Lent is coming up in a week. Some of you may be very familiar with it, others of you may have only heard of this Church tradition. If you aren’t familiar with it, Lent is the period of time set aside to focus on simplifying your life, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God during the 40 days before Easter, starting with Ash Wednesday and lasting up until Easter. It’s actually 46 days, but the 6 Sundays in Lent are excluded because each are considered a mini-Easter. One article I read pointed out that it’s about 1/10 (tithe) of a year.
Next Tuesday, Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday” is the day before Lent starts. Since Lent always starts on a Wednesday, the day before is always a Tuesday. It’s called “Fat” or “Great” because it’s associated with great food and parties. Traditionally, people didn’t want to be tempted by sweets, meat and other distractions in the house during Lent so they cleaned out their cabinets. They used up all the sugar and yeast in sweet breads before the Lent season started, and fixed meals with all the meat available. It was a great feast! Course now Mardi Gras has evolved into a pretty wild party with little to do with actually preparing for the Lenten season.
I grew up Lutheran and thought everybody knew about Lent. In my high school most everyone went to either the Lutheran, Catholic or Methodist church and we all did Lent, or at least talked about it. We would give up chocolate or soda or TV. It didn’t really mean much to me, it was just a tradition. I was really surprised when I got to college and met Christians who had never really heard of Lent nor participated in it.
So why do Lent at all? There is no rule saying you have to, it’s not commanded in the Bible. It’s a church tradition; however, it is a beneficial one when used with the right motives and mindset. It’s a great time to fast, which, when Jesus talks about fasting, it’s always in the context of “when you fast” just like when He says “when you pray.” Plus, it’s a chance to do it in community. It’s easier, and more fun, to fast when you know your friends are doing it too. It’s a good time to prepare our hearts for Easter. Jesus sacrificed His life for us. By sacrificing food, a desire, a need, or our time, we can appreciate a bit more His sacrifice for us. Ultimately, the purpose of participating in Lent is to Glorify God by knowing and loving Him.
I recently read a chapter on Fasting in the book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney that I found rather helpful in reflecting on Lent and it’s purpose. A lot of my thoughts (and quotes) are either from or inspired by his chapter.
God created us to hunger for Him, and we will fill that hunger, even as Christians, with so many things to numb that hunger. Fasting awakens that hunger for God as we deny ourselves the numbing agent of food, media, noise, relationships, etc… and we can begin to let God fill that hunger instead.
A word of caution: Fasting needs to have a purpose. Otherwise the hunger pains will only make you calculate the time until you can eat again. We need to have our purpose in mind while fasting, so when I get hungry, I say to myself: I’m hungry because I’m fasting today. And I’m fasting today because _____________________. Without a spiritual purpose, a fast from food only becomes a diet, and a fast from media only becomes a time management saver. It doesn’t Glorify God nor help us know and love Him more.
For instance, if I know Brandy is going through a rough time and I want to pray for her more throughout the day, I could choose to fast and pray for her. Then every time my stomach growls or my head aches, my hunger reminds me that I’m fasting, which in turn reminds me that I’m fasting for the purpose of praying for Brandy, and then I pray. So all day, whether I’m driving, walking, working, I’m reminded by my hunger to pray, and then I’m praying far more often, which is why I fasted in the first place.
Other purposes of fasting besides praying for someone, are to seek God’s guidance, to put my trust and hope in Him instead of some other thing, to overcome temptation, to minister to the needs of others with the time and money I would normally use to eat, or to express love and worship to God – fasting demonstrates that seeking God is more important than food, or Facebook, or spending time with people, or whatever it is I am fasting from. Jesus is more important and more satisfying than food, media, people, etc…, but we won’t know it until we fast and let Him fill us with Himself instead.
Food is a great choice for fasting because God made us creatures who survive by eating. It’s a basic need. He made the world work in such a way that it provides food for us to eat. Those who eat too much, or even too little are looking for satisfaction in something other than God.
A fast doesn’t have to be just food. Other great things to fast from can be found in the things that clutter your calendar and life.
