In the Anglican church, it is common to hear someone ask, “What are you doing for Lent?” The answers are a mixture of giving something up and taking on something new. You often hear things like:
“I am giving up chocolate for Lent.”
or “I am cutting back on alcohol.”
or “I am going to read the Bible more.”
or “I am going to volunteer at the soup kitchen.”
The question often arises, why do we fast and take on disciplines for Lent? Is there something earth shattering about giving up chocolate? The answer is no. So why do it? Here are four simple but profound reasons.
Fasting for Obedience
1) The first reason is that Jesus asks us to do these things (see Matthew 6:1-18). It is about obedience. Of course, he doesn’t specifically ask for chocolate. That is not the point. Rather, it is part of a three-fold challenge from Jesus that gives focus to Lent. It is traditionally listed as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
These are meant to be serious practices, but not legalistic ones. Jesus wants us to pray because prayer is the language of our relationship with God. It is how we grow closer to God. Jesus wants us to fast because fasting allows us to find freedom from unhealthy habits. And Jesus wants us to give alms because it is an expression of care and compassion for people in need, and we need to practice doing that. Giving up chocolate or alcohol or whatever is an expression of fasting and doing without, not for its own sake, but for education and healing.
Learning through Fasting for Lent
2) Fasting is partly about learning. I don’t mean about facts, but about deep inner truths. It helps us realize that many people live in poverty and will never have what we are struggling to do without. We grow in humility as we see that we can do with less than we think we need, and that we have resources that can be used to help others.
In the book of Isaiah, fasting is closely connected with justice. The prophet criticizes those who fast and do other religious rituals, while simultaneously perpetuating injustice. He writes, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry…?” (Isaiah 48: 6-7a). Part of the purpose of fasting is to help us develop a heart of compassion, which leads to generosity of spirit.
Fasting for Reflection and Growth
3) Fasting for Lent also teaches us something important about our inner life: we need heart healing. This is Jesus’ main goal. He calls us to fast because he wants us to grow deeper in maturity. The problem is that we have many unhealthy habits and attachments in our lives. For instance, let’s say I fast from all sugar during Lent. It doesn’t seem big. But the reality is that I would find that hard. I am used to quite a bit of sugar in my diet. Therefore, when I find it hard, I need to ask myself, why? What am I learning about myself? What am I learning about what I serve?
Now let’s imagine that it is so hard that I find myself getting irritated at my kids or wife. Again, I need to really think about this. What is it within me that is struggling? This should be easy: just stop eating sugar. But why don’t I have the patience and strength?
In truth, it is not easy. And this is the point. We don’t mature and grow unless we push beyond what is comfortable. If everything is comfortable, we stagnate. Giving up chocolate or alcohol–or whatever–amounts to putting controlled spiritual and emotional stress on our lives. This is partly so that we can push through it. But the real reason is that it gives us a glimpse into our souls and shows us we need healing.
Fasting for Lent for Healing
4) Healing is the point. God is nothing but love, and looks with compassion on our struggles. God wants to heal our souls, and this doesn’t happen quickly. The New Testament doesn’t distinguish heart, soul and mind in the same way we do. They are a whole, and inside are a mixture of positive and negative emotions, impulses and drives. There is compassion, hospitality, courage, love, and a host of other good stuff. There is also anger, fear, lust, unhealthy hungers, violence, prejudices, and a host of other bad stuff. They are all mixed up together.
Part of the Good News is that Christ came to bring healing and wholeness to human beings. He brings grace, mercy, and love to transform our hard hearts into soft hearts. This is neither a simple nor a quick process.
We tend to hide our hurt, pain, and negative emotions. But if we bring them into the gentle light of Christ with honesty and humility, he will heal them over time. Sometimes we need to do this soul work with another person guiding us, be it a spiritual mentor or a psychologist.
Fasting for Lent helps us to find the areas of hardness in our hearts by surfacing what needs the most healing. The next step is to pray for God to heal those places. Spend time in prayer for your inner being. God wants to birth within you a new creation. This is the deeper meaning of fasting.