Lent, Fasting, and Learning Our Limits

This post originally appeared on the 6:8 Community Church blog. Click to read the original.

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.

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The Fast Jesus Chooses

***UPDATE***

I’ve come across some other blog posts/videos on Lent and fasting that are superb supplements to what I was trying to say in this post. Thought I would share those so you can enjoy them as well.

  1. Chris Smith on “Fasting Toward the Common Good”
  2. Jarod McKenna speaks about following Jesus on his desert walkabout (shown below)

[APPEARED ORIGINALLY ON THE SIX:EIGHT COMMUNITY CHURCH BLOG]

Today is Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent – when we begin our journey of self-examination and repentance as we prepare to follow Jesus to the cross. Here on the blog, we’ll be reflecting each week on a moment from the life of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Luke. We hope you’ll join us as we read and meditate on Jesus’ life. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. Let’s get started.

We begin with a passage that you’re probably familiar with: the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Take a moment to read Luke 4:1-13, whether you’ve heard it or not, before you continue…

Here we find Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days. The text says he fasted or “ate nothing.” This period of fasting is actually where the whole idea for Lent originates. During his wilderness fast, Jesus is visited by “the devil” and faced with temptations to satisfy his hunger, to assume power over all the “kingdoms of the world”, and to test God’s promises. He resists all three with a word from Scripture: man lives by the Word of God, who alone is King, worthy of all our worship, which leaves no room for our attempts to manipulate or control God. Before Jesus begins his ministry, he takes the time to confront the temptations of the human heart. Jesus faced these temptations boldly and with full confidence in God. He was successful in resisting them, in loving God with his whole being. We, on the other hand, have not had the same experience.

Fasting has a way of facilitating a confrontation with our own temptations. As we let go of things we “need” – food or otherwise – and wrestle with our urges to fulfill these needs, we get a clearer sense of what is really driving us, deep in the core of who we are. In the light of God’s gracious, loving presence we can examine these compulsions that propel us in all the wrong directions. We find that we are a rebellious people. As God sheds light on our darkness, we are given grace to confess our great need for God, who is our only hope and the fulfillment of all our longings. This will look different for all of us, but we all, in our own ways, are called to repent, to believe the Gospel: that Jesus the Christ is Lord. Fasting informs our repentance.

But there’s an even bigger picture for us to consider because our lives are connected to each other and to the life of our world. If we look back a few verses in Luke 3, we hear John the Baptist proclaiming in the wilderness: if you have two tunics, share with the one who has none; do the same for food; be fair to each other; don’t wield unjust authority over others; be content; practice everyday justice! John is fulfilling his calling from Luke 1:12 “to making ready for the Lord a people prepared.” Love one another; Jesus is on his way.

If we look ahead a few verses in Luke 4, we hear Jesus proclaiming the words of the prophet Isaiah as his own “mission statement”: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Wow, what a mission! Jesus has come to restore all things, to liberate all people from the oppression of sin and all the destruction it causes both personally and socially, to say once and for all that God is Love.

On both sides of Jesus’ wilderness fasting and temptations, we hear a message proclaiming justice, freedom, peace, care, service, and love. When this context is considered, I think we can make a good guess of what was on Jesus’ mind as he was led into the wilderness to fast.  My guess is Isaiah 58:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Jesus knew that fasting is not an end in and of itself. He wasn’t fasting just to check off some box for being the Messiah. Yes, fasting is good because it humbles us in the light of our sin and God’s mercy, but we have seriously missed the point if all we do is sit around and think about how holy we are for “giving something up for God.” The point is transformation, new creation, first repentance and then rebirth. We fast so that we can be in touch with all the ways we strap the bonds of injustice on ourselves and on others, with the ways we are both oppressed and oppressor, and with how the ways we fulfill our own needs lead to hunger, homelessness, and nakedness for others. As we read in Isaiah 58, the fast God has chosen leads to real healing, and justice, and salvation when God arrives and shouts “HERE I AM!”

I think Jesus knew the vast and far-reaching consequences of the seemingly small, insignificant temptations he was facing in the desert. Do we? Have we faced our own temptations to satisfy our every need? Are we aware of our temptations to seek power over others and make ourselves into idols? Do we recognize the ways we are tempted to test and manipulate God in service of our own ambition? This is the fast God chooses.

In the sermon two Sunday’s ago, we were reminded by Koheleth in Ecclesiastes 4 of the injustice and oppression still so present in our world. Billions, us included, live in alienation and loneliness as a result of the sin that is so tempting. This past Sunday we listened again to Koheleth, hoping for a way forward. His solution was profoundly simple, and yet so true: friendship. Justice begins in friendship and continues until all people feel the embrace of God’s love. If the fast God chooses leads us to justice, then it should lead us to friendship. After all, Jesus began his all-creation-renewing mission with 12 friends.

As we begin the journey of Lent, maybe we need to step back and consider our friendships. Who are the ones we call our friends? Have we loved them? Have we been a friend to them? Maybe this a time to pray for our friends. Maybe this is a time to consider how we’ve been tempted to ignore our friends. We are made for community, for friendships. May the God who is perfect friendship, perfect communion, perfect love, guide us as we walk the way of Jesus.

[APPEARED ORIGINALLY ON THE SIX:EIGHT COMMUNITY CHURCH BLOG]