Last week, a group of friends stood on top of a hill and started dreaming. We were on our way back from York and, as a result of a serendipitous conversation, we were overlooking rolling hills and dreaming seatainer houses.
The following evening, fuelled by halloumi, quinoa salad, SMSs, Facebook Messenger, and a square-tabled conversation, we talked possibilities grand and small.
Somewhere in there, we got to perhaps the most relevant question of all: “Why?”.
Why would we do this? ‘Cause if the ‘why’ was different from one person to the next, we could have very different expectations for what ‘success’ looks like.
Your ‘why’ is a big deal. Whether it’s a geography, a job, a big decision, a passion, or a calling, the ‘why’ that underpins your ‘what’ is enormous. It reveals the heart.
On the Sunday just gone, we looked at Matthew 6:16-18, where Jesus talks about two ways we can exercise spiritual discipline: for God’s glory or our own. He highlights the way the Pharisees went about fasting and says ‘don’t do it like that’.
As we continue to work through ‘The Sermon’ at The Big Table, I’m constantly reminded that Jesus is forever concerned with the ‘why’. It’s at the heart of His differentiation between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The ‘what’ becomes irrelevant when it’s dislocated from a greater ‘why’ — it quickly becomes empty, self-indulgent, and not God-glorifying.
When the ‘why’ disappears (or was never enjoyed in the first place), the letter of the law will make you a slave. We quickly become antagonistic towards those sort of demands, like a tightening noose around our neck.
Jesus is talking to His followers up on the mountain, and he wants them to know something big and simple:
Your ‘what’ and ‘how’ is relevant, but it’s your ‘why’ that truly matters.
Our flesh has a tendency to sabotage our spirit by getting caught up in the ‘what’ and losing sight of the ‘why’. Jesus doesn’t want our propensity for poor motive to stop us pursuing pure motive — the ‘how’ of consecration — because He loves us and wants us closer to Him.
Jesus spends much of his ministry seeking to realign our thinking so we’d start thinking why, how and what, rather than what, how and (maybe) why.
A focus on ‘what’ is a focus on actions. When those actions are dislocated from our ‘why’, they have a habit of becoming legalistic and self-glorifying. When our ‘why’ comes first, those actions are a response or a pathway to our ‘why’ rather than potentially slavish expressions.
Jesus is concerned about our ‘why’ because when our actions aren’t for the purpose of bringing Him glory, we lose out.
The ‘why’ that Jesus wants us seeking is His Kingdom, His righteousness and God’s glory. Because, as we do, we discover who we are and what we’re living for. It’s for our benefit and our joy. When we don’t, we forfeit intimacy with God and each other.
The Pharisees had neglected God in the process of their righteous acts. They’d lost sight of the fact that fasting is intended to give us a God-directed heart: to build purity of heart, right motive and right attitudes.
He’s created us to enjoy our deepest satisfaction when we are in relationship with Him. The actions that he encourages are so that we can draw away from the worldly kingdom we inhabit and near to God and His Kingdom.
When James writes, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you,” it’s not a formula; it’s a reality. It’s the language of relationship. As you step towards a loving Father who desires intimacy with you, He says “it’s what I’ve always wanted.” It’s not conditional; it’s from a heart that unconditionally want to be in intimate relationship with us.
Why? Because life is found in Jesus.
Why? Because the creator of all life wants you in a fully restored relationship with Him and when we are there’s a whole lot of life going on.
How? By consecrating ourselves, bringing glory to Him, seeking first the kingdom of God and giving Him the glory.
What? Well, a whole bunch of things.
By the time we get to the ‘what’, though, we’re flowing out of the ‘why’ and ‘how’, and we’re operating out of response, not religion.
Law starts with ‘what’, grace starts with ‘why’.
Religion starts with ‘what’, relationship starts with ‘why’.
Our prayers and actions, Jesus goes on to say, should be pre-occupied with God and his kingdom, not us and ours. That’s their purpose: muting the noisiness of what surrounds us so we can hear more of God’s voice and His Kingdom can be revealed to us.
He’s saying: ‘If you never did it for God’s glory in the first place, don’t expect that you’ll receive the joy that comes from seeking God’s glory. You never were, so you’ll just be left with your vainglory’.
I’d love to say that sorting out this war between the flesh (for self-glory) and the spirit (for God’s glory) is a one-off event. My experience is that it’s commonplace. It’s well worth the wrestle, though. The reward for a heart that consecrates itself for His glory is more of Him. More joy. More love. More understanding of who we are in Him. More of a whole lot of really, really good things.
If you’re struggling with how fasting (or any spiritual discipline) might look for you, don’t talk yourself out of it, wrestle your ‘why’ right before God.
Does Jesus want you to seek Him? Yes.
That’s good news.
Does Jesus want you to pursue Him through disciplines of consecration? Yes.
Why, how, what. Always in that order.