Fasting. Denial. Joy?
My junior year of high school I gave up fried food for Lent… and sweets… and eating between meals. Basically Lent was my yearly diet plan that luckily coincided with the Indiana High School State Swim Meet. In the name of Jesus (and self-righteousness), I had spiritual and public accountability for my athletic goals.
Many of us have heard of Lent in these ways before. Maybe you grew up not drinking soda for the 40 days before Easter or doing a devotional with your family. Or maybe you were confused why your Catholic friends suddenly ate fish every Friday. The culture around America’s recognition of Lent & Easter is inflated- from the debauchery of Mardi Gras to the fable of the Easter Bunny.
So, what exactly is the deal with Lent? Is it just about fad diets? To set the record straight, here is some scriptural and historical background about Lent.
Following Jesus into the Wilderness
The basis for the 40-day fast is found at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. In Matthew 3-4, Jesus has just been baptized, the Spirit has descended and the voice of the Lord has said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Immediately after his baptism, Jesus follows the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted and to prepare for his ministry on earth.
What a weird place for Jesus to begin. I don’t know about you, but I tend to postpone self-denial, discomfort, isolation, and temptation at all costs. Yet, Jesus began his ministry alone and forsaking worldly comfort. He doesn’t start with impressing the world. He starts with dependence on the Father who is already pleased with him.
Satan comes after Jesus has been fasting for 40 days and nights. He tempts Jesus, goading him to prove himself as the Son of God. Satan even offers Christ the ability to rule over all nations if he will bow down and worship him.
But Jesus’ rendezvous with Satan was on his terms. Jesus’ time spent in the wilderness was his choice. Even in his weakest, most vulnerable state, Jesus chose obedience to the Father over anything Satan had to offer. Jesus’ dismissal of Satan in Matthew 4:10 is final: “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
The Joy in… Abstinence?
The tradition of 40 days of fasting was implemented at the Council of Nicea in 325. The council decreed that new believers, along with the whole church, would fast for 40 days before their baptism, to prepare for their new life in Christ. Like Jesus, these people would learn to depend on God through their vulnerability and discover the joy of obedience to the Lord.
Lent is a church tradition that invites us into such an experience with God. God is inviting you to depend on him. He is inviting you to deny yourself and say yes to more of him. Our human hearts cling to comfort and safety, but God is inviting you to know Him as your comforter and refuge. As we make ourselves vulnerable, he provides our strength. And as we follow him, we experience joy in our obedience.
Our human hearts cling to comfort and safety, but God is inviting you to know Him as your comforter and refuge.
Jesus went into the wilderness knowing that God was already pleased with him. We too enter our time of sacrifice assured of God’s great love for us – this season culminates in the greatest sacrifice, Christ’s life for ours.
I invite you to join me in removing distractions and false comforts from your life, not to impress the world but as a way to increase your awareness of God to prepare you for your own public ministry. The things we give up for Lent are probably not sinful (otherwise we already should have surrendered them), but they are often superfluous. What we give up should serve as a constant reminder of our need for God’s grace.
For me, television is my regular winding down activity. I love having a night without meetings, a bowl of popcorn, and a good reality TV fix. As I prayed and asked God what I could give him this year, I realized that if I gave God just the hours that I usually tune into The Bachelor, I would be able to spend two more hours in his presence each week. My first thought was… “But God, that means I don’t get to see Nick find love!” But the knot of conviction in my stomach has turned into a liberating joy knowing that this “sacrifice” is not without the increasing reward of knowing God’s love more fully.
So, maybe a fad diet is the sacrifice you will be making for Jesus. But remember Lent is not meant to be a redo on your New Year’s Resolution or a “no boys, no booze” rule to take Easter seriously. Lent is an invitation extended to you by God himself to have a personal encounter with Him in these next 40 days. May your surrender lead to God’s power being shown in and through you.