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Fasting, Sacrifice, and Lent

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:16 NIV)

I’m writing this on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. The Immerse group that I’m in met last night, and while we enjoyed our Fat Tuesday calorie bombs, we discussed whether we would be giving something up for Lent. It’s a practice that’s been around for years in many different traditions, and we had many opinions.

Like any tradition, some people might participate just because it’s traditional or they think they should. Some people during Lent try to get rid of a bad habit (like swearing), give up something temporarily (like sweets), or add in a new good habit (such as flossing or Bible reading). Many of these changes also have an element of increasing personal discipline. While discipline is always worth cultivating, that didn’t feel “spiritual” enough to me; I was searching for a good reason.

Lent isn’t in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean the season lacks a Scriptural basis. Not counting Sundays (which are still “feast days”), the season of Lent is 40 days long, in commemoration of Jesus’ 40-day sojourn in the wilderness to begin his ministry (see Luke 4:1-13). The somber aspect of Lent, focusing on deprivation, reminds us the great suffering Jesus endured for us on the cross and provides contrast to the joyous celebration of Easter.

In past years, I’ve given up chocolate (a true sacrifice), alcohol (which didn’t really count, because I was pregnant), and complaining (during which season I put money into a jar if my coworkers caught me complaining, and after Easter used the money to buy them donuts). The latter was an attempt to improve my character, but what about the former? I had no intention of making that a permanent lifestyle change.

Temporarily giving up something that you would otherwise enjoy without guilt is the discipline of fasting. Minister David Peach offers seven reasons for Christians to fast. Some of the Biblical examples combine fasting with prayer to intensify the entreaty to God—in a way, to show how serious we are about our prayers. Fasting can also be a way to worship God or show humility toward him without any further aim. That tells me that giving up something for Lent simply to be mindful of God’s power and goodness can be a worthy aim.

Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 6 (above) not to be obvious about their fasting, lest admiration of their effort be all the good that comes from it, but it can be helpful to fast alongside other Christians for a specific time so that we can encourage one another not to give up. Lent is a time that many Christians throughout the world enter into Jesus’ suffering together, making it a prime opportunity to exercise discipline in community.

So if you don’t give up anything for Lent, be free of guilt. If you decide to observe Lent in a specific way, don’t advertise it for show, but do tell a few people, such as your small group, so that you can share in the joy and struggle.

As for me, I’m still undecided. I want to be clear about why I’m doing this thing, at this time. But if I do it for Lent, I’d better choose soon, before I eat something that I could have decided to give up!

Abigail can be reached by email here.

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