Every year around this time the internet is flooded with essays and interviews concerning Lent: Should we observe it? If we observe it, how should we observe it? And so on. Good folks disagree about these issues. But it is a good discussion to be having. I thought I’d chime in on the issue. Hopefully, I can help keep people thinking through the issue.
First, let me clear some ground here. I agree with many of my brothers who despise some of the Lenten practices. There are people who have superstitious views of the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, for instance. Here in Louisville, KY, we even had one church who set up shop in a local business so that you can get your ashes to go. This was a one-stop shop for groceries and a dose of humility and repentance. People who do this sort of thing are, in most cases, viewing the imposition of ashes as some type of talisman that is going to keep God off their backs for a little while longer. I have witnessed people through the years from many branches of the Christian church act as if the religious ritual itself (whether it is the imposition of ashes, fasting, attending worship, going to revival services, or whatever) was an end in itself. After you do the deed, then you are free to live any way you want outside of the time of that special rite. According to what God said through the prophet Isaiah in his opening salvo, he has never taken kindly to superstitious views of religious rituals (cf. Isa 1.10-20. Mind you, the rituals that God is condemning in Isaiah are the ones that he himself set up. These were not manmade rituals. These were God’s own rituals that were being abused by superstitious views.) Superstitious views of the imposition of ashes or even fasting have no place in the Christian Faith.
Superstition is not the only issue with which we deal. Since there has been a resurgence in the evangelical world with regard to liturgy and ancient practices, many evangelicals participate in things for the “cool factor” or simply to be “edgy.” Many times this turns into silly, trite Lenten practices. I don’t want to be the Pharisaical Lent police by any means, but giving up Facebook and things as such does seem just a little silly. (If someone is giving up Facebook for Lent, I don’t have to worry about him being offended by reading this until Sunday or maybe even after Easter.) Others may use Lent to “give up” what they consider to be bad eating habits that they hope not to pick up again. Lent is not the beginning of a new diet. Like many things in the evangelical world, we may have a good impulse toward the right things, but we sure do find some silly ways to express it.
So, I agree with many brothers out there are all sorts of problems in Lenten practices. But there are all sorts of problems with other abuses in the Christian church. We need to be careful not to have a visceral reaction to Lent (or anything else for that matter) and throw the baby out with the bath water. One aspect of Lent that is prominent and receives a great amount of criticism is the fasting. As granted earlier, some of the “give-it-up-for-Lent” seems to be silly. But it may just be the uninformed or immature expression of a proper motivation that needs to be refined. I think that we would all agree that fasting is not only appropriate but called for in the Christian life from time-to-time. Lent, as one season that reflects the life of Christ in the Church Year, is an opportunity for the catholic church to engage in fasting at the same time. While the consciences of believers should not be bound to particular Lenten practices, it may be beneficial to join in with the rest of the church and fast during this time. As we mature as Christians, we don’t merely ask the question, “What is lawful?” We certainly want to pay attention to what is lawful and unlawful, avoiding sin and pursuing righteousness. But as we mature we should be asking, “What is profitable?” What is the best thing to do in this situation? I may not be obliged by law to do this or that, but is my participation beneficial for myself and others? Insisting upon one’s right not to practice fasting during the season of Lent may be the revelation of an unwillingness to lay down one’s life for others. It could be standing against the tide of superstitious wickedness, or it may be a refusal to deny oneself for the sake of your brothers. This is what Paul dealt with in Corinth. There were people there who had all of their theological “i’s” dotted and their “t’s” crossed. They insisted, for instance, on their right to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. They had good theology to back it up. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” they quoted from Psalm 24. Paul agrees with their theology. They are technically correct. But the insistence upon their right in the face of destroying their brother with their meat meant that they were ultimately in the wrong. Now, I’m not saying that if you don’t practice a fast during Lent you are causing your brother to stumble into perdition. I am saying that the basic principle that Paul lays down there about not insisting upon your rights and doing what is beneficial for others may apply here as well. Consider it.
The question may then be asked, “How does fasting benefit others?” Many times fasting is viewed as some personal spiritual journey in which I am denying myself a pleasure in order to squash the desire and practice of sin in my life. Well, fasting will not cure the desire to sin. Paul says this explicitly in Colossians 2.23. Asceticism and severity to the body are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. I would add that asceticism and severity of the body can in themselves be an indulgence for the flesh. They can feed this sense of self-righteousness; this sense that God must accept me because I’m doing all these great things. That is a wrong-headed view of fasting. Those who condemn these types of Lenten fasts are spot on.
