You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord? [Isaiah 58:5 (NLT)]
Traditionally, Lent has been a time for Christians of all denominations to refocus their hearts and minds on God through prayer, fasting and giving. As a way of fasting, many people deny themselves small indulgences, such as soda, candy, or their daily latte at Starbucks, but Lenten fasting isn’t limited to food. Other ways to observe this season include not making any purchases that aren’t absolutely necessary; donating or throwing away forty things during Lent’s forty days; giving up guilty pleasures like People magazine or binge-watching Netflix; refraining from complaint or gossip; not eating out or ordering in; saying three nice things to one’s spouse and children daily; reading the four gospels; doing a weekly service project; setting aside loose change for a charity; or forty days of letter writing, acts of kindness, or phone calls to special people. Some of those, like refraining from gossip or complaint, saying nice things to the family, and Scripture reading shouldn’t be limited to just these forty days!
Last week’s Abundance assignment was to give up something for Lent. Pointing out that Jesus gave up everything for us, it simply asked what we could sacrifice for forty days as a sign of gratitude for His incredible gift. Since this is part of a mission to experience the abundance of the Christian life, I had to ask myself how having less would make me experience more. Of course, if we love Oreos, Five Guys, or Downton Abbey, we will appreciate them all the more when we can indulge in them once again, but there must be more to fasting than that.
Looking at fasting in Scripture, we find that it was never supposed to be mere ritual. Fasting and sacrifice were to be a sincere way of growing closer to God through prayer and repentance. Isaiah wrote of God’s anger at Israel’s superficial fasting that wasn’t accompanied by repentance and the blessing of others. Skipping dessert, abstaining from social media, or not playing FreeCell or Spider on our phones is meaningless if we don’t link our sacrifice with prayer, a change of heart, and the blessing of others. True fasting replaces selfishness with selflessness. Giving up something (be it food, habits, money, possessions or time) should cause us to take our eyes off the things of this world and humbly and joyfully focus them on God. It is only when we look to Jesus that we truly discover the abundance of the Christian life. Whether Christmas or Lent, let us prayerfully remember that Jesus is the reason for the season!