Matt Bennett is founder and CEO of Christian Union, a Christian leadership development organization. A native of Houston, Texas, Matt earned B.S. and M.B.A. degrees from Cornell University and holds a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He resides in New York City.
I've got a question for you today. Can you have too much good fun? Can you have too much clean fun as a Christian, as long as you're doing something that's not sinful? Can it be too much and too far? I wonder how many messages you may have heard in your life about the sin of self-indulgence or the sin of being a lover of self. That's what we're looking at today. This is the third message. The first message was on the need for America to repent in light of the coronavirus, and then I'm going through six main sins of America. The first one, which was yesterday, the message was on not having a fear of God and the pride of human achievement. This message is on self-indulgence and being a lover of self and/or a lover of pleasure, something that's not talked about very much.
My name is Matt Bennett and I'm Founder and CEO of Christian Union. Our focus is Christian leadership development at a bunch of the most academically intense universities in the United States, as well as with adults in New York City, and through Day and Night across the country. And our focus is to help people become strong Christian leaders, which means knowing what pleases God and knowing His will and stepping into that. We're going to look at here, first of all, the fact that having fun is a good thing to do. There's nothing wrong with it. It's great. God enjoys it when we are enjoying ourselves. But then, we're going to look at the sin of self-indulgence and two aspects of that, parts of it that are crippling the American church, things that are setting us back so that we don't know God's ways. If we understand this and we repent of it, and change our lives, then we can be closer to God.
We can be more pleasing to Him than we would be otherwise. And as we're pleasing to Him, that means so often He'll pour forth His Holy Spirit. We will attract His presence to our lives, which could mean more of His Spirit's power for blessings in our lives, and perhaps revival, and non-Christians coming to faith, and all sorts of wonderful things. So understanding this is really key if we want to see more of the presence of God in our lives and in our families and in our country. So first of all, there's the reminder that God does want us to enjoy life and to enjoy good things, good food and family and experiences, and everything else. That's absolutely the case. And there's the stereotypical kind of Christian church that doesn't like to have any fun or do anything. You know, maybe a church doesn't allow dancing or something like that, even though dancing is in the Bible ... All those criticisms are illegitimate because God hasn't created a life for us to enjoy it.
I'm not going to spend too much on this part. I think most Christians in the United States understand this, and this is key for us to understand. It's wonderful to go out and enjoy all sorts of great things. To enjoy sports and playing sports, and going out to dinner, playing video games, getting on Facebook, enjoying TV, hiking, exercise ... A thousand different things that people do to enjoy their lives and to enjoy family and all the great gifts God has given us. Everything we do, do to the glory of God. We are to do and enjoy all these things. So that's a wonderful, wonderful, good thing for us to step into and to experience. So, the problem is, is when we do so much of those things that it squeezes out priorities of the living God. That is where the problem comes in. That's when we get into trouble.
We can't do these things to the exclusion of our responsibility to the living Lord. And this is ,true with other things. We may be a good husband and father or mother and we can enjoy life, but then if it takes away and we're no longer being a good spouse or a good parent, then that's a problem. Or we can enjoy life, but then we're no longer getting our work done and that can be a problem at work. So this applies to every other area as well. And it's the same with our living God. It's not as if we can do these things endlessly and if it encroaches upon the things that God wants us to do, that it can't cause us serious trouble . It can, and it has for the American church. Let me read 2 Timothy 3:1-5. It says, "But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty for people will be"—here it is—"lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure"—there's another reference to this "rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people."
Now I'm here in New York City. I live a few blocks from the Empire State Building. We have 105,000 cases of the coronavirus here and New York is just dead. It's totally different than the way it normally is. I only go out once per day. The streets are largely bare and stores are closed up and this sort of thing. A lot of the sports teams, of course the concerts, Broadway is closed, all these things are closed down and stuff. You see all these normal pleasures that are good pleasures to enjoy ... The going out to eat, all these things, they're all stripped away, they're all taken away.
Maybe perhaps the Lord has stripped them away because we won't strip them away for ourselves, and we need to have them stripped away. Not completely and absolutely, but just much less than what they normally are. Are we lovers of self? Are we lovers of pleasure? When it comes to being guilty of self-indulgence, I can think of two main ways for Christians to be guilty of this in the United States today. This comes from my own study of First Century Christianity, the history of the church throughout all of 2000 years. And then also my familiarity with the international church. There are very vibrant Christian churches and communities all over the world and far more than in the United States and the West. And they have a different way of looking at the world. So the first thing on self-indulgence I want to mention ... Let me read this passage in 1 Timothy 5:6. It says, she who is truly a widow left all alone, has set our hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day.
But she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Now what the apostle Paul is doing here is telling the church under what conditions can a widow get financial help. So he's laying it out pretty clear, and there are a number of things that she needs to be faithful to if she's going to get financial help from the church. Now, this one here is often kind of passed over pretty quickly, but it's really fascinating. It says, "she who is truly a widow left all alone, has set her hope on God, and continues and supplications and prayers and night and day," and then the contrast to that is, "but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives." Now, what you have to a little research to find out is the prayer practices in the first century. And in the first century, what Christians did universally, not just in Jerusalem, but everywhere, was they prayed morning and evening at the time of the morning and evening temple sacrifice.