But there must be a type of fasting of which God approves. He prescribes a fast for the Day of Atonement. He speaks extensively about fasting in Isaiah 58. Jesus said that his disciples would fast when the bridegroom was removed from their presence. Jesus himself fasted for forty days (which is where the whole forty-day fast during Lent is derived). Paul fasted and commended fasting. We have ample evidence that fasting is a Christian practice. Biblically, fasting has a focus. That focus–it may be a surprise to some–is not merely upon myself and my own “internal” spirituality (whatever that is). I am not fasting to subdue the passions that tempt me to sin. Fasting does focus upon sin, but it does so in a different way. Fasting is willfully taking upon oneself a cursed position in order to plead for mercy for myself and others. This is why fasting is found in the Scriptures as an expression of repentance. When we fast, we are willfully separating ourselves from the good blessings of God for a period of time to express the fact that we understand that we deserve the wrath and curse of God. Fasting embodies our repentance. It is a confession that is not merely spoken but is expressed through cutting oneself off from God’s goodness so that he will see our repentance and have mercy upon us. We see evidence of this in Ninevah after Jonah preached to them. The king called for a fast that included sackcloth and ashes in hopes that God would see them and hear their prayer for mercy (cf. Jonah 3.1ff.). Fasting is one way–not the only way, but one way–to embody repentance. Once the time of repentance is over, then we return to feasting.
Fasting, though, is not just about me. We learn from Jesus’ fast that my personal repentance is not the only factor involved in fasting. Here is where we move to the question of, “What is profitable?” You may be keeping short accounts with God, taking care of your sin business personally. You are confessing your sins every day and living a life of repentance. That’s good. Keep it up. But the world around you isn’t doing the same thing. Fasting is not only about my personal life. Fasting is enacted intercession. Fasting is just as much focused on others as it may be upon myself. Jesus took upon himself the curse that belonged to others. He embodied it so that others might experience mercy. Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness foreshadowed the cross to come (among many other things). We too are called to take up our crosses and follow Christ. One way we do that is praying for others. One focus of fasting should be so that others will receive mercy. You are cutting yourself off from the pleasures of God to identify with others who should be cut off from blessings. Daniel did this in his fasting and prayer (cf. Daniel 9–10). Daniel was a righteous man who didn’t actively participate in the sins of Judah before or after the captivity by Babylon. But in his prayer and fasting, he identifies himself with the people. He, like Jesus, took upon himself a form of curse for the sake of others.
Do we as the church have anything for which we need to intercede like this? Does the world around us deserve the wrath and curse of God? Do we have problems in the church and in churches that deserve the Lord Jesus to come and start snuffing out our lamps as he threatened the church in Revelation 2 & 3? I think you would agree that there are plenty of sins for which the world and the church deserve the displeasure of the Lord. What is my and your responsibility? As a holy priesthood following Christ, we have the responsibility to take upon ourselves to one degree or another the curse in a position of intercession for the world, pleading for God’s mercy. Fasting is one way that we do this. Fasting during the season of Lent is a good way for the catholic church to join in this type of praying.
People have different views on what constitutes a fast. Some may say that it must involve food. Others may say that it can involve cutting ourselves from any good thing that God has given us for a period of time. Scripturally, either the partial or total abstinence from food and/or drink is involved. But it may be that this principle can be extended to other things. I can’t answer all of those questions. I’m not even sure that I want to do so. I am not the fasting police. I can only say that fasting should involve cutting yourself off from that which is a means of life. That can be food or something that makes life enjoyable. Fasting is a form of death. Death is embodied by cutting ourselves off from that which sustains our existence.
One of the beautiful aspects of the Church Year is that we are not left in this position forever. As the Church Year follows the pattern of Christ’s life, we move from fasting to feasting. Death is not the end. There is a resurrection to come. The curse’s effects will not always be felt. We live in a time in which Jesus has won a decisive victory over sin at the cross and in his resurrection. This victory was decisive, but the effects of this victory are progressive until our resurrection on the last day. We still live with the effects of the curse; something that is evident every time we are ill and any time we attend a funeral. So, for now, fasting is still appropriate. Feasting is also appropriate and should be done more than fasting. But one should never be done to the neglect of the other. Neither should we say one is more legitimate than the other. Both have their time and place.
If you are practicing some type of fast (or some “affliction of the soul”) this Lenten season, I would give you one bit of counsel: have a specific focus of prayer that not only involves yourself but others. Our nation, for example, deserves to be utterly destroyed for a number of reasons. One great, glaring sin that has beset our country for the past forty-plus years is legalized abortion. No, you may have not participated actively in an abortion, but God has placed you in this country. You are a part of this nation just like Daniel was a part of Judah. We deserve God’s wrath as a nation. God’s people fasting about this situation is a good form of intercession. What are some aspects of the church for which we need to pray? What about members of your family? Many sins deserve our attention. In following Christ, we take up our crosses to suffer in practices like fasting for the sake of others. Lent is just a good time to do it with many others in the church. Who knows? Praying like this might even increase your compassion for other people and move you to do other things that will put feet to your prayers.
May the prayers of Christ’s church be heard this Lenten season, and may the Lord have mercy upon us.