are things we do, or are we pursuing them because we are sincerely and intentionally seeking out a deeper relationship with our Lord? The one is not the same as the other. Oh, they may look the same on the outside, but God knows our hearts. We can’t fool Him. He knows when we are doing religion because of its power to help us pursue Him in an intentional and organized fashion and when we are doing it because the rhythm of it is comfortable to us.
So then, why do you do the things that you do? When it comes to things that have the power to move you in the direction of Jesus, might I suggest making sure you are being intentional and not merely ritual in your pursuit?