If you want to be a joyful person who loves life, afflict your soul. Most people go through life trying to make themselves happy. Those are the most miserable people you’ll meet. Nothing can be done fast enough, they didn’t get enough, it wasn’t cool enough, and so on. Raise self-pleasing kids and you will regret ever knowing them once they are adults.
God designated a special day for the followers of Moses to afflict their souls: the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29). This specifically meant that they were to fast—go without eating in recognition of their sin. It was a solemn day. No feasting, no pleasure seeking, no me-centeredness. They were to humble themselves before God.
Should you beat yourself up?
Some people are pros at self-affliction. They call themselves idiots and say, “I’m worthless.” However, I am sure this is not what God had in mind. To afflict themselves, people wouldn’t eat or drink all day—called fasting. Then, they went further in making themselves miserable by wearing rough burlap cloth, sitting in ashes, and doing other unsavory actions. Soon, it became an extreme sport to see how you were afflicting yourself better than the next guy. People would show off the fact that they were fasting and brag about how much they had sacrificed.
If your level of self-affliction becomes a matter of pride, doesn’t it defeat the purpose? Absolutely. God said He would not accept this nonsense. He said this would not be a competition of how much misery a person could put on himself. Nor would he receive the fasting of a person who found other forms of pleasure while supposedly afflicting himself. You cannot fast and humble yourself while fighting with someone else or taking advantage of others. See Isaiah 58:3-5.
People usually afflict others
Many people suffer from something called “small-man syndrome” wherein they put others down in order to make themselves feel good. This moral flaw assumes that if you can make everyone else look bad, you will look good. Small men (and women) cut others down beneath themselves rather than concentrate on growing their own character to actually be bigger than others. It is easier to deconstruct others than to reconstruct self.
Flip this around and you will have the right grasp of afflicting yourself.
Self-affliction is not a pursuit you can do alone. You cannot whip, cut, or otherwise abuse yourself enough to receive God’s favor. Fasting is a “so that” behavior. You fast from your normal meals “so that” you can feed those who have no food. You give up nice clothing so that you can give to those who have none. You give up pleasure seeking and try to make someone else’s day enjoyable. See that? Instead of focusing on your own misery, you focus on a needy person’s joy.
How to make yourself little
How do you afflict yourself? By not focusing on yourself at all. You afflict yourself by taking away another’s affliction. Does a child not have a dad or mom to spend money on him? Take him to Chuck E. Cheese yourself. Does an elderly person not have anyone to visit him or her in the nursing home? You be her child; you be her family. Know someone who needs groceries? Go buy them some. Speak words of encouragement to someone struggling. Pay a bill for someone feeling like they are going underwater financially.
This is how you get heaven’s attention. God will not resist the prayers of people who fast, pray, and give generously to those in need (Matthew 6). Do you want to see miracles and the supernatural power of God? Help the poor, give to those in need, and so afflict your soul!
You humble yourself by lifting others up.