Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about discipline. No, I’m not talking about spanking or time outs. Don’t expect a post about the joys of corporal punishment. I mean discipline in the spiritual sense, the type that makes you Jesus’ “disciple” and brings you closer to God.
Last Friday and Saturday, Jews everywhere observed Yom Kippur, their highest holy day. Normally, the day goes pretty much as usual for me. I might offer some extra prayers for the Jewish people I know, or I might plead for peace in Israel that day (historically, it’s been a big day for attacks). But aside from that, it’s life as usual.
That morning, God surprised me with a gentle nudging. He wanted me to fast alongside the Jews on this special day.
I have a history with fasting, and it’s not a pretty one. In college, I tried a couple of times to go 24 hours without food, usually because I was praying about something important. I’d get really cranky and wouldn’t leave my bunk bed very often. Everyone around me couldn’t stand my attitude. I never made it the whole 24 hours. So much for a spiritual exercise that was supposed to make me closer to God.
I’ve made small improvements in fasting since then, especially since I’ve learned to Lent. During this 40 day period before Easter, believers often engage in a form of fasting that doesn’t necessarily include abstinence from food. Through Lent, I’ve discovered more about the purpose of fasting, how it’s not so much about following the letter of the law as it is about willful sacrifice, submission, and whipping your will into shape for God.
So, when God asked me to do the Yom Kippur fast, I made certain I heard him correctly. “God, do you remember what happened last time I did that? I didn’t leave the couch all day and just about bit Dan’s head off.” God’s got a decent memory. I’m sure he remembered. He still wanted me to do it.
In his highly acclaimed book The Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster explains how spiritual disciplines, like fasting, help us grow closer to God: “The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us” (6). I like to visualize the disciplines as a means of getting myself off a pedestal and onto God’s workbench. When I practice the disciplines, I am saying to God, “Here I am, change me, make me yours.”
From sundown on Friday until Sundown on Saturday, I didn’t eat anything. As expected, I wasn’t exactly perky. I spent a lot of time on the couch, and took a couple naps. I tried to understand why God chose this day, of all days, for a fast. I studied and meditated on the biblical passages about Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16 & 23:26-32). I even listed to a radio station broadcasting a cantor singing the Yom Kippur prayers, which were dirge-like and mournful.
On this day, Jews are repenting of their sins before God. It’s their last chance for the year, before the scroll of life gets sealed, for them to plead with God for a good year. On this day, according to Jewish tradition, God determines who will live, who will die, who will have a good year, and who will have a bad one.
They fast, they pray, they repent individually and corporately of every sin known and unknown. Before the temple was destroyed in AD 70, the High Priest used to enter the Holy of Holies and offer a sacrifice over the Ark of the Covenant for the people. He’d also release a symbolic goat, what we know as the “scapegoat,” to represent the sins and guilt that had been removed.
As Christians, we know that Jesus came as our High Priest to intercede for us before God. He is the ultimate sacrifice, one for all time. He is both the sacrifice within the Holy of Holies and the scapegoat who removes our guilt. We don’t need to offer a sacrifice each year because Jesus did it once and for all, and by believing in him, our name is written in an eternal book of life.
As I observed the Day of Atonement, I joined millions in reflecting on my own sins. Even though our sins have been wiped away by Jesus’ sacrifice, I think Christians could benefit from their own day of corporate repentance. We are sinful creatures who continue to do sinful things. I take for granted the fact that I’m forgiven, and I forget to seek forgiveness daily.
Having one day to somberly reflect on the ways that I fall short, and the God who is so great to forgive me, I recognized the power of deep, unrestricted repentance. I was humbled, and God was glorified. I got off my pedestal, and hopped onto his workbench, ready for change.