Today is Ash Wednesday. It is a day that we remember our morality and our need of God in all things. It also marks the beginning of Lent, which is the season that prepares us for the celebration of Easter.
More than that, however, Lent prepares us to receive the Good News of Christ’s love. One of the ways that we prepare ourselves for Lent is by getting our hearts ready through the spiritual practice of fasting. In fasting, we are giving up something that has control over our lives in order to grow closer to God.
Many of us will chose to fast from different things. Some of us will fast from chocolates and candies. Some of us will fast from caffeine. Some of us, like myself, will make the choice to fast from social media. This season of fasting has become such a norm for us that I wonder if we ever pay much attention to why we fast or how we should fast.
In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus talks a little bit about the practice of fasting. The words come in the middle of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” where he offers his interpretation of the law. Jesus came not to do away with the law, but to show its true meaning and purpose. Throughout this grand sermon, Jesus is showing the greater way to live out the disciplines and practices of our lives.
Fasting comes in the context of our prayer life. He has just finished teaching his disciples how to pray, and how not to pray like the hypocrites who wanted to be applauded for their prayers. Jesus teaches us that our prayers are about connecting with God and God’s desires for the entire world.
Coming out of that context, fasting enables us to grow closer to God through our prayer life. In walking away from these things that have complete control over us, we seek to grow closer to God and recognize our need for the Lord. We do not fast to merely participate in Lent. We fast to recognize that our spiritual hungers are not satisfied by the things of this world, but only by God’s presence in our lives.
That is why we fast, but we must be careful in how we practice our fasts. It must not be about ourselves. We must fast in order to grow more into the image of God and to grow in God’s love.
Jesus encourages this caution in Matthew 6:16-18 when he speaks again about the practices of the hypocrites who were more interested in their own prestige than truly fasting. They would pour ashes on their head to cover their faces, so that people would notice them. Instead of ashes being used for their true purpose of recognizing mourning, they used the ashes as a way of getting attention. Fasting was about being seen instead of growing in Christ.
We have to be cautious about this type of fasting in our own context. It is easy, and quite tempting, to make our fasts more about our own honor and prestige than about growing in Christ. In our instant-gratification and look-at-me culture, there is a temptation to use this time to brag about our fasts or to belittle others who have not fasted from the same things we have. When we make fasting, or any other spiritual discipline, more about ourselves, we lose the ability to grow in the image of God through these practices.
Jesus recognizes this temptation within all of us when he shows us the way to live out our fasts. He encourages us to go about our daily lives. Jesus says that we don’t have to do anything special to symbolize that we are fasting from something. He says to live your life as normal while you are fasting.
He says that because it is then that we recognize two things. First, we recognize how much control something has over our lives. We recognize how much power or influence we place on caffeine, for instance, to get us through the day. We recognize how much the things of this world prevent us from being the people God has called us to be. Second, it allows us to see God at work in our fasting to bring us closer to God’s love. Through our hunger, God speaks to us and calls us to grow deeper in our relationships with the Lord. We learn to find our greatest need in God’s love and to be strengthened by the Lord’s presence.
Our fasts teach us something about ourselves. As you fast this Lent, my prayer is that God will show us how easy it is for us to depend more on the world than on God’s love. My prayer is that we will walk through Lent with a desire to grow closer to God and to have our deepest hungers satisfied by the Lord.