This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which starts the season of Lent leading up to Easter. Practically that means for the next 6 weeks you’ll hear lots of people complaining or humble-bragging about “giving up ____.” You’ll be at the office and offer someone a homemade chocolate chip cookie, only to hear, “I can’t I gave up chocolate for Lent.” You’ll go to lunch meeting and someone will order a salad because, “I gave up meat for Lent.” People will moan about all kinds of things from Diet Coke to cussing, but what is Lent?
Lent and Ash Wednesday are not in the Bible, but for two millennia, Christians have found it helpful to take the 40 days before Easter to focus on Jesus by starting, restarting, or emphasizing certain spiritual practices, such as Bible Study, Private Prayer, Generosity, Celebration, Meditation, Journaling, Serving, Secrecy, or Silence.
Each of these exercises, also called disciplines, is a routine built into the rhythm of life to cultivate a love for Christ, a faith in Christ, and a character like Christ. The exercise of Bible Study floods my mind with messages from Jesus teaching me how Jesus feels about me. The exercise of Secrecy, in which I do kind things or spiritual things without anyone knowing about them, teaches me humility and helps me die to my constant need for approval. The exercise of Generosity, fights my innate greed, while training me in compassion and growing my faith as I find God is faithful to take care of my needs.
Likewise, the phrase, “giving something up for Lent”, and the accompanying practice is really just the cultural remnants of an ancient spiritual exercise called Fasting. Fasting is the crossfit of spiritual disciplines. Simply put, when I fast, I don’t eat and then I use my hunger to remind me to pray because I need Jesus more than food (discipline of Prayer). When I fast, I use my meal times for Bible study to feast on God’s Word (discipline of Study), and I give the money I did not spend food to the hungry (discipline of Generosity). When I fast, I don’t tell anyone I am fasting (discipline of Secrecy), and when asked if I’m going to eat, I simply respond, “I already ate before I came,” because I feasted on Jesus’ Word.
During Lent i.e. the 6 weeks from Ash Wednesday to Easter, Christians will commit to one or more of these practices to remind them to talk to Jesus and savor his resurrection. They will get up early for a devotional or they will serve one day a week at a soup kitchen or they will simplify their diet by giving up chocolate or they will abstain from all food for one day a week. Whatever their commitment, it is best if it is regular, scheduled, and quantifiable. The goal is not suffering, but increased spiritual awareness.
I strongly encourage you to practice some new or old disciplines and routine this Lent. You can learn more about spiritual disciplines and Lent on line or in my favorite book, Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. If you don’t know where to start, “Giving up something for Lent” is not a bad place. Every time you want that thing, crave that thing, or go without that thing, instead of complaining to your friend, talk to Jesus about what is going on in your day and all he has done for you.
This sermon on Fasting and the Spiritual Disciplines is one of the best things I have heard in a long time. Please take time to download it and listen to it.