“Is this not 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?”
(Isa 58:6 ESV)
This being Ash Wednesday, the beginning the Lenten season, everybody’s talking about what they’re going to give up as an act of discipline. Some have turned off social media, some will try to quit smoking, others have promised, somewhat humorously, to stop shoveling snow.
If taken seriously, the practice of forsaking those vices that tempt and try your soul is a commendable thing, especially if it leads to a permanent victory over a besetting sin. However, to merely give something up that is not inherently bad, depriving yourself of a God-given pleasure, to somehow feel “closer to God” for 40 days, only to take it back up again in the end seems… how do I say this… NUTS!
I don’t think this is a Biblical teaching. It may be rooted in tradition, but at the heart of it, the notion of a Lenten Fast to demonstrate devotion and discipline smacks of works righteousness, declaring, “Hey God, I gave up caffeine for 40 days, just for you. Aren’t you proud of me? I may have been a terrible grouch, but didn’t I prove to you my spiritual fortitude?” Now where’s that jewel in my crown? Have you ever stopped to ask how many people are actually drawn to the Gospel of Jesus Christ because you gave up wearing polyester pant suits for 7 weeks? Did anyone even notice?
Now, if I haven’t totally offended you and you’re still reading, here’s my suggestion: Rather than give up some trivial pleasure this Lent, fast from something that doesn’t belong in the Christian life anyway, something that you, the Church, and your community would be better off without for good. Here are a few suggestions:
Complaining – Nothing has ever really been gained by a grumbling and complaining spirit. Yes, yes, the squeaky wheel gets the oil, but it also eventually gets replaced. Look through the history of Scripture, never once did God commend the complaining spirit. Complaining about your lot in life, at its heart, is really telling God that you know better how your life should be going, that you have a better plan. Complaining, if we take the Israelites in the wilderness as our example, is always looking back at what’s happened in the past, always looking down at what’s happening right now, but never looking forward to what God has promised, to what God is doing. I will not say that God cannot use a complaining spirit, but when He does, it usually isn’t a good thing. Stop complaining. Remember, God is using the very things you are complaining about to work transformation in your life – it has a holy purpose. Give up complaining for 40 days, you, and everyone else around you, will be better for it.
Comparing – Connected to the idea of complaining is that of comparing. We like to compare ourselves to others all the time. We compare ourselves to those who are less fortunate and say, “Well, at least I’m not that bad.” We compare ourselves to those who seem to have everything and say, “When is it going to be my turn?” Constantly comparing yourself to others to demonstrate your righteousness will get you nowhere with God. Constantly comparing yourself to others to make excuses for yourself doesn’t have any standing before God either. Stop comparing yourself to others, and comfort yourself in the knowledge that God has put you where you are, given you the gifts that you have, and is working his grace within you now, that you might grow in the likeness of Christ. If you must compare yourself to anyone, compare yourself with Him – then cry out to him for mercy and grace.
Bitterness – Nothing hinders the Gospel, nothing quenches the Spirit, nothing obscures the witness quite like a bitter and unforgiving Spirit. “God is love,” we say. “I’ve been forgiven,” we celebrate. “But it will be a cold day in you-know-where before I forgive him…” I love the phrase “nursing a grudge” because that’s exactly what it is; you are keeping that grudge, that bitterness, that hostility alive, feeding it and nurturing it so that it is always there. Rather than fostering love, forgiveness, and peace, a bitter and hostile spirit leads to division, animosity, and tearing one another down. If you have been forgiven, you will forgive. If you are unwilling to forgive, have you really been forgiven? This Lent, try fasting from bitterness, and feasting on forgiveness.
Despair – Now by this I don’t mean grief. There are certainly occasions where grief is appropriate, especially when grieving over the death of a loved one. By despair I mean that hopeless, pessimistic burden that comes when we forget the Gospel message. When we look at our sin, our guilt, our shame, and we say, Well, I’ve certainly done it this time. God surely can’t, won’t, forgive me now. This despair comes when we turn our eyes from God, from His love for us in Christ, from the earth-shattering power of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, from the wonder-working power of His Spirit in us. This despair comes when we stop listening to His promises, stop dwelling in His Word, stop fellowshipping with His Church. We despair when we forget who He is, who He has called us to be, and who we truly are in Christ. Give up this unhealthy, unfaithful, un-gospel despair, and rejoice in the fact that He has called you His child – and so you are!
So there you have it, just a few suggestions; feel free to add your own ideas in the comments below. May this Lenten Season be a time when you can cast off every weight and sin which clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race set before you, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.