Usually they'd go up to the temple if they were in Jerusalem. If they were in other cities, they'd go to synagogues or do something else. They'd all do this. Now sometimes they'd also pray at noon. Sometimes they'd also pray early in the morning, even late at night, they would have. So they would have multiple set times of prayer and listening to the scriptures taught, and worship as well, always twice a day. Now you think about that and you contrast that in America and in America maybe a Christian may have 10 or 15 minutes of reading the Bible once per day . That was not the pattern. Not only is it not the pattern of the first century, but through the ages, and even in the international church, they do much more than that. It's really, really remarkably different. I think of even William Wilberforce, who is always held up as this great Christian and he was a great Christian because he abolished the slave trade for the British empire.
He and a group of friends, just labored for 40 years for this. It was amazing. But what also is amazing is that he and his Christian friends—a Christian historian says of those folks in those days—that "like all evangelicals, they were very faithful to their prayer times." They prayed 5:00 AM to 6:00 AM, noon to 1:00, and 5:00 PM to 6:00 PM, every day. This was their life. Even today, you have societies that seek to hold up Wilberforce as a great example of what we should do in our society. And he is, but we have to have the spiritual power. You have to have communion with the living God by listening to the scriptures, and having your mind renewed, and reading them, by praying and asking God to do the extraordinary, and listening to Him. That changes things for the Christian. That brings a filling of the Spirit. It brings a Christ-mindedness.
You can't be what you are called to be without these times with God. And from the first century it was always at least twice a day. And as best we can tell, they lasted somewhere from about 30 minutes to about 90 minutes in length. This is what's needed to be strong in the Lord. I was sharing this with a friend, an international church in Uganda who is a revivalist there, and he smiles because there's a lot of passages in the scriptures that that hit at this. But you have to kind of know the background to know what they're saying. And he smiles and he says "there's not a Christian in Uganda who does not know this and does not live this way." I think also of our ministry—one of our ministries at Princeton University—and some of the international students who are here from other countries. One from Africa, this student's parents would call every single night to pray with him before they go to bed, in addition to his morning devotions.
This is normal and so much of the rest of the world, and it used to be normal in the West's history, but we've forgotten it. We've dumbed it down. We don't do,it anymore. We're self-indulgent, we're busy doing these other things and now we don't have the power. We don't have the strength. We don't have the faith. Well this is why we're not communing with our living God. Of course we need to be humble when we do it, and repent of our sins, but when we do that power gets released in our lives. We know what the Lord wants, we understand and things happen in the spiritual realm. So we are self-indulgent as a nation. We don't have time to have morning and evening devotionals. Families should be having them together every night. Nothing better can bring your family together. Truly remarkable. And then to have them perhaps as a family in the morning, or on your own, or whatever else.
Some people will set up phone calls. I do that at different times of the week, either morning or evening phone calls with friends to make sure I have those times of devotion. People do it in different ways to help you succeed in this. Even in American history—I mean not even 20 years ago—most churches had a Wednesday night service, and maybe two services on Sunday that people would go to, but largely that's all gone. So, we're in a dire state. We think it doesn't make a difference, and it makes an enormous difference. We don't know the scriptures as a result of it. We know don't know the mind of God. We don't have the Spirit's filling and His power. So that is one of the main ways in which the Western church is self-indulgent. We no longer seek Him as He requires. There are many more passages in the New Testament that show this pattern of morning and evening prayers.
One I'll mention quickly is Acts 3:1, when it says they're going up to the temple, it says that "the hour of prayer," and that's when they healed the cripple. Remember that story? Acts 3:1 was the hour prayer because that's when everybody went up to pra. There's more in the New Testament. But let's move on to the second issue.
The second way in which the American church is self-indulgent is the area of fasting. The church in its history would fast, the international church fasts, and in American church don't fast much at all, don't even know that it's something that's needed or expected of Christians, but it's very much needed. In the first century, we know this from the Didache, a document written in the first century. Christians fasted Wednesdays and Fridays. That was the normal thing that Christians did.
They didn't want to do it on Mondays and Thursdays. They did it.. did I say Wednesdays and Fridays? They did it Wednesdays and Fridays. They didn't do it Mondays and Thursdays because that's when the hypocrites did it. That is the religious Jewish leaders at the time,and they didn't want to be part of that. So they did it Wednesdays and Fridays, but they fasted Wednesdays and Fridays. This was a normal practice for Christians. Deuteronomy 8:3—this is what Jesus quotes when He was tempted during his 40 day fast—He says, "and he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord." When we fast and go without food, it does something spiritually in us.
