In 2006, as a first-year seminary student at Gordon-Conwell, I walked into an early morning Ash Wednesday service. I had not grown up in a context where Lent was observed, and I was curious. Little did I know that, thirteen years later, I would still be with the same people, again preparing to observe a Holy Lent.
Reflecting on thirteen Lents, I think back on different ways I have approached the season. There has been some trial and error. In retrospect, I’m identifying four different approaches that we may find ourselves taking to the spiritual disciplines of Lent, particularly fasting (going without or with less food for some period of time) and abstinence (going without certain types of foods or without satisfying some other appetite for a period of time).
The Superhero Approach:
Fasting as an Accomplishment
This is the most dangerous approach, I believe. We choose some sort of Lenten observance that will be very difficult, very uncomfortable, and commit to it for the whole season. While we dwell on just how hard it is, we are also motivated to stick through to the end, largely because of the sense of accomplishment that we will achieve. Perhaps we even make comments about how difficult Lent is, partially hoping for an opportunity to share with others the Herculean effort that we are making. This easily falls afoul of Jesus’ words about fasting, when he condemns fasting that is done to impress others (Matt. 6:16-18).
But even without telling others about our fasting, the danger is still there. While we may indeed be exercising and strengthening our self-control “muscles,” we are also in great danger of strengthening our own pride. At the end we are incredibly pleased with ourselves for our accomplishment, feeling somehow holier for the effort, despite the fact that what we did was never actually commanded by God.
The Self-Help Approach:
Fasting to Break Bad Habits
Most of us are aware that we have bad habits of consumption. This could be a sweet tooth or a habit of flipping open social media or the news with a compulsive and thoughtless regularity, pulling us away from our duties and wasting our time. So we set up a plan of attack for Lent: We will abstain from the bad habit, build certain boundaries around it, and practice a new, better habit in its place. Our hope is that, after a period of six weeks, we will have built healthier habits that will stay with us throughout the entire year.
There is a lot to be said for this approach, and it is in line with a lot of recent studies about brain science and the formation of habits. This is a good approach, insofar as the habits we are strengthening build up the fruit of the Spirit in us and lead us away from sinful patterns. However, this approach is also virtually absent from biblical discussions of fasting. If breaking bad habits is all that’s going on, then the invitation to a Holy Lent is coming not from a minister of God’s Word and Sacraments, but from a life coach.
The Get-in-the-Zone Approach:
Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough
We live distracted lives. We are often so busy with the work, entertainment, relationships, and general hustle and bustle of everyday life that we need to turn our attention to that which is spiritual.
It turns out that our bodies and our spirits are so connected that there are physical disciplines that often increase our preparedness to hear from God. God, of course, can speak to us in any condition. Conversely, no amount of discipline guarantees a spiritual breakthrough.
However, there are things that we can do outwardly that help us to be more spiritually attentive. It can be as simple as unplugging, separating from the noise, going to a place where we can listen. Jesus did this with his disciples regularly. For many (particularly those of us with more stable blood sugar), times of fasting can also create a sense of great spiritual clarity. Sometimes simply surrounding ourselves with beautiful music carries us to new places. There is even a story in the Scriptures in which the prophet Elisha, called upon to prophesy, asks for a harpist. When the harp begins to play, the Spirit comes descends on him.
There is something very legitimate to all of this. It comes from recognizing that we are created with bodies and spirits–that the state of our bodies affects our ability to attend to that which is spiritual. However, this is not distinctly Christian either; such things have been discovered and practiced by “religious” and “spiritual” people throughout human history, both Christian and non-Christian. These insights come not so much from the Word of God, but rather belong very much to General Revelation. (Here is a short article explaining general revelation.)
The Humility Approach:
Fasting as Embodied Repentance
When I see fasting described positively in the Scriptures, this approach is usually in play. Fasting is often grouped with other things: weeping, sackcloth, ashes, etc. All of these, grouped together, make the person or group using them look pretty pathetic—and that is the idea. We fast when we are laid low, either by recognition of our sins or of our desperate need. Here again, we bring our bodies and our spirits together.
But we don’t just mentally recognize the gravity of our sinfulness and coolly ask for forgiveness, resolving to sin no more. No, as we recognize the gravity of our sin in our minds, we then invite our whole person into the expression of repentance. We get on our knees. We put ashes on our heads. We weep. We fast, allowing ourselves to feel our weakness physically—stomach rumbling, knees knocking, throats dry. And we open our mouths together to confess our sins. On this day, Ash Wednesday, we recognize it together, publicly.
Throughout our fasting these forty days, we continue to recognize it. We offer our fasting as one vehicle, along with self-examination, acts of charity, and meditation on God’s Holy Word, through which God will work to humble us.
But humility is not the goal, nor is it the end of the road. Humility is the path that leads us closer to God and a fuller understanding of our need for him. What we proclaim during Lent is not our sinfulness. Rather, we proclaim God’s grace and mercy, his forgiveness. What we preach is incredibly good news, but it can only be received and appreciated by humble people.
This Lent, may we be humble ourselves before God in body, soul and spirit, so that we may more fully embrace the good news of God’s grace and mercy.