With the start of Lent this week, here are a few quick thoughts on self-denial and fasting.
Like almost any discipline, fasting and self-denial can be misused in various ways. They can be done without discernment or wisdom, such as fasting from food when you’re not physically healthy. They can be done merely out of ritual and without meaning. They can be viewed legalistically where we use our performance to get something we want from God. All good things are prone to misunderstanding and misuse. Our hope in this guide is that any self-denial through fasting is done meaningfully, purposely, wisely, and graciously.
We live in a world of entitlement and immediacy. As an entitled people, we think we earn or are the cause of everything we have. We deserve the good we have but don’t deserve any of the hard stuff. We don’t think we should go without lest we miss out. We are often prideful, independent, and self-sufficient. Such entitlement assumes denying yourself or abstaining from good things—even temporarily—doesn’t make sense, so we usually get what we want and do what we want to the extent we can. With such an approach to life God becomes easily ignorable, unless we’re upset with trials we feel like are undeserved and unfair. Entitled people think God exists for their purposes and they are the center of the world.
Living in a culture of immediacy means when we want something, we want it now—and we usually can get it that way. We want faster internet, shorter lines, answers right away, quick meals, delivered food, two-day shipping, quick results, and immediate payoff. Anything worth having is worth having immediately. Downsides of such an approach to life include a lack of patience, prayerlessness (which requires waiting), unrealistic expectations on ourselves and others, short attention spans, and a hurried pace to life.
These problems of entitlement and immediacy are part of why Lent can be helpful. A season of choosing to say no so we can say yes to more of Christ, of denying ourselves, of waiting on him, of feeling need and dependence, and of putting him before us might be exactly what we need. How else will we intentionally build humility into our life to combat a sense of entitlement? How else will we learn dependence and Christ-sufficiency over self-sufficiency? How else will we learn to wait on God? How else will we cultivate the counter-cultural practices of confession, self-denial, trusting in God, sacrifice, generosity, meditation, and rest?
As we suggest forms of self-denial or fasting in our church’s Lent Reading & Fasting Guide, see it as a means to practice clearing something from our life to make more room for Jesus. It’s a chance to say no to one thing so you can say yes to something else. As you give up things—including good things we might take up after the temporary fast—we are freed from their grip on us and reminded they are good gifts from God. Gifts we should hold loosely and enjoy gratefully easily devolve into idols we grip firmly and demand arrogantly. This pause on enjoying God’s gifts can cause us to see and appreciate them in new ways and protect us from demanding or idolizing them.
Fasting, or giving something up, is a means to an end and we miss out if we focus only on what we give up. For instance, if you choose to forego eating a meal, watching television, or being on social media, the idea is you then use that time to commune with God through prayer, Bible meditation, or solitude. We give up something in order to take up something. We willingly give up some good things to better experience the best of things. We create margin in our schedules, we clear clutter from our lives, and we crowd out noisy distractions in our heart so there is space for us to again taste and see the glory, grace, and goodness of Jesus.
For more on fasting, seeA Hunger for Godby John Piper; “What is the Purpose of Fasting?”with John Piper from desiringgod.org; “Do Christians Fast Because Food and Drink are Bad?” at crossway.org; “Fasting: Teaching Kids Spiritual Disciplines” at kidsministry.lifeway.com.