It helps humble us and it makes us learn in a deeper way that words alone can't convey, that we need God. And our prayers are more powerful. They're more anointed. Things are different. You can sense it. People I know who fast say they sense the spiritual difference when they are fasting. This is what we need to do, and by the way, fasting means going without food. Sometimes there's confusion because we use the word sometimes to mean refraining—like, I'm going to refrain from TV—and that might be exactly what God wants you to do, but that's not what the Bible means by fasting. It never meant that, of course. Who has a TV in those days? It always meant to be hungry. Sometimes people will use the word to reference a special diet. I'll eat this, and not this. It's not used that way in the Bible.
Now in the Bible, there are times when special diets are called ,on like the Nazarite vow and other situations. So there may be a situation in which God will have you have a certain diet. However, the word fasting is never used both in Greek and Hebrew of those situations. It's only used when you're hungry. And so fasting means going without food. So it means maybe having just one meal a day, maybe going several days without food. It's a longer subject. There's a lot of great resources on Christian Union Day and Night website. But Jesus affirmed this passage. It says in Matthew 6:16-18. It says, "and when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces, that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward, but when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others, but by your father who is in secret, and your father who sees in secret will reward you."
So this passage emphasizes a motivation for fasting. It shouldn't be done so that people can see how righteous you are, but it still should be done. Jesus is telling you how it should be done, not that it shouldn't be done. So it needs to be done with the right motives. And if you have wrong motives, simply repent of them and fast. It's what Christians are to do. Here's another passage in Matthew 9:14-15: "Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast? And Jesus said to them, can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." So Jesus promised and assured that after He died, Christians would fast. And indeed that's what happened.
This is affirmed in Acts 9:8-9 and Acts 13:1-3 and 14:23 and even in 1 Corinthians. Christians fasted, and it's what they've done for thousands of years. It's what Christians do in the international church. I was recently overseas witnessing this revival some time ago, some months ago in May, and talking to a leader there—this is in the Fiji islands and we went to village to village where they're having revival—and so he's asked me, as I was telling about American spirituality, he said to me, he says, "so in America, if a pastor calls a 40 day fast, the people won't do it?" I said, "Not only the people may not do it, they might fire him or get rid of him," and he was astonished. Now, of course there are some exceptions. Praise God for that. Thank the Lord, and you may be a part of a church or you might be a Christian minister who has an exception, but it is a Christian leader's responsibility to call people to fast and seek the Lord.
Wednesdays and Fridays is a great idea. It's part of my normal life, but then for a longer fast, three days, five days, seven days ... There are fasts as long as 120 days in the Bible, and 70 days in the Bible. This is part of the Christian life. It helps you to be spiritually strong. It is needed. In the West, we have so much provided for, that we can feel like we don't need God, so we need this practice to help remind us and take down in a deep way that yes, yes, yes, we need the living God. Fasting is fantastic for us. I remember these African Christians some years ago, they said, "we never want to live in America. You don't need God for anything." It's not wrong to have all these pleasures and these things supplied for us, but God has given us a tool so that they don't take away our first love for the Lord. So that we stay strong in Him, and so we want to tap into that, and fasting is a means to do it.
Of course, you could fast and be proud and self righteous like the Pharisees and get no benefit from it. That's not the point. But if you go in with a desire to draw close to the Lord and to be humble before Him, it's absolutely needed to be strong in Him. So, we don't fast now, and as I talk to many Christians, they are horrified at the idea because to go a day or few days without food is just very hard. But God will help. There's a lot of great resources on dayandnight.org, Christian Union's website to help you get started and succeed in this. We need this. We need to repent of being self-indulgent in regards to not fasting and to not having our morning and evening devotionals, not to mention other times where we have longer times ... All night prayer once in a while, or other long extended times of prayer.
We need this to be strong. And I know a lot of people need teaching on this. We have a lot of resources related to this on dayandight.org website, because it can be hard for people, and it is a process. But for those of you who have ever done a marathon—not me by the way, I did a half marathon and until I get the resurrected body, that's it—but you work up to it over time. It's not like I'm going to run the marathon tomorrow, and you do it, but you run a little longer, you run a little bit longer, and you get there. And so if your life has not been marked by much prayer and Bible reading or much fasting, God will help you, and bit by bit you can get there. And so you can have the dynamism and the power, and the strength that you want to be an influence instead of being overwhelmed by the society and all the godless things in American society. You can be an agent of change in the world around you. This is what we teach at our universities where we minister. It's what we teach in New York, and now we teach through our website dayandnight.org.
So may the Lord bless you. May He give you strength, may He give you faith to believe these things. He will help you to overcome the self-indulgence. The first step is simply to repent and say "Lord, forgive me for my self indulgence in these matters. And Lord, I repent on behalf of America for our self indulgence. You've given us so much, and instead of limiting these things, even though they're fine things, I've just indulged and I've taken a life for those things. What we've done, Jeremiah 2:13 says, is that we have neglected and set aside the fountain of life, fountain of living waters. And instead, we've hewed out cisterns for ourselves. Broken cisterns that can hold no water. Jeremiah 2:13, please look it up. So may the Lord bless you. This is the second sin of the six sins that America needs to repent of. The Lord bless you.