I had my first fast when I was six years old. I remember it because of how excited I was leading up to it. I wanted to do this. I was going to do a Special Thing that only grownups did. For a six-year-old, that’s like sneaking into some highbrow club where you know you don’t belong and having everyone treat you like an actual member.
I also remember it because I spent most of services lying on the floor, my eyes drifting lazily across our brightly colored quilt, quietly wondering if this is what death felt like. (That was, coincidentally, also the day I learned that not all Special Things that grownups do are actually Fun Special Things. But I digress.)
A lot of things have changed since then, but my inability to gracefully make it through the 24 hours of Atonement has not. On the outside, I might look like a grown adult sitting respectfully through services, but internally I’m that same six-year-old boy sprawling across a quilt, wondering how my body’s internal systems can possibly function for one more minute, much less another five hours.
(Look, I like food, okay?)
It’s a tough day for me. The minute the sun dips below that horizon and the countdown begins, my stomach starts sending red alerts to my brain—alerts that inform me, in no particular order:
- I’m thirsty.
- I’m starving.
- This is the end of all things.
Atonement is, of course, packed with meaning. It’s a day God commands us to “humble your souls” (Leviticus 16:29, New American Standard Bible)—a day we can reflect very literally on Christ’s assertion that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
It’s a day that reminds us (Leviticus 16:21-22) of a moment the world needs desperately—the binding of our enemy, “that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan” (Revelation 20:2). For a thousand years, he’ll be powerless to deceive the world; powerless to muddy the waters and lure mankind onto a course of self-destruction.
It’s also a day that reminds us again about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and what it cost to reconcile us (and, one day, the whole world) to God the Father (Leviticus 16:15-16).
It’s a day of many meanings—but as the day of Atonement ticks onward and I will my eyes to stay open and my stomach to be silent, I think this feast of God carries another message for me, courtesy of the apostle Paul:
“I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” (Philippians 4:11).
* * *
That’s a tough one for me. I tend to want. No matter the subject, it’s easy for me to imagine how something could be bigger, better, more exciting. Faced with the difference between reality and my own imaginings, I develop an itch that I have no means to scratch. What I have—which was fine just moments ago—becomes “not as good as it could be.” What should be a blessing becomes depressing as I switch my focus from what I’ve gained and onto what’s missing. (For those of you keeping track at home, that’s pretty much the exact opposite of contentment.)
Atonement is a day I generally find myself wondering not whether I should eat a whole pizza after sundown, but how many whole pizzas I should eat after sundown. I try to study, I try to focus, but the rumblings of my stomach are a jarring and continual reminder of what’s missing.
And then along comes Paul, talking about contentment, pulling the rug out from under my feet. Paul, who had been through shipwrecks and beatings, who had been stoned and imprisoned and insulted and ridiculed—that Paul told the Philippians, “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Philippians 4:12).
Contentment has nothing to do with fulfilling our needs and desires. Being content in whatever state we are means being content even when those needs and desires are decidedly not being met.
And that’s hard.
It’s hard whether those needs and desires include two extra-large pizzas or a burning desire to not be floating in the Adriatic Sea, clinging to bits of a broken ship while soldiers talk openly about killing you (Acts 27:27, 41-44). (To be fair, one of those is definitely a more trying situation than the other, but I’m sure being shipwrecked is pretty stressful too.) But Paul had a secret to his contentment:
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
For Paul, it was never about the moment—good or bad, blessing or trial, his focus was on “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). When he looked at the things in his life that were missing, the things he’d lost along the way, he declared, “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).
The one thing in Paul’s life that truly mattered was his destination. He could be content during the shipwrecks—real or metaphorical—because he knew where he was heading.
* * *
Contentment as a theme is woven into the DNA of Atonement. Of the two goats in Leviticus 16, one of them pictures a being who “said in [his] heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God … I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High'” (Isaiah 14:13-14).
The other goat pictures a Being “who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:23-24).
Even as “the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12), Satan was not content. He saw only what He didn’t have—the very throne of God. That discontentment corrupted him and shaped him into the adversary of God and His people.
Jesus, on the other hand, “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
When we fast, we remember who and what we are before God. We “humble our souls” as we realize how dependent we are on Him in every aspect of our lives. And as we do that, we have the perfect opportunity to practice contentment—to pause, in the middle of our hunger and discomfort, and give God thanks for who He is and what He’s doing in our lives.
In whatever state we are, God’s promises give us a lot to be content about.
Until next time,