I grew up hearing about Catholics who had to fast during the season of Lent. No meat on Fridays, only fish. This, you must understand, was a costly sacrifice in the cafeteria of Glenoaks Elementary School! The fact that my Catholic friends had to give up decent food in Lent always seemed to me to be one more good reason to be a Protestant. (Photo: I expect that the Lent Promo at the Luby’s in Kerrville, Texas was much better than my elementary school’s cafeteria rations. Unfortunately, the Lent Promo didn’t keep this Luby’s from closing.)
But, in the past fifteen years or so, I’ve sometimes decided to join my Catholic sisters and brothers in giving up something during Lent. This means, depending on how you count the days of Lent, fasting from something for about six weeks. (Officially in the Western world, Lent comprises the days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. But many traditions do not count the Sundays during this period as belonging to Lent. Thus, Lent covers 46 days, but only 40 days belong to the Lenten fast.)
People in my theological tradition (the Reformed tradition, pioneered by John Calvin) tend not to emphasize Lenten fasting. Partly this had to do with the conscious rejection of Roman Catholic practices that were not clearly based on Scripture. Lent is neither taught nor prohibited in the Bible. One can be a faithful, biblical Christian and never recognize Lent. So, in days gone by, many Reformed folk and other Protestants who wanted to make the season before Easter special in some way, chose instead to add a spiritual discipline to their lives as a way of preparing for Easter. It’s quite common today for churches that don’t have midweek Bible studies, for example, to offer a Lenten Wednesday Evening Study or something like this. Special Lenten spiritual retreats are also increasingly common in Protestant circles.
But fasting still plays a prominent role in Lenten practices of many Christians across the denominational and theological spectrum. Throughout church history there have been different kinds of Lenten fasts. Nobody, to my knowledge, expected anyone to give up all food for the whole season. In the Middle Ages, it was common for Christians to give up certain sorts of food, like meat and/or dairy products. This explains why, in my youth, Catholics abstained from meat on the Fridays of Lent. Many Catholics still observe this discipline today. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Lenten fast is taken even more seriously than in the Roman Catholic church, with many Orthodox folk eating vegetarian meals during the season.
In recent years, I have often given up something in Lent, perhaps eating chocolate or watching television. The latter was particularly hard because I enjoy college basketball, and March Madness (the NCAA bastketball tournament) always falls in the middle of Lent. This year, I will give up something I enjoy. I’ve will also adopt an additional daily spiritual discipline. It don’t think it would be appropriate for me to speak in detail about what I’m doing at this time. But I would like to share some reflections on what I’ve been learning through my version of a Lenten fast.
What I’ve Learned by Fasting During Lent
First, giving up something allows me to make a tangible sacrifice to the Lord. Although certain sacrifices are already present in my life, they’re sort of “built in” at this point. I don’t often experience giving up something for God on a daily basis. The act of sacrifice reminds me of my commitment to God and my desire to make him first in my life. Let me add that my sacrifice in no way earns my salvation. This was completely earned by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. My small sacrifice is a way of expressing my gratitude and devotion to my Savior.
Second, by giving up something I usually enjoy on a daily basis, I have sometimes found myself yearning for that thing. Frankly, I’ve been tempted to give up my Lenten fast at times. I could easily argue that it’s unnecessary (it is optional, after all) and certainly not required in Scripture. But, though I don’t think my effort at fasting makes God love or bless me more, I do think it raises my awareness of how much I depend on other things in life rather than the Lord. I see how easy it is for me to set up all sorts of little idols in my life. Fasting, in some way, helps me surrender my idols to God.
Third, when I give up something I like and then feel an unquenched desire for it, I’m reminded of my neediness as a person. And neediness, I believe, is at the heart of true spirituality. Jesus said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. . . .
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Matthew 5:3, 6
Of course, feeling hungry for one of life’s pleasures isn’t quite the same as hungering and thirsting for righteousness. But, when I feel my hunger, when I sense my neediness for some other thing, I can use this to get in touch with my hunger and need for God.
Fourth, as I continue with my Lenten fast, I find myself less eager for the thing I’ve given up. Ironically, this makes my fast easier. It’s almost something I can take for granted, thus dulling the spiritual impact of the fast. But I’m also gratified to know that one of my little “idols” is being set aside in my heart, as I learn to depend more upon God. I’m experiencing a bit of freedom that makes me gladly thankful for God’s grace at work in me.
Adding a Lenten Discipline
Instead of or in addition to fasting during Lent, you might add a spiritual exercise or discipline to your life. If your church sponsors a Lenten Bible study, you might choose to join this study. Or you may want to participate in some act of kindness, such as feeding people at a homeless shelter.
I like to add something that I can do every day. It needs to be realistic, given my nature and patterns of life. So, for example, it would be a bad idea if I decided to get up at 5:00 a.m. to pray for an hour each day of Lent. This would stretch me so far that I’d surely fail. But I could take on additional Bible reading. Some years I’ve read one chapter of a gospel each day of Lent, taking it in slowly and meditating upon it. Other years I’ve used a Lenten devotional to focus my thought.
If you have no idea what to do during Lent, let me suggest the following. Set aside some time of quiet to ask the Lord what he wants you to do. See if the Spirit of God guides you to something. If nothing comes to mind, I’d recommend that you read a chapter of a gospel each day. If you start with Mark, you’ll have time to read all of Mark plus all of one other gospel during Lent.
Perhaps some of my readers would like to suggest Lenten disciplines that they have tried in the past, and how they have experienced God’s grace through these exercises.
So, as we enter the season of Lent, I am grateful for the saints who have gone before me, some of whom discovered the blessings of giving up something in Lent, while others grew in their faith by adding a Lenten discipline. No matter what you do during this Lenten season, I pray that God will draw you closer to him, and prepare you for a fresh experience of Good Friday and Easter. May God’s peace be with you!