Today marks the start of Lent, a season traditionally dominated by fasting. Yet today, many Christians are preferring to say as a preacher friend did to me recently, “Rather than fasting, I want to add something new during Lent.” Meaning, rather than giving up anything, this person was going to add a spiritual discipline. Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with what this person said, but I think that it misses the concept of Lent and fasting.

Lent is supposed to be a time where we recognize our struggles to connect to God. We come to Lent pushing aside the values, attitudes, commitments, and vices s that exist in our lives which prevent us from living the life of complete love for which God has designed us. Simply adding a discipline does not get to the heart of this issue. Committing an extra few minutes a day to my prayer time during Lent might be a way for me to recognize I need more prayer in my life, but it does not help me to eliminate the things which keep me from prayer. If I do not pray it is because the busyness and activities distract me from prayer, simply adding more prayer time only adds to the busyness and takes away from my rest. Is this the best way to combat the aspects of my life which hold me back from a life of prayer?  People live at the margins of their schedules and adding to those schedules reduces the time for them to meet God. Adding 15 minutes of prayer to a chaotic day may be good, but does it allow real time for a person to encounter God? I usually add a Lenten devotional to my daily reading each year, but all that does is add five minutes to my day and occasionally give me something else to ponder during my day. It might give me a way to connect to God, but it does not in itself allow me the time. In other words, even after I have read the devotional thought I have to make a sacrifice so that the thought might be lived out.

Fasting, by contrast, takes things from a person’s life, it opens places in life for God to enter. Fasting takes time which has have dedicated to something important and gives it to God. Rather than adding to a chaotic schedule, fasting allows a person to keep the same pace or even slow down and rely on God. Classically understood, fasting is not simply denying something, like food; it is denying myself something I normally use to sustain my Self in order to add something of God. It is denying a mealtime to add to prayer time; denying food to donate to those who do not have food; it is denying leisure and sloth for ministry and purpose.

If fasting were only an ascetic self-denial I would be more inclined to agree with my friend, but fasting goes beyond self-denial.  Fasting is subtracting the Self to find a place for more of God.  Fasting is a biopsy that reveals where we need healed.  It is painful and invasive, but it helps to identify the illness within.  The disease of sin is exposed when we fast, and we must understand this disease if we are ever going to work with God for our healing.  We must know if anger, greed, lust, or jealousy have root in our lives and where if we are going to have them removed, and fasting helps accomplish this task.  Give up something in your normal schedule for God and see how you are impacted see where you crave chocolate, get angry because you are hungry, are jealous of those talking about your TV show.  See where the disease of sin has taken root and where you need God’s healing.

By fasting a person is recognizing that he or she already lives at the edges of the margins of time, pressed with a day full of promises and appointments. When we fast, we clean out some of that time to dedicate it to growth with God. The person who only adds a discipline adds it to the margins of life, the person who fasts adds it to the center. When we fast a television show, we are saying, “God, normally I entertain and indulge my Self now I want to entertain and indulge in you.” When we fast a delicacy we say, “Lord, often I use coffee {or chocolate or whatever] to bring joy and pleasure to my life, today I want you to be my joy and pleasure.” When we fast a meal we say, “Father, normally I rely on food to sustain my life and help me live through the day, today I recognize that it is your grace that sustains my life and moves me through the day.” As we give these things over to God in a time of prayer or self- sacrifice we recognize the greed or anger or sloth or lust or jealousy which holds us back from God’s way of life.

Fasting is about recognizing that God is calling us to a lifestyle different from our current lifestyle and that Self is what keeps us from God’s way. Fasting is the recognition that we cannot take up the cross until we have first denied our Selves. As you enter Lent recognize that we are called to die daily to Self and that fasting is a time-honored means of doing just that. Do not simply heap spiritual disciplines onto the clutter that is your scheduled life; declutter your life so you can put God into its center.


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