Two weeks ago I took a couple days to spend (mostly) alone with God. I cancelled all meetings, turned off my phone and computer, and rested. God did a lot in my heart in those two days of fasting from my phone. I realized I was so exhausted because I was spending too much time reading the news or on Facebook. There’s a whole side story related to this, but suffice it to say, I was surprised to learn that reading and processing the news takes energy, a lot of energy, and I need to limit the amount of news I take in because I don’t want my energy going there.
Another non-food fast that I did was my first meaningful Lent fast after I joined Campus Ventures. I fasted from music that year. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard, but the first few days were torturous. The first day was fine, but the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc… were rough. I was agitated and restless. I didn’t even realize until then that I was looking to music and noise to be my source of peace and security. When it got ripped away, I had to start looking for it in God. During those 40 days I found myself automatically reaching for the radio station in the car, or wanting to turn on the stereo or TV as soon as I walked in the door to my apartment. It was habit. But somewhere in the middle of Lent, I began to appreciate the quietness and then eventually to love it. Before, I always had music playing. Music had a big role in my coming to know Jesus as my Savior as well as growing in my faith. But I was relying on it instead of Him. Once the 40 day Lent fast was over, I was reluctant to turn noise back on. It became by choice to listen to music or watch TV rather than just a habit. And my love for quietness has stuck. I had never loved it before, but I am comfortable with it now as I find it restful and restoring.
Lent is also a time of simplifying your life in terms of what you eat, wear and do. Some people will simplify their diets. It used to be a big thing to not eat meat during Lent, except fish on Fridays. Simplifying a diet can free up time in preparing meals to allow time to spend with Jesus. And by removing sweets, caffeine or other items from your diet and just doing a simple diet to meet your basic nutritional needs, you can learn to crave God instead. For instance, if you decide to simplify your diet to basic needs, then when you crave the extra portion of food or a tastier treat, you can remember that you are fasting, and fasting for a purpose to seek God during Lent. Another option is simplifying your clothing choices for the 40 days. Or your activities. Maybe saying no to one thing every day, or pulling back from hanging out with people if you’re an extrovert. We can look to our clothing choices or people to fill the hunger we have for God just as much as we can food.
Other ideas for Lent:
- Try an electronic fast. Give up Netflix, Facebook, texting, email, Snapchat, and all things electronic for one day every week. (Or everyday of Lent!). Use that time to spend with God reading the bible, praying, memorizing a verse, or spend quality time with family or roommates, or writing an encouraging note to someone on paper!
- Try skipping one meal each week and use that time to volunteer for an hour or more each week or look for ways you can serve roommates, friends, or even strangers.
One thing I will be doing, and I invite you to do with me, is to focus on the Cross. A few years ago I read the Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges and it was a powerful book about all that the Cross represents and the incredible riches found in being a Christian. Bridges shared how the Cross represents so many opposing ideas all beautifully tied into one. Take for instance, God’s Holiness and God’s Love. God’s holiness demanded the Cross as punishment for our sins and God’s Love provided the Cross to save us from our sins. I’ve wanted to re-read this book before an Easter for some time now, so Jordan and I are going to read it over Lent if you’d like to join us. You can get the book off of Amazon Prime for only $11 or used from Amazon for $6. If you don’t have time to read one more book, maybe fast from a meal once a week to use that time to read, or if you have a Spring Break coming up, read it over Break to draw your heart back to Him and the season of Lent. I’m also hoping to write a blog entry about each chapter to make myself think through it more, so you could follow my thoughts on future blogs. Maybe Jordan will write a blog entry too. Or if you read a chapter and it speaks to you, I’d love for you to write an entry for my blog!
Whether you read the book or not, I do invite you to mediate on the Cross over Lent.
Before you finish reading this blog and move on to your next thing, would you take a few moments to talk to God and see if He wants you to fast from anything over Lent? Maybe one of the ideas I shared spurred something in your mind. Ask Him if there is something He wants you to fast from for all of Lent, for part of Lent, or for one day each week of Lent. If He brings something to mind, have the courage to follow through! God loves you and if He’s asking you to fast from it, no matter how hard it may seem, trust Him that He really knows what is best for your heart and your relationship with Him. Fasting is hard, especially if it’s for a long haul, like all 40 days of Lent. I encourage you to share with someone to hold you accountable and to encourage you. And keep before you the purpose of why you are fasting. Without the purpose of knowing and loving God, this will just become another empty tradition.