Lent & Fasting Part II

Lent & Fasting Part II

John Haralson   •   February 5, 2018

For centuries, a large portion of the church has followed the church calendar. By following the church calendar, congregations have sought to orient their lives around the life and ministry of Jesus.

Lent is the 40 days of the year preceding Easter Sunday. It is a season of fasting, testing, solitude with God and prayer. It is patterned on the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry.

Originally, the season of Lent was a period of preparing new Christians for baptism. Eventually, Lent became a season where all Christians could once again “enter into the wilderness” by observing the spiritual disciplines associated with the season.

Although the Bible does not mandate that we observe the season of Lent, there is ample wisdom in this regular rhythm. The reality is that many of us become far too comfortable in our lives (this is particularly true in the affluent west). Lent is a time when we intentionally detach ourselves from the comforts and pleasures of this life in order that we might once again remind ourselves that this world is not our home. Rather, as the author of Hebrews says, “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:14)

Lent & Fasting

This year during Lent, we want to invite the congregation to join us in the practice of fasting. Fasting is an interesting spiritual discipline. God never tells us in his word to fast, but he seems to assume that we will. Jesus instructs us in the Sermon on the Mount about the times “When you fast…” and not “If you fast…”

The essence of fasting is to say “No” to certain things in order to say “Yes” to other things. During Lent, we voluntarily give up certain things (food, alcohol, electronics) in order that we might spend more time with God in prayer and in his word.

Fasting & the Christian Story
The life of discipleship is a journey through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. It is very tempting to get too attached to this current life and the anxieties, pleasures, and distractions it has to offer. Fasting is a way to let go of these things that can hinder us or even steer us away from living out the true Christian story. And, as we loosen our grip on the things of this life, through prayer and Scripture meditation, we experience Christ more consistently each day and grow into our union with him.

Another aspect of fasting is that through this practice, we grow in the Christian virtues of appetite modification and delayed gratification―two character traits that have all but vanished in our day and age. To be a disciple of Jesus is to play the “long game” of faith, and fasting helps equip us for this journey.

Finally, fasting is a powerful way to remove some of our favorite coping mechanisms and escape routes. In this way it can serve as a very powerful forcing function that helps us face things in our lives that we have been postponing addressing.

The “No” of Fasting
During a fast, you can only forgo things that are good in and of themselves. So, you can’t fast from sinning during Lent. Historically, Christians have given up food during Lent. Some Christians fast one day a week during Lent, and don’t eat anything until the evening meal. Others, seeking to fast throughout the week, cut out one meal per day. It’s important to make a reasonable start to fasting. If reducing your eating is very challenging to you, you may want to begin by eliminating all between-meal snacks and limit yourself to three normal-sized meals a day.

For others, however, giving up food may not be a big deal. You may eat very little as it is. You may want to ask yourself, “What is my go-to when I want a temporary escape from the difficulties of life?” You may find that fasting from alcohol or online shopping is a more appropriate sacrifice for you.

For all of us in this day and age, some kind of fasting from electronics will probably be helpful. You can make certain hours of the day or night “unplugged” times, or you can take away certain apps from your phone or your computer. For families with children and, especially, teenagers, Lent provides a wonderful opportunity to have family discussions about how to deal with the ubiquitous screen in our lives so that we are not ruled by them.

The “Yes” of Fasting
Whatever we give up for Lent, the goal is not merely to go without something. The goal is to create space in our lives for God. At least some of the extra margin we create in our lives through fasting should be filled with prayer and Scripture. Hunger pangs between meals can be like bells calling us to prayer.

In addition, Lent can create space for us to love our neighbor, particular those in need. In Isaiah 58, God rebukes his people making a show of their fasting. Instead, he commands them to fast by giving up their own pleasures so they can help lift the burdens off the poor.

It’s also important to know that unpleasant things may come up during times of fasting. When we fast, we are intentionally giving up coping mechanisms and numbing strategies that we use to distract ourselves from things we may need to deal with. God’s words to the Israelites is fitting at this point:

          Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the
          wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to
          know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his
          (Deuteronomy 8:2)

When the people of Israel were in the wilderness, their true nature came to the surface. Their faith wasn’t as strong as they might have thought. In a similar manner, through the discipline of fasting, hidden aspects of our hearts and lives can come to the surface. This is a good thing. When we experience these disturbing realities, we can bring them to the Lord in prayer and begin to address them.

In summary, fasting is a voluntary trip into the wilderness so that we may find God. Here are some helpful words from Bishop Stephen Scarlett:

          “Fasting is not the purpose of Lent. The purpose of Lent is to 
          discover Jesus in the wilderness. Fasting is merely a means to the
          end of Christ. We remove things that distract us, things that
          threaten to become idols and control us, in order that we might
          grow in our repentance, grow in our faith, and grow in our
          experience of Christ.”

In this way, Lent is not a season of gloom. It is actually a time that should lead us into the joy of Easter and the resurrection. Etymologically, “Lent” has its origins in and old English word that means “spring”.  It is intended to be a time that leads us to re-center ourselves on God and his grace.