There is great power in fire. We see that every year when destructive forest fires sweep across portions of our country. But there are benefits from forest fires, too. As it burns, a forest fire consumes the underbrush and opens the canopy to allow more sunlight through, permitting new growth.
An experiment at Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, Florida proves this. When 23 acres of land were protected from natural forest fires for four decades, plant diversity fell by 90 percent and one species of bird, the red-cockaded woodpecker, disappeared entirely. In order to thrive, this ecosystem needed fire.
During Lent, we too have a chance to reduce undergrowth that gets in the way of our inner life. There is power in certain spiritual disciplines that “open up the canopy” to allow light into our lives.
Jesus specifically mentions three disciplines—alms-giving, prayer, and fasting—that have the power to transform our lives, if practiced in the right way.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues ….” Jesus had a special place in his heart for the poor. So it’s no surprise when Jesus lifts up the instruction to give alms. But he warns us to be careful of our motives. Whether our motives for giving are good or not, the poor are helped. But Jesus unapologetically speaks of rewards, either given by others in this life — “so they may be seen by others,” and that alone is our reward — or given by God — “so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
An Ohio pastor tells of a member of his church who practiced giving alms in the right way. David was a farmer who, when natural gas was found on his property, suddenly had a new source of income.
Rather than hoard the money or show off his new wealth, David began an intentional pattern of quiet giving. David asked his pastor to be on the lookout for people who needed help. In complete anonymity, rent and mortgage payments were made at just the right time. Grocery gift cards showed up in the mail. Families had Christmas gifts for their children. And no one ever knew where those gifts of love came from.
David wanted, and got, sworn secrecy from those who helped him find the ones most in need. The glory went to God.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to … be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room … and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
When it is sincere communication with our Father in heaven, prayer opens up an amazing source of power. We pray to God, who “knows what we need before we ask.” This, of course, prompts the question, “If God already knows what I need, why do I need to ask him for it?”
The answer is as simple as communication in any relationship: How often should you tell your spouse you love them? Shouldn’t they know it? Why should you call your aging parents? Don’t they already know the sound of your voice?
God wants us to be in communication with him — it strengthens the relationship and reminds us how much we need God in all of life.
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
While there are obvious benefits in helping the poor and in praying to God, the appeal of fasting isn’t nearly as clear. It may be the least practiced of all the spiritual disciplines. “You’re doing what?” our friends or family may ask.
In his classic book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster wrote: “In a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of place, out of step with the times.”
Foster goes on to say, “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.”
Whatever we give up must be given with an appropriate heart—we can’t whine to our neighbors about what we’re missing, nor crow about what we have the strength to fast from. We observe Lent to center ourselves on God, not on likes or applause.
Jesus lifted up these three important disciplines while reminding us that our Father in heaven knows our hearts and knows our focus.
A final thought: it’s not just forests that are improved through the power of fire. Fire is also the invaluable tool in refining metals. A silversmith, for example, knows the metal he is working with is purified when it becomes reflective and he can see his own image in it. Malachi 3:3 says of God, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”
God is the refiner who will keep his eye on you. As we enter the season of Lent, may our prayer be for God to see His image in us.
Pastor Steve Hall