Every year, I head into the season of Lent with good intentions and high hopes. This year, I want to go deeper in my faith. This year, I want to grow closer to Jesus. This year, I want to become more aware of God’s presence. This year, I want to be stretched in a way that makes me more Christ-like. This year, I want to take seriously my Lord’s invitation to walk with him on his way to the cross. I want this year, in other words, to be different for me.
It’s usually not.
By the time Easter arrives, my good intentions and high hopes for something more out of Lent have long since run into the reality of my frequently distracted – and often disjointed – life. The discipline I thought would help me move closer to my goal of something more – giving up this pleasure, adding that practice, and so forth – ends up making me feel like either a Pharisee (if I manage to stick to the discipline) or a failure (if I don’t). Neither one of these lingering emotions – pride and guilt – are conducive to nurturing the kind of life that Jesus wants for us. He tells us that he came to give us abundant life – that is, something more – but my attempts to cultivate this life through deliberate Lenten disciplines have consistently led me to something less than what Jesus wants for me.
What’s been my stumbling block? It took me a while to get to the point where I could hear what the Holy Spirit wanted to tell me. After all, pride and guilt generate very effective spiritual static. I’ve come to realize, though, that my greatest stumbling block is none other than the combination of my good intentions and high hopes with which I’ve traditionally started my Lenten journeys.
That might sound strange, but I believe it’s true. Go back and re-read the first paragraph of this article. What word appears with an alarming frequency? I. As in “I want.” As in “What I hope to get out of this.” I is precisely the wrong place and the wrong reason to begin a spiritual discipline. It shouldn’t be about me. It should be about Jesus – what Jesus wants, what Jesus hopes to get out of this, what Jesus needs to do in order to make me fit for His kingdom. When I begin with me, it’s no wonder that I end up with something less than I’d hoped for. I’m both grateful and humbled by this revelation.
So, why am I telling you this? I’m telling you this because I want to invite you to join me during Lent in practicing one of the oldest biblical spiritual disciplines, one that Jesus himself practiced (Matthew 4:2) and, evidently, expected his disciples to practice as well (Matthew 6:16-18). I’m inviting you to join me in fasting – that is, foregoing food – each Friday during Lent. Why? Two reasons.
First, it’s a way of realizing, in a very literal, physical sense, John the Baptist’s understanding of discipleship: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). We live in a world in which our success is measured by how much we are increasing: Our square footage, our cargo space, our bottom lines, our professional status, our number of followers and friends on social media. The list is endless. Fasting reverses this equation, reminding us that, in order for Jesus to become more in our lives, we have to become less. The discomfort that comes from not eating is a physical expression of this necessary spiritual re-ordering of our lives.
Second, the practice of fasting – especially, if we’re doing it together, as a community of believers – helps us remember that we’re all weak, mortal sinners who are dependent upon God’s grace, regardless of how much we’d like to believe otherwise. That’s the kind of church I’m convinced Jesus wants us to be: Humble with one another, dependent upon God, and centered around Jesus Christ. When Christians fast together, they tend to grow together.
There are different ways of practicing a fast. Some people might choose not to eat anything at all on Fridays. Some might observe a sunrise to sunset fast. (This is the option I plan to go with.) Some might skip lunch. Some might eat only raw fruits and vegetables that day. People with dietary restrictions or medical conditions, such as diabetes, will need to take their health needs into consideration.
I’ve prepared a guide to fasting, available online and in the Rotunda, to help you figure out how best to participate. Let me be clear, though: This is not a one-size-fits-all discipline, nor is it compulsory. We Baptists aren’t like that. We are voluntary in our devotion.
I’m asking you, then, to pray about this and, if you feel led by the Holy Spirit, to join me in fasting on Fridays during Lent. If you do choose to participate, I hope we can find a way to share our individual experiences with one another, both as a way of learning from and encouraging one another in this discipline. Above all, let’s keep our hearts and minds in the right place: This is about Jesus.
May the peace of Christ be with you!