Ramadan, or ‘fasting month’, is in full swing here in Indonesia and all over the world for Cousins. I can tell it’s fasting month- there are curtains drawn over all the windows of Starbucks where I’m sitting so people outside aren’t tempted by the food and drinks inside. Restaurants all over Indonesia are covered up like this during Ramadan.
Kim and I always try to participate in fasting month in one way or another. We pray, we fast, we talk with our neighbors about fasting, etc. It’s a unique time to talk about God and connect with Him deeper. We also try to make a point to involve our partners back home too by sending out daily and weekly prayer requests and updates. Kim’s been good at designing prayer guides and calendars over the last few years for those that want to participate on a regular basis.
I’ve noticed in a lot of our correspondence (and I think a lot of Believers do this) it’s sometimes easy to criticize or condemn Cousins during this time. This month demonstrates the extent that Cousins will go to follow the rules, but have they lost the heart behind it? How heartfelt can it be to pray the same prayer five times a day every day? As a Believer it’s hard for me to see the value in such repetition.
We need help loving and worshiping God. We oftentimes don’t know how to love and worship God even though our hearts want to.
I was thinking lately though that I might be a little wrong in my understanding of these practices. I’m starting to think that there might be more to these rituals than meets the eye. We’re quick to dismiss Cousins as having lost the meaning behind their words and prayers due to mindless repetition. But if you think about it, Believers do this too- to a certain extent. Believers also have repetition and patterns in the way we worship and connect with God. Some examples: the “Lord’s Prayer”. This is a memorized prayer typically recited on a weekly basis. It remind us of who God is and the kinds of things we should ask for (your kingdom come, your will be done, give us this day. . . ). Also, think about worship music. Aren’t all the songs we sing a form of repetitive devotion? Obviously we don’t walk into church on Sunday morning and make up brand new songs every week. Are we worshiping any less from the heart because we sing the same song two weeks in a row? No, songs have new energy and meaning every time we sing them even though the words don’t change.
Which is what leads me to say that most religious practices and traditions aren’t necessarily bad things in and of themselves. It helps guide our worship. It gives us structure. And really, we need help loving and worshiping God. It doesn’t come to us naturally. We oftentimes don’t know how to love and worship God even though our hearts want to. That’s why we have many of the traditions we do. They give shape and structure to our worship so that our hearts can connect with God more quickly and easily.
Now apply this principle to fasting month. If structure and patterns aren’t inherently bad and can even help us, why do Cousins need extra prayer during this time? The problem is not that they fast and pray. The problem is not that they devote so much time (a whole month) to pursuing God. The problem is that they think they will get to God by these means.
I was reminded of this conflict (between our works and God’s work) while reading Galatians this morning. Galatians is a great book to read if you want to know the difference between religious duty (works) and the freedoms we have through faith in Christ. Seemed like a pretty relevant book to read during fasting month! Galatians chapter 3 explains that God declared Abraham justified because he had faith in God. He believed God’s promises. God declared righteousness through faith and then Moses and the law came. In other words, faith came before works. Galatians 3:19 says:
“What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.”
And Galatians 3:23-25 says, “Before this faith (in Jesus) came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.”
So the law was established because of transgressions (sin) and “to lead us to Christ!” It points us to Him while giving us a framework for godly living. The crucial point here is “now that faith has come we are no longer under the supervision (or mandate) of the law” vs. 25. We’re no longer under the jurisdiction of the law. According to these passages faith is the only thing that’s required!
Here in Indonesia, and all over the world, Cousins are told that their prayers and good deeds this month will take away their sin and make them right before God. They’re trying to tip the divine scale in their favor and become justified by their works. But in doing this their deeds becomes an end in itself and faith (in Christ) is completely ignored. Prayer, fasting, etc. is no longer just a framework to guide praise and devotion. It becomes what they’re counting on for salvation, and according to the scriptures this is a serious error!
This is why Cousins need our prayers this month. Let’s pray that as they’re praying they would meet the One who could truly set their hearts free.