Last week, millions of Christians around the world – mostly those of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, but many Protestants too – began their yearly 40 day pilgrimage with Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and, ultimately, to the cross. You probably know this 40 day season as Lent. It’s a season of prayer and fasting in preparation for the greatest celebration of the year (no, not Christmas)… Easter.
When most people think of Lent, they think of “giving something up”. That’s true, more or less, but there’s so much more to know. The notion of “giving something up” refers to the ancient Christian and Jewish practice of fasting and it has held a very special place in the church since our very inception.
In the Jewish world, fasting had 2 purposes: expressing repentance for personal/national sins and inward preparation for receiving God’s grace in order to be faithful in completing a specific mission for God. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness just after he was baptized in order to prepare for his 3 years of ministry, which would end in the crucifixion and resurrection. If you recall, Jesus was tempted by Satan while he fasted in the wilderness. Do you remember the first temptation?
Satan knew Jesus was hungry, so he commanded him to turn the stones into bread. Jesus refused and quoted a phrase from the end of Deuteronomy 8:3, “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” We can learn a lot about fasting from this verse from Deuteronomy, which was apparently on Jesus’ mind while he was fasting.
Notice the references to hunger and food as the verse begins. Traditionally, fasting has been associated with abstaining from eating. Some fast during the day, or only during one meal, or only certain types of food, and in several other ways. Why food? Because it’s a basic necessity of life. When we choose to go without a basic necessity like food, we are humbled. In other words, we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are merely hum-an (notice the shared root word with hum-ility) and we have limits.
Limits teach us that we are dependent – absolutely dependent – on “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Adam and Eve learned this lesson the hard way when they refused to abide by the one limit God had given them in the garden. In some way, all sin is about refusing to live within the good limits God has given us.
Fasting is about returning to and honoring these good, God-given limits, which is a way of returning to and honoring our dependence on God as the Source and Creator of our lives. Just like Adam and Eve, we refuse to live within limits. We want it all. Our lives are so often driven by compulsions to control, to succeed, to be free from the stress of dealing with others – to do what I want when I want to. No limits.
But we’re only human; we have limits. We are created to live in joyful communion with God, with others, and with all creation, but that life is impossible for us to receive when we refuse to acknowledge our dependence on God. We are not in control. Fasting recognizes God’s sovereignty over our lives and all creation. And guess what? This is GOOD NEWS! Fasting is about restoring life, restoring joy, restoring peace, restoring justice, and restoring love. We can’t do it all and be it all and have it all. Rather, God is our ALL IN ALL.
Fasting isn’t about rejecting the things that satisfy us or that we find pleasurable. It’s about putting pleasure in its place and restoring a right relationship to people and things by loosening our strange-hold on everything we think we need to build successful, secure, and pleasurable lives on our own apart from God. Using creation in this way actually destroys it. Fasting recognizes the sacred value of all creation as we learn to embrace our limits and worship God instead of ourselves.
Fasting can take many forms though. The question to ask is: What do I do to excess? In her book Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson reminds us that “what we do to excess reveals our inordinate desires, our compulsions, the attachments that have control over me. They are precisely the areas of our lives that need the freeing lordship of Christ rather than our own abysmally ineffective efforts at control.”
Maybe you’re observing Lent this year, or maybe not. In any case, God is always calling us deeper on our journey of spiritual growth and mission in our world. How will you respond? In the season of Lent, we find an invitation to return to a good life of limits; a life dependent on the grace and goodness of God. Does your life have limits? Are you living on “bread alone” or on “every word that comes from the mouth of God”? That is the question Lent asks us to answer.