I walked into the living room after three weeks away from my dog, and I can’t lie, I was hoping for a little excitement from him.
Instead, he was eating fruit out of the hand of the seven-year-old. “Look, I can make him dance!” he said, showing off my dog’s tricks to me.
“What are you feeding him?” the mom asked.
“A peach!” the boy said, excited for my reaction. “But it’s ok, it went bad. And guess what! Yesterday we gave him a pizza!”
“Wait…you gave him a pizza?” I asked, surprised.
“Yeah! It was pineapple and bacon. He LOVED it!”
I watched my dog follow the boy as he knew more food would come from his hand. “Yeah he’s gotten pretty comfortable here…he’s started taking food right off the baby’s plate,” the mom told me, laughing.
Now let me preface the rest of this by saying this: when people are kind enough to offer to house my mangy dog while I go on vacation, I don’t care what you do with him. You can feed him farm-to-table filet mignon off of a china plate for all I care. But when he comes home, he has to re-learn that he is a dog.
I don’t want a dog that begs, and I certainly don’t want a dog that thinks he has the right to eat food off a guest’s plate. So I knew walking out of the house that day he would have to re-learn his place. Dog food only. He wouldn’t even be invited to pick up after me as far as the kitchen floor is concerned. The problem wasn’t that the food would damage my dog’s health. He can eat it and be fine. It certainly adds some joy to his life. But he had forgotten his place.
As I thought about this, I thought about fasting. Fasting has always been a mystery to me – what is the point? What does it gain me? Is it going on a hunger-strike to force the hand of God? I’m not sure. So I haven’t done it very often.
But as I watched my dog eat a juicy peach from the hand of a seven-year-old, a new understanding struck me. Our flesh is quick to forget its place. Our flesh is quick to grubbily steal from any plate it chooses, preferring the pathetic taste of a cold pizza crust over the daily disciplined eating of that which nourishes us. It would much rather take as it wishes rather than allowing the spirit to reign it in.
But the flesh is not the master any longer. Paul says, everything is permissible for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. And this is what the flesh does – it starts with what is permissible and it shortly forgets who the master is. It starts with a true gratitude of the pleasures of this world but, without proper discipline, it turns to greed and entitlement.
My flesh is a whiny, badly behaved three-year-old who throws tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. She likes to have what she wants now – whether that means eating when I’m not hungry, spending money I don’t have, telling small lies, or secretly thinking of myself as above others. These things – these ugly parts of my heart, these things I hate – these are part of me. I am only transformed by the patient grace of Jesus. No amount of fasting (or anything else I do) can earn me salvation or righteousness. But sin is my default – it’s where my flesh wants to return constantly. And without discipline, without careful attention, without constant realignment with my Savior, these ugly things become who I am. I have to continually teach my flesh who is boss – and sometimes that means going back to the nourishing necessities and reminding myself in tangible ways whose I am.
When I walked into the living room after three weeks away from my dog, he had no joy in seeing his master, because he was feeding on things he shouldn’t eat. In the same way, I so often don’t even notice the beautiful presence of God because of my frantic desire to take what I want, when I want it. As if the good gifts He gives me will ever run out or cease to be spectacular. Fasting is a constant reminder that good discipline allows us to take great pleasure in small beautiful gifts rather than feeding on an endless supply of lesser things.