by Graham Mol
Today marks the beginning of Lent, a period of 40 days (plus Sundays) leading up to Easter Sunday which is characterised as a time of solemn observance and preparation for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The first day is known as Ash Wednesday coming from the tradition of the observing churches placing ashes on the foreheads of their congregations. One can recall the Jewish practice of going about in sackcloth and ashes, to represent mourning, repentance and humility.
While Ash Wednesday and Lent are most closely associated with Catholicism, there are also Churches in the Anglican, Lutheran and Protestant denominations that observe the tradition. Many believers find the traditional practices helpful in drawing their focus to the solemn significance of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.
From its start on Ash Wednesday until its conclusion on Easter Sunday, Lent has been a traditional time for fasting or giving something up or abstinence. Just as we carefully prepare for events in our personal lives, as a wedding, or birthday; a commencement Lent invites us to make our minds and hearts ready for remembering Jesus’ life, death and body resurrection. (From 40acts.org.uk)
The discipline of fasting was always one of those I never quite “got”. I understood the idea and intention behind it theoretically, there are many examples of fasting to be found in the Bible, yet despite this, I had never really made it a practice in my own life.
Then one day, as I was reading through Your God Is Too Safe by Mark Buchanan, the way he wrote on the topic of fasting really challenged me. Here is just one of the passages that stood out to me from the chapter as Buchanan considers Jesus’ response to the devil’s testing after his time of fasting 40 days in the desert:
So now the quiz: Who understands – really understands – that we don’t live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God? Who not only understands, but withstands because of it, overcomes on the basis of it? The man with his belly full? Or the man with his belly empty?
Let me be blunt: If you never fast, then the whole concept of being wholly nourished and sustained by God’s word alone will likely be only a nice, sweet, and totally irrelevant idea to you. You may pay the idea lip service, but you’ll be too busy licking sauce off your lips to do any more. And worse: If you never fast, when the day of testing and temptation comes, you may not stand. Consumption is killing us. Go fast and live.
Fasting, that is denying oneself in order to become hungry, helps us in three areas – it humbles us, tests us and teaches us.
We are humbled because we soon see our frailty. Just one day without food and we find out energy levels are depleted. We realise how dependent we are on the “daily bread” that the Lord provides.
We are tested because fasting soon reveals what is in us, even the stuff deep in our depths. Stuff that is easy to soothe away with a quick snack, an indulgent treat that can distract us from really wrestling with how we are feeling. There’s a saying, “You’re not you when you’re hungry” but maybe its the uncomfortable opposite that is more the truth. Fasting can be one of the ways the Lord searches our heart and reveals any offensive way in us.
Lastly, fasting teaches us that we “do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,” (Matthew 4:4). Sometimes full stomachs lead to forgetfulness. In our plenty we forget just how blessed we are. The classic “grace” before dinner: “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly grateful” is spoken with far more conviction and meaning by the one who is having their first meal in days rather than the one who is having yet another meal in the day. We learn to be more grateful for God’s provision in our lives and more aware of how we can help provide in the lives of others.
During this season of Lent, whether you follow the tradition or not, I’d like to encourage you to prayerfully consider the practice of fasting as part of your time with the Lord as you journey towards Easter this year.