IN Psalm 43, the Psalmist compares a longing for God to a deer’s need for the fresh, cool water of a brook. The image his words paint is that of a panting animal, struggling and lacking in resources, which comes to a source of relief and receives it joyfully.
For those of us who have a Christian faith – as, indeed, for many other people of faith – this is how an encounter with God can feel.
Often, we recognise our need for God and we seek the divine presence in prayer and praise.
Other times, God can seem so remote that we forget that we have a need, and that longing is projected elsewhere. When we forget our urgent need for God, we find that we fill the spaces of our lives with other, more earthly, desires.
In our modern world, the distractions and false promises are manifold. From the moment we wake in the morning to the very end of the day, we receive messages from the world.
Think of all the advertisements you have seen today, the promises they make of fulfilment, happiness, and long life with the simple application of money.
This promised lifestyle is truly tempting. As fallible humans, we have always been tempted towards symbols of status and outward markers of success. Adverts have become a form of entertainment and a source of enjoyment in their own right.
On my Facebook news feed this morning, mixed in with the usual pictures of cats and Candy Crush high scores, my friends shared a biscuit advert starring some beautiful kittens, a car advert showcasing the dance moves of a chicken, and one claiming that a carbonated drink unites a diverse nation.
Whilst advertising was once a nuisance to be tolerated, it has become an art-form that is admired and shared, and with it we are absorbing the messages of a consumerist society: that want is good, and that buying a product will make it all better.]
It is all too easy to fall into a trap of continuing to fill the emptiness we all feel within ourselves with the things of the world.
So when Christians observe a time of abstinence and fasting during Lent, this is not simply about revamping our New Year’s resolutions – long since fallen by the wayside – or beginning the diet we all feel compelled to follow before opening our summer wardrobes.
Abstinence from something of the world that gives us pleasure forces each and every one of us to confront the emptiness that we have been trying to fill with the world. When the pleasures of the world are removed, all that is left is to seek the face of God. When we empty ourselves, we allow the still, small voice of God to resonate with us and within our lives.
There is a challenge in this for all of us – whatever our faith or belief position – to be more critical in our engagement with the promises of the world.
To take a deep breath in the face of our desires for the material things of the world and ask, why? Why is it that this treat, this luxury, this material thing is what I want right now? Does the wish for it represent some deeper need? Could I do without, or could I use my resources differently?
When we abstain from something that brings us pleasure, it is not something that must be punishing. Rather, it is an opportunity to reflect and to make a small change in our lives, and it can represent a small rebellion against the wills and seductions of the world.
I hope your Lenten fast – whatever it may be – brings you joy.