Lent begins tomorrow (Ash Wednesday), a season for focusing on Jesus as we prepare to celebrate the climax of his life and his mission—his death and resurrection—and also for remembering Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. It lasts for 40 days (excluding Sundays), and ends on Easter Sunday (April 5 this year).
One of the traditional Lenten practices is to fast. You may have already seen posts on social media announcing that your friends will be off Facebook until Easter; others give up chocolate or caffeine or alcohol; still others fast from meat or candy. In the Bible, though, fasting is understood narrowly as abstaining from food for spiritual purposes.
Interestingly, there are no laws or commandments in the Bible about fasting. You don’t have to do it, though it may be helpful. Moses certainly found it to be (Ex 34), as did David (2 Sam 12), Jehoshaphat (2 Chr 20), Elijah (1 Kgs 19), Esther, Ezra, Daniel, Anna the Prophetess (Luke 2), Paul and early church (Acts 13, 14).
Jesus did it too, but there’s no sense that he did it regularly—he had a reputation as “a glutton and a drunkard,” partly because he didn’t make a big deal out of fasting and he didn’t command his disciples to fast (Matt 9). Presumably, as a devout Jew, he followed the traditional practice of fasting on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:27); and there are instances recorded of when he fasted, most notably in the wilderness, preparing for public ministry. But he never commanded it.
What he did say about fasting comes from Matt 6:16-18:
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Here, Jesus assumes that it happens; he doesn’t command it. (And we should always be careful of making assumptions into commandments!)
In the context of the passage, Jesus is talking about doing religious things for selfish reasons. Fasting is meant to be done as part of a life devoted to pursuing God, together with praying and simplicity and seeking justice (see Isaiah 58).
The point of fasting is to draw near to God, to help us focus on God by denying ourselves. We might also fast in order to become more like Jesus, understanding that we do not “live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). As I wrote last year:
The point of fasting can be to give up luxuries, to remind us that we don’t need the things that the world tells us we can’t do without; it can also about giving up some so-called necessities, to remind us that we don’t need the things we tell ourselves we can’t do without. But ultimately, the point of fasting is to remind us that there is only one thing we can’t do without—and that’s God.
As I mentioned earlier, fasting has become more broadly practiced—it no longer only applies to food. Some of the guys in my small group are challenging each other over the next six and a half weeks of Lent to fast something or to pick up a habit that we’ll encourage each other in and be accountable to one another.
See, traditionally, people fast but we also need to remember to fill that space with something positive. You can give up food or social media or coffee, but if you don’t fill it with some sort of positive engagement with God, it’s kind of missing the point.
So it can be helpful to think of this in two ways:
- What you want to give up and then what you want to fill that space with.
- What rhythms or habits you want to add to your life and then how to make room for it.
The goal is not to focus on the habit but to focus on Christ and how we are becoming more like him in the process.
We took time to brainstorm some ideas, through the lens of:
- Work, friendships, romantic relationships, money, time, habits;
- The District Church’s core values: worship (connecting with God), community (connecting with each other), justice (connecting with the needs of the world);
- Fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Here are some ideas that we came up with, in case you need help brainstorming:
- Unplug: no electronics 2 hours pre-bedtime until after time with God in the morning
- Snooze button
- Eating out
- Buying anything new (not including necessities, e.g. food)—fasting from consumer culture
- People (not all the time, obviously, but rather in order to practice solitude)—Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Let the person who cannot be alone beware of community.”
- Social media (learning to focus)
- Pick up
- Exercise to care for the body
- 30 mins of reading to cultivate stillness
- Pray for the same thing or the same person every day to cultivate perseverance
- Listing 10 things we’re grateful for
- Sending an email to someone catching up
- Setting aside time to reflect on the cross
- Reading the Bible
- Pray for a few minutes
Remember, if you decide to do anything this season, your Lenten practice is not about legalism or drudgery. It’s not about turning disciplines into laws. It’s not about feeling like a failure if you miss a day.
It’s about freedom from self-interest and fear. It’s about joy. And most importantly, it’s about learning how to walk more closely with God, learning how to listen more carefully to God, and learning how to be more like Jesus.