Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Lent: Learning to Love the Discipline

My first experience with Lent was nearly two decades ago. A friend of mine, from a more liturgical denomination, pondered what she would fast for several weeks before Ash Wednesday. The act of abstaining from something helped focus her mind on God. The discipline served as a tool of refinement and preparation for celebrating the joy of Easter. 

The idea of preparing my heart to fully appreciate the passion of Christ made sense to me, so I participated in a Lenten fast. Those first forty days changed my life, and I learned a vital truth. God does something significant in response to that degree of sincere, dedicated prayer and fasting. It’s not always what I expect (or want) but it’s important.

Forty days is a long time, and fasting something significant for that duration is hard. My friend taught me it’s much easier to fast something she felt called to by God. It’s also easier if the fast is linked to a prayer focus. 

This year, the idea of a Lenten fast came to me gradually. Forty days of spiritual discipline requires all the faith and dedication I can muster. It also requires the help and strength of God, so it’s not something I enter into lightly. Over the last few weeks, I thought about fasting quite a bit, and a sense of anticipation steadily built. A prayer focus came to mind and God confirmed it over and over again. 

Why participate in Lent?

Discipline is a vital part of the life of the disciple and fasting is something Jesus expected his disciples would do. (Matthew 6:16) His forty-day fast before He began His public ministry was a time of sacrifice, testing, and preparation. The complete surrender of His desires and needs set the tone for the rest of His earthly life. Our surrender of desire and dedicated focus on prayer is a time of testing, refinement, and preparation in our lives, as well.

If your faith background is non-liturgical, you may not be familiar with Lent, but this might be the year to learn more. Consider a simple fast of a single item or a single activity during the next forty days. Use the time you’d spend to focus on the gift Christ gave on the cross and to draw closer to Him. 

What should I fast during Lent?

People traditionally fast anything from sweets to meat to bread to shopping to social media. Isaiah 58 describes the fast God desires as a sin fast, when we obtain from a judgmental, critical spirit. The sin fast is the hardest fast of all.

A “full” fast, of no food is a rigorous trial and not something I recommend. No one should fast food and water, as going without hydration can be deadly if prolonged, even though Jesus did this fast.  The “limited” fast, of a single food or food group or a single activity is most common. Some people do a “Daniel fast,” based on his fast of “rich food” when he was first taken to Babylon. According to Scripture, he ate fruit and vegetables and drank only water. Our choice of fast should be guided by of God. As James promised, if we need wisdom, including in the selection of a fast, God will give it. (James 1:5)

What if I accidentally break my fast?

I’m not perfect. On occasion, I unintentionally ate something I was fasting before I thought about it, especially at the beginning of a fast. I didn’t stop my efforts, though. Instead, I apologized to God, picked back up where I left off, and finished the allotted time. The discipline is not a time for condemnation, but for reconciliation with and dedication to God.

Will Lent change my life?

Will a dedicated period of prayer and fasting change your life? Absolutely. Participation in Lent has almost always accomplished something significant in my life. It’s allowed me to forgive, release hurts, love the unlovely, embrace a deeper walk of faith. 

Only God knows what He plans to accomplish in you, but one thing is certain. He will not leave you the same. 

When do I start? 

Lent is designed to be an intimate time with God, not an opportunity to broadcast your spirituality to your friends and neighbors. Limit information about your fast  to those to whom you will be accountable. There’s no time like the present to begin a deeper walk of faith. Why not start today to embrace discipline and strengthen your prayer life. You’ll be glad you did. 

“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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,  so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18