It’s Lent again, and like every other Christian holiday or tradition, it brings with it a slew of opinions or non-opinions about the best way to celebrate it in a way that honors God. Not every part of Christian tradition partakes in Lent, but I think it’s a good practice. Like Advent, it’s a cyclical season that interrupts the rest of life and helps us re-focus on Christ’s resurrection and return, as well as our own participation in the redemption of the world. I’ve written before about the significance of Lent and especially how that came alive for me through John Milton’s Paradise Regained.
Whether it’s coffee or T.V. or social media, it has been commonplace to stop doing something that is not necessarily bad for the 40 days of Lent in order to identify better with the notion of fasting and preparation for Easter. What seems to be in vogue currently is a questioning of the practice of “giving something up” for Lent. There was even an NPR piece about it. I’ve read numerous blogs and had several conversations with people who wonder whether or not the practice of giving something up cheapens Lent, that people use it as a pseudo-New Year’s Resolution, giving up a vice or a addiction, and that giving up chocolate, for instance, does not actually bring us closer to God if it is not accompanied by a change of attitude, devotion, etc. Fasting is meant to bring us closer to God, and giving up something trivial does not inherently do so. Furthermore, Lent specifically recalls Jesus’ time of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, and it is a poor and pathetic attempt to identify with his temptation if we give up something that has little real value to us. Actual fasting is what will help us understand giving up bread. Substituting good works–Isaiah 52–is the kind of fast God desires, specifically those which free the oppressed and declare the kingdom of God is at hand. Certainly Jesus’ fast in the desert is an Isaiah 52 fast.
I have to admit that I agree with some of the sentiment here. Absolutely, God desires more from us than giving up sweets. But I also think people often take what they perceive to be worn-out traditions that have lost meaning and shake things up a bit, in part for the sake of saying something different or new. It’s much more hip to not give up something for Lent, or to give up God for Lent. Yet, some of the people who have influenced my life the most have engaged in this small-yet-meaningful discipline faithfully each year, and I think they’re better for it. Here’s why I think God still wants you to give up chocolate for Lent.
At least part of the point of a fast is to recognize the hold that things have on our lives that don’t matter as much as God’s provision. We are to learn to live on the word of God, the true Bread of Life. What better to demonstrate how small we actually are and how prone to dependence on earthly things than our feeble (and failed) attempts to refrain from something as small as sugar for just 40 days! If you’re like me, you find yourself unknowingly reaching for that cupcake or brownie without a second thought, and then halfway through someone says, “Didn’t you give up sweets for Lent?” Or worse, nobody does and it hits you on your own. Fasting asks the question: What do you actually need in your life to work for the kingdom of God? Surprisingly (or maybe not) very little. We don’t need social media (though some push back that it’s more like the telephone these days, to which I say, I don’t recall a telephone being a prerequisite for discipleship), computers, cars. But let’s be honest–most of us can’t do those bigger things. We are too weak. We might be able to squeeze in 40 days without Netflix..
Even a minor fast also points us to how habitually unintentional our lives are. We take a lot of time to engage in behaviors without hesitation: eating, dressing, talking, driving, watching TV. I imagine our lives would change dramatically if we actually acted with intention. It would change what we eat and where the food comes from; it would change how often we drive, what clothes we wear. If we actually stopped and thought before acting, we might actually act with more compassion. Most people have an automatic response to begging by homeless folk on street corners, which is to keep walking or to claim not to have money. Could it be that pausing to act with intention would change our response? I think giving up something mundane that we use or indulge in without thinking is an exceptionally useful way to begin this process.
Lastly, fasting is what I would call an outward sign of an inward reality as well as an inward sign of an outward reality. Forgoing food or pleasure of some kind, in any amount, is a representation of hopefully an inward life that is trying to clean out the trash and make room for God. We simply cannot hear God with too much junk in the way. The outward sign says to our peers, our community, I’m trying to be about our Father’s business, so hold me to it! So even a “little” fast of sweets can be enough to get us going on the right path. Simultaneously, fasting is also an inward sign of an outward reality. So much of our world is broken by disparity between the wealthy and poor. The emptying of our inner selves can be a reminder of the stark reality of so many who go hungry for other kinds of bread.
In Matthew 6, Jesus tells those listening that there is no point in worrying, that God clothes and feeds even the least of these. But when we look at the world, sometimes it does not feel this way. Right in the middle of this passage on worry, Jesus says the eye is the lamp of the body, which I take to mean that how we perceive the world to be at work changes how we will act in it. Fasting helps light that lamp. It helps us see the world through a better lens. We cultivate this inner lens when we consciously abstain from our indulgences. With attention, it can be a path to a renewed vigor for both God and humanity, to enact justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
So don’t be discouraged from giving up the small things for Lent. Yes, consider what else God is calling for you out of this Lent, but don’t let others trivialize a journey which can lead to the light at Easter.