In just 2 short weeks, billions of Christians around the world – mostly those of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, but some Protestants too – will be on the cusp of beginning their yearly 40 day pilgrimage with Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and, ultimately, to the cross. You probably know this 40 day season as Lent. It is a season of prayer and fasting in preparation for the greatest celebration of the year (no, not Christmas)…Easter.
We’ve probably all had different experiences with Lent in the past. Growing up as a pretty strict Baptist kid, I had never heard of Lent until I went to college and got involved in the United Methodist campus ministry. Maybe you know about it through Catholic or Orthodox friends or from those in more liturgical faith traditions – Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and others. You’ve probably heard that you’re supposed to “give something up” for Lent. More or less, that is true, but there is so much more to know. The notion of “giving something up” refers to the ancient Christian and Jewish practice of fasting and it has held a very special place in the church since our very inception.
In the Jewish world, fasting had 2 purposes: expressing repentance for personal/national sins and inward preparation for receiving God’s grace in order to be faithful in completing a specific mission for God. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness just after he was baptized in order to prepare for his 3 years of ministry, which would end in the crucifixion and resurrection. If you recall, Jesus was tempted by Satan while he fasted in the wilderness. Do you remember the first temptation?
Satan knew Jesus was hungry, so he commanded him to turn the stones into bread. Jesus refused and quoted a phrase from the end of Deuteronomy 8:3, “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This verse was apparently on Jesus’ mind while he was fasting and we’d do well to pay attention and see what we can learn from it.
Notice the references to hunger and food as the verse begins. Traditionally, fasting has been associated with abstaining from eating. Some fast during the day, or only during one meal, or only certain types of food, and in several other ways. Why food? Because it’s a basic necessity of life. When we choose to go without a basic necessity like food, we are humbled. We come face to face with our limits as human beings.
Think back to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God gives them all the fruit of the garden to eat except for one fruit; God gave these humans one limit. Of course, we know what happened. Adam and Eve refused the limit God had given them. They had plenty of food to eat; it would be difficult to believe that this one limit on their choices represented any kind of hardship to their diet. They were not going to go hungry because they couldn’t eat from one tree. So, why did they do it?
They didn’t want life with limits. They didn’t just want some of the fruit of the garden – they wanted it all. Again we can ask, why? I think it has something to do with dependence. Look back to the end of Deuteronomy 8:3. Limits teach us that we are dependent – absolutely dependent – on “every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Fasting is about returning to and honoring our God-given limits, which is a way of returning to and honoring our dependence on God as the Source and Creator of our lives. Just like Adam and Eve, we refuse to live within limits. We want it all. Our lives are driven by compulsions to control, to succeed, to be free from others, to enjoy pleasure, and to fight for our own security.
Fasting is not so much a season of joyless, gloomy faces – Jesus actually taught against this sort of fasting in the Sermon on the Mount. Fasting is about returning to life the way God intended it to be. Is it challenging? Of course! We are sinful people and we like the way we do things! We are created to live in communion with God, with others, and with all creation, but that life is impossible for us to receive when we refuse to acknowledge our dependence on God. We are not in control. Fasting recognizes God’s sovereignty over our lives and all creation. And guess what?
This is GOOD NEWS! Fasting is about restoring life, restoring joy, restoring peace, restoring justice, and restoring love. We can’t do it all and be it all and have it all. Rather, God is our ALL IN ALL.
Remember, God wasn’t calling Adam and Eve to go hungry in the Garden by placing one limit on their menu. There was an abundance of food to enjoy. Fasting is not about rejecting the goodness of God’s creation, or even about rejecting pleasure. It’s about putting pleasure in its place and restoring a right relationship to creation by loosening our stranglehold on everything we think we need to build successful, secure, and pleasurable lives on our own apart from God. Using creation in this way actually destroys it. Fasting recognizes the sacred value of all creation as we learn to embrace our limits and worship God instead of ourselves.
Fasting can take many forms though. Our lives are filled with things we over-consume, that keep us from a relationship with others and with God, and that eventually consume us. One great food alternative for fasting is media – TV, internet, radio, those flat, crinkly things called “newspapers”, and all our little gadgets and devices. Two years, my Lenten fast was to uninstall the Facebook and Twitter apps and disable the email accounts on my smartphone as a way to let go of those constant distractions, which are really just shallow, selfish ways for me to measure my importance. You could fast from things like judging others or judging yourself. Maybe you need to fast from an over-packed schedule?
The question to ask is: What do I do to excess? In her book Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson reminds us that “what we do to excess reveals our inordinate desires, our compulsions, the attachments that have control over me. They are precisely the areas of our lives that need the freeing lordship of Christ rather than our own abysmally ineffective efforts at control.” Anything coming to mind for you?
I hope this post has got you thinking a little more about the upcoming season of Lent. God is always calling us deeper on our journey of spiritual growth. How will you respond? In the season of Lent, we find an invitation to return to a good life of limits; a life dependent on the grace and goodness of God. Does your life have limits? Are you living on “bread alone” or on “every word that comes from the mouth of God”? That is the question Lent asks us to answer.