Lent 2022 is history.
Recently I heard folks sharing what they “gave up” for Lent: chocolate, social media, sugar, alcohol, and such. I think that is the most common reaction to Lent – giving up. But to what end I ask myself?
When I was a younger man, I had “mentors” who talked about the virtues of fasting and how they regularly did it. Sorta like “giving up” for Lent, only more demanding. In a fast you give up eating for a period of time. When I was a young man it was easier to fast than it is now, so I could fast for a few days. If you asked me, at the end of the fast, what I learned or why I did it, I’m afraid I didn’t really know the answer to that. Fasting seemed like an end in itself. It is what really spiritual people do, and I wanted to be spiritual.
Similarly, I want to ask, “Why do we ‘give up’ sugar or soft drinks or alcohol for Lent? I’ve never asked anyone that question, but I think the answers would be “because that’s what you do at Lent,” or “sacrifice is good for you,” or “I wanted to see if I could deny myself for that long” or “I really need to give that bad habit up.” Something like that.
But I don’t think those are adequate responses because they are basically just a form of dieting. They are no deeper or more permanent than the newest dietary strategy, and these responses do not require deep inner change.
Why then does one give up something for Lent or enter into any form of a fast? You have to begin with Jesus to answer that.
When Jesus entered the wilderness for his 40-day fast, his singular purpose was to focus his attention on the struggle with evil. That’s it!
Eating was a distraction to his one purpose.
Younger Bruce never stopped to consider what he hoped to learn or accomplish in his few fasts. He didn’t connect fasting, or giving up something, to his spiritual state. In most cases he was trying to persuade God to do something for him. “Look at how earnest and spiritual I am God; give me what I ask.” So after Young Bruce’s designated fast was over he could only think of his next meal, and that was that.
Lenten sacrifice is a window into the nature of our relationship to the world compared to our relationship with Christ. The deepest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about giving up something for Lent is, “I really wanted to give up ‘xyz’ for Lent, but I cheated once or twice.”
I think that Lent is best experienced as a way to purify one’s direction in life. Like Jesus who fasted in order to remove distraction, so we should concentrate on the “fast” that will make us more like God. Isaiah spoke of this:
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight…Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high…Is not this the fast that I, God, 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 and bring the homeless poor into your house…Then your light shall break forth like the dawn….then you shall call, and the Lord will answer….”Here I am.”Isaiah 58:4-9
Only then does Lenten sacrifice or fasting have meaning!