Ash Wednesday was this past week. It marks the beginning of the church season called “Lent” Lent is the forty days (not including Sundays and finishing on the day before Good Friday) before Easter. For those who observe it, Lent is a time to prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. The purpose is to set aside time for reflection on Jesus Christ – his suffering and his sacrifice, his life, death, burial and resurrection. A common question you may hear is, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Even people who do not observe the season may take the opportunity to fast from something. But there is a danger in entering into a fast glibly or superficially. It shouldn’t be something we do just because it’s expected or because others are doing it. Our sacrifice, whatever it may be, should be something that creates space for us to draw closer to God and should impact other people. If it doesn’t, our fasting or sacrifice will lack power and purpose. John Chrysostom wrote:
No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.
This echoes the words of Isaiah when he shared God’s perspective on fasting:
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
The point in Isaiah (and for Chrysostom) is the heart with which we offer sacrifice to God is more important than the act. If we sacrifice or fast and do not allow it to overflow into our love and service for others, it misses the point. Our sacrifice and fasting needs to come from a surrendered heart – a heart set on loving God and others. When we surrender our sacrifice or fast to him; when we allow it to move us to acts of compassion or sharing of the blessings we’ve received, there is great fruit. Isaiah says, “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:8). As we enter into Lent, if you are someone who is considering fasting, may I suggest considering these questions posed by Ruth Haley Barton on her blog earlier this week (commenting on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6):
- How will I give? (v. 2-3) Lent is a time for “giving things up” balanced by “giving to” those in need.
- How will I pray? (v. 5-13) As we “give up” some of our usual distractions, there is more space for prayer. Is there a particular prayer practice (like fixed hour prayer, silent prayer or intercessory prayer) that God is inviting me to?
- Who do I need to forgive and from whom do I need to seek forgiveness? (vs. 14-15) Forgiveness creates a conduit for God’s grace to flow in our lives with others.
- How will I fast? (v. 16-18) What distracts me from alert attention to my relationship with God? What do I need to abstain from in order to be more aware of my hunger for God?
- What earthly treasures am I attached to and how can I let go? (v. 19-21) Is there any specific earthly treasure I am attached to—time, money, energy, success—that I am being called to steward differently or let go of entirely, at least for this season?
So what are you giving up for Lent…and who will benefit from your sacrifice?