There’s seems to be something inherent in us that wants to give things up. We decide to quit smoking, or stop eating sweets, or eschew television for a time. We try to diet or exercise regularly or read more or spend less time on the internet, and in some fashion it often equates to denying some part of ourselves.
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When Maile and I decided to not watch television for a year (at which we’ve mostly succeeded, save a few World Cup, NFL and MLB playoff slip ups on my part), we were trying to regain control of our evenings, which seemed to have gone totally astray. The little box had more to say about how we spent those hours from 9 – 11 than we did, so we kicked him out. But even after purging our house of cable, other things quickly converged, trying to wrest control of our time.
Sometimes when we give things up, we exchange them for other things we want to give up. It turns into this rotating spit of dropped habits.
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What is it about our internal make up that puts such an emphasis on giving things up? Is it that we actually crave living a more disciplined life? Is it that we desire freedom from these habits? Is it that some part of us enjoys this self-denial?
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Many different religions talk about a deliberate giving up – they call it fasting. While fasting is usually about giving up food and/or water for a set period, it can involve any denial of self, any deliberate choice to abstain from something for a given time.
Sometimes I wonder if all of us give up things because, deep down, we believe we will get things in return. Perhaps all of us, and not just the religious among us, have a sense of karma when it comes to giving things up, or fasting. Is there something in all of us that believes if we give up a particular activity, the universe will somehow reward us for that? Is that what’s at the bottom of all this self-denial?
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There’s this intriguing passage in the Bible that talks about fasting. The people of Israel want to know why, even though they fast, God doesn’t seem to be on their side.
“We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have done much penance, and you don’t even notice it!”
God’s response through the prophet Isaiah got my attention:
“I will tell you why! It’s because you are living for yourselves even while you are fasting. You keep right on oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like a blade of grass in the wind. You dress in sackcloth and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD? No, the kind of fasting I want calls you to free those who are wrongly imprisoned and to stop oppressing those who work for you. Treat them fairly and give them what they earn. I want you to share your food with the hungry and to welcome poor wanderers into your homes. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.”
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What if this desire of self-denial that we all seem to have in common is more about appeasing subconscious guilt arising from the fact that we have and others don’t have? What if the real reason we fast, or give things up, is to help ourselves feel better about life?
If that’s really the case, then you can see why God would shout down, “Hey, you! Yeah, you, Shawn! Get your head unstuck from your own ass and go serve someone! Stop giving meaningless stuff up! I don’t care about that! I care about that guy on the corner who hasn’t eaten today and that lady who needs someone to drive her to find help and that cousin of yours who needs to talk!”
I don’t normally envision God as speaking with only exclamation points, or using entry-level profanity, but perhaps in this case it’s fitting.