For Lent this year I am taking on the one discipline of which I have been most afraid. Each year as I consider what to eliminate or take on there is one thing I have been unwilling consider seriously: food. I have always found some way to mark the season – whether it is giving up television or adding a daily devotional time. These disciplines have usually been positive spiritual experiences and have helped me refocus my eyes on God. But each year the first thing I think about doing is fasting from food, yet I always find a way around it. It seems too challenging – impossible, even. It will be the most difficult thing for me; and that is why it is my discipline this year.
As a penitential season of preparation on our church calendar, Lent is a time set aside for introspection. But that introspection is squandered if it does not result in a strengthened call toward discipleship and service. Lent is a season that mirrors the time of Jesus’ temptation in the desert and when he was called upon to search deep within himself and discern his path forward before he began his teaching journeys. Jesus prayed through his forty days of temptation before going out into the world. For us, Lent is a time when we are invited to fast from the things that distract us from following God with our whole heart. Lent, like Advent, is a season of preparation. We are preparing to go forward doing the work to which God has called us.
The spiritual discipline of fasting is woven throughout our canon of scripture. Moses was compelled to fast for forty days twice while on Mt. Sinai: first, after receiving the law from God (Exodus 34:28), and again when he discovers the Israelites worshipping their self-fashioned idol (Deuteronomy 9:18). The Ninevites fast for forty days to abate God’s anger with their infidelity and to save their city (Jonah 3:1-10). Saul fasts for 3 days after his encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9:4-9). In the book of Isaiah, the prophet learns from God the nature of true fasting (Isaiah 58:1-12).
In his sermon about that passage from Isaiah, Rowan Williams preaches: “Real fasting, says God to the prophet, is breaking the bonds of injustice and sharing your resources. And it is fasting because it means denying yourself something – not denying yourself material things alone… but denying yourself the pleasures of thinking of yourself as an isolated being with no real relations with those around… denying yourself the luxury of not noticing the suffering of your neighbour. This is fasting that reconnects you with reality. And in the context of the gospel, this is the fasting that the Holy Spirit makes possible for us, breaking through our self-satisfaction.”
Fasting is a form of depravation aimed at focusing our senses and removing distraction. Fasting from something upon which we are dependent forces us to find another source of strength – for Christians, it points us towards greater dependence on our Triune God. In this season of Lent as you consider what discipline to adopt, consider even the things that might sound crazy. Consider the things that illustrate instances of injustice. Consider the things that scare you. As Jesus told us, “You must first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Luke 6:42)