Quite often people talk about giving something up for Lent. Some of the things I’ve heard recently include social media, chocolate, coffee — I even witnessed one person talking about going on a diet for the entire season of Lent. Most people indicate that these things are “idols” or “struggles” or something in their life that takes time away that should be invested in their relationship with God. It is easy for this Lenten fast to become an external fast only — that is, something done for show to prove your devotion to God. It can be entirely exhausting to approach a fast this way. In fact, I never made it more than a few days fasting when I was in the Assemblies of God because, to be honest, I’m just not very strong. It was not until I came home to the Lutheran Church that I understood the freedom that is fasting. Here, I would like to encourage those of you who would like to “give something up for Lent” to orient your fasting back toward God and the Gospel.
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Notice first that Jesus says “when you fast.” He does not say “if you fast” or “do not fast (since the Roman Catholics came up with that).” Fasting is one of the great Disciplines of Christian living. It is a discipline that God rewards. But it is a private discipline. Yes, we as a church do focus on fasting especially during Lent, but it is not for the purpose of bragging about it before the world or one another. At my church on Ash Wednesday the text was the story of the Pharisee and the Publican and we were reminded that it is not our righteousness, especially our fasting, but our humble trust that justifies us before God. So also, if you pervert the fast that Christ invites you to into a claim to superiority, you will be struck down. Instead, keep your fast between you and God. (Read all of Matthew 6 — it’s good stuff.)
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Here is the true purpose of fasting: Acts of love and service toward our neighbor. Martin Luther is said to have quipped “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” In our context this means your fast does not offer anything to God, but it presents an excellent opportunity for you to serve your neighbor. Here the discipline of fasting joins with the other great Christian disciplines: Prayer, and alms-giving.
Let us say you decided to give up stopping at the coffee shop for the entire 40 days (and 6 additional Sundays) of Lent. This makes you a brave soul indeed. Enjoy your withdrawals. But the purpose of fasting is not merely to give something up. Suddenly you find yourself with an extra 15 minutes in the morning that you would have spent getting coffee before work, school, or church. Now, rather than using that time to serve your caffeine addiction, you can spend more time in devotion or prayer. Perhaps take the extra time to read the Catechism, or to memorize Scripture. By the time Easter rolls around, you’ll have spent about 11 and a half extra hours hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd. Again, if you do this to show off, you’re going to have a bad time; but which of us wants to turn down an invitation to spend more time hearing God’s Word? God’s Word creates and sustains our faith, so while we might neglect our physical daily bread, we will be all the more nourished for having feasted at such a rich table.
I drink boring old black coffee, that costs about $2.75 a cup. I don’t drink it every day, so coffee isn’t what I choose to fast when I fast. But lets say you, like me, drink boring coffee. By the end of your fast, you will have saved over $100 dollars. If you’re into more expensive coffees, maybe $5 a pop, you could save $230 or more. And here the final strand of the three-fold cord of Christian disciplines enters in: Alms-giving. Perhaps give to the work of your church in your community. Maybe you could donate to Online for Life or another pro-life organization. The point is that you now have money available to spend on the needs of your neighbors that you were previously going to spend on something you wanted.
I hope you see why fasting is such a beautiful discipline. If you still don’t, please don’t feel as if you must or even ought to participate. It is something that should be entered into in joy, not sorrow. God rewards Lenten fasting when it is approached humbly, and with an eye toward the Gospel: He gives us an opportunity to grow even more in God’s grace, through His Word, and to put our faith in practice through love and service. He causes us to remember our need for Him who gives us body and soul and all things. But perhaps most importantly, He gives us a tangible analogy to ponder how, though we give up something worldly for Lent, Christ gave up heaven for the sins of the world. May your Lenten season be filled with this truth.