As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God. Where can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42)
What a beautiful, captivating image, this deer that thirsts for streams of water. I want my soul to likewise pant for my God. But there are so many other things that it thirsts for instead.
Last week as I rummaged through my cupboards for a chocolate fix, I jokingly thought that I should personalize this imagery. As I incessantly crave pieces of rich, smooth chocolate, so my soul longs for you, my God.
But a question soon followed that thought. Do I actually crave God that much? I mean, yes, if you gave me the choice between God and chocolate, no contest. But practically speaking, if I examine my thoughts, my longings, the many things that I turn to for satisfaction throughout the day, do I long for God like I long for them?
The pull of our instant-access life is incessant and insatiable.
It’s uncomfortable to admit, but the things that overwhelm my thirst for God are idols. Perhaps they are just small things, but idols are not defined by their size.
The tragedy of idols is that they distract us from an undivided pursuit of God. In holding onto them, we do more than disrespect God; we forfeit His grace in our lives. From the belly of the fish, Jonah declared, those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. (NIV, 1984)
Indeed, I cling, wrapping my fingers tightly around each little idol, thinking that perhaps such a small thing, hidden within the palm of my hand, is not that significant after-all.
But fingers clutched into a fist mean that my hands are not open to receive the grace that God would like to pour into my life.
So I am left to wonder, what graces have I needlessly forfeited by calling these idols “distractions” or “indulgences” instead of they are? What will I miss if I continue to refuse to empty my hands?
* * *
The day last week when I was rummaging through my cupboards thinking about deer and water, chocolate and idols, I realized it was Ash Wednesday. I have never attended a church that actively observed Lent, but for the past few years I have wanted to participate in its observance. But it was usually nearing Palm Sunday by the time I realized I “missed” it, so I would simply resolve to pay closer attention to my calendar next year to be able to partake in this season of fasting that today I see how desperately I need.
Fasting helps us to surrender our idols to God.
Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.
Fasting redirects our hungers, suppresses our hunger for temporal things and focuses it on the eternal.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Fasting forces us to practice the discipline of denying ourselves to focus on Him.
Deny yourself and follow me.
We Americans aren’t in a habit of denying ourselves the things we desire. Perhaps as followers of Christ we have learned to deny flagrant sins, but our lives are mostly characterized by a pattern of desire and fulfillment, rather than desire and denial.
Denial in and of itself is not the goal.
Christ is the goal: To become like Him (He who denied himself even unto the cross), to know Him more, to serve others in the power of His love.
Lent is a season for denying ourselves so that our thirst will become refined—when we feel the thirst for these idols that we permit in our lives and we say no, I do not need to satisfy that thirst; then the real thirst, the thirst for the Living God, becomes stronger.
* * *
I always thought that the first time I observed Lent I would fast a particular food or meal, or perhaps social media. But I realize that what I personally need to do is to fast compulsive behaviors: all the things that my mind recognizes as a “thirst” that I immediately (and unquestioningly) seek to quench. Instead, when the thirst for these lesser things is overwhelming my thoughts, I want to turn the beginning of Psalm 42 into my prayer:
Lord make my thirst for You stronger than my thirst for anything in this world. You alone satisfy!
* * *
I pray that if you, too, find that your fingers are clenched tightly around an idol—large or small—that you would have the strength to deny yourself, deny the hunger and thirst for those idols, and turn instead to the Living God. I believe we’ll both find that it’s Him we’ve been thirsting for all along.