Ash Wednesday is this week, which launches the season of Lent, the time in the liturgical calendar between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Historically during these six weeks people fast for 40 days, abstaining from something to grow closer to God.
Lent wasn’t something practiced in my family growing up. We didn’t sit around our dinner table discussing what we were "giving up." People in my church observed it, but successfully giving up something for Lent wasn't worn like a spiritual badge of honor. It was mostly done quietly or with others in small groups.
As I have reflected on my own posture towards Lent I’ve realized how weak I am at the practice of fasting. As I think about how to correct that weakness though, I don’t want to give something up for the sake of giving it up. I also don't want to practice fasting to fit in with a spiritual image to appear holy when my heart just isn’t actually engaged. No one ever taught me about fasting or how or why to do it. All that I have learned as a Christian about fasting has been through reading Scripture and books. Fasting is a discipline that has become neglected in most of our discipleship training.
Biblically, fasting is mentioned in both the Old and New Testament. In the Old Testament it was often a way of expressing grief or a means of humbling one's self before the Lord. In Psalm 35:13, David humbled himself with fasting. In the New Testament it was a means to grow closer to God through mediating and focusing on Him. In Matthew 4:1-2, Jesus went to the wilderness to fast for 40 days. In Matthew 6:16-18 we learn that we aren’t to look somber while fasting so that it’s not obvious to others when we are fasting. Throughout the New Testament fasting and prayer are often mentioned together. In Acts 13:3, “they had fasted and prayed.” In Luke 2:37 a widow worshiped day and night fasting and praying.
But at no point in Scripture is the focus of fasting on those who fast, but rather, on the Lord.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose.” This means that Lent is not a season to restart those failed attempts at your New Year's resolutions. It’s not time to try out a new diet or to cut something out for the sake of getting ready for spring break. It’s not a time to cut back on your use of social media because it causes you to be discontent. It means that if you choose to give something up to fast this season of Lent, the purpose should be to shift your focus from being on you and your needs, to being on the Lord.
As we fast we can seek the Lord in a number of ways. We can spend time in prayer, read Scripture, meditate on Scripture and pray with others. By engaging in these disciplines we seek to humbly go before the Lord to worship Him as we practice denial of self.
As you consider giving something up for Lent, consider fasting in this season to commune and depend on the Lord. Don’t just give something up for the sake of giving something up, because that’s actually legalism, not devotion. If you choose not to participate in fasting from something during Lent, find joy in the liberty you have in that choice. May we not be a people who fast for the sake of ourselves, but to grow for the sake of godliness.
Amanda Edmondson is on staff at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Ky where she serves as the Director of Women's Ministry and the Director of Strategic Communication. You can follow her @amandaedmondson.