Giving Up Something for Lent?

Rev. Michael Keith

I love food. A lot. I love trying different kinds of food. I like trying foods that I have never had before. I love going back and eating the old tried and true favorites. Food is a big part of my life. In fact, the grade eight kids that I teach a class in Christian Studies to each morning at our school have said that I talk about food a lot in class. Apparently many of my illustrations end up talking about food. I wasn't aware that I do that, but they have noticed a pattern. I guess it is subconscious! I like food.

There are traditionally three customs that are associated with Christians observing the penitential season of Lent:

  1. Increased time for God's Word and prayer
  2. Almsgiving
  3. Fasting

It is quite common for Lutheran congregations to have mid-week Lenten Services to provide the opportunity to God's people for increased time in God's Word and prayer. It is also common for the offerings at those Services to be directed outside of the parish's needs to support some charity, mission, or other cause. But what about the third? What about fasting? Did I mention I like food? I don't know if I like the sound of that one!

Why would a Christian "fast" during the Season of Lent? Well, let's clear away some of the junk before we go there. No, it's not to punish yourself for your sins. No, it's not some way to show God how sorry you are. No, it's not some way to show God (or any other people who happen to notice) how sincere you are. No, it's not a way to impress God or earn anything from Him. And no, it's not to lose weight!

Why then? We Christians might fast during Lent to learn to discipline the desires that so often rule over us. It is not unlike going to the gym and lifting weights--the more you exercise the muscle the stronger it gets. The flip side of this is when you go and do something that you don't normally do and use muscles that you don't normally use you often find it very difficult and that the next day you are really sore! When you exercise your will over your desires you learn to exercise self-discipline. So, fasting during Lent is one way to exercise the "discipline muscle" over your desires.

What does fasting look like? How do you fast? There are different ways this is done among Christians and there is no "right" way. Some people will talk about "giving something up for Lent." This is one form of fasting. You are "fasting" from that "thing you gave up." It takes willpower to deny yourself whatever you have "given up for Lent." Some common examples of this is a certain food or drink that you like or watching TV. Recently it has become common for people to fast from social media during Lent.

Another form of fasting is the reduction of food at meals. Fasting is not starving, nor should it be as that is unhealthy! However, one form of fasting is to consciously eat less. One tradition is to eat only one full meal a day with two considerably smaller meals. The idea behind this is that not only is it an exercise in self-discipline but it is also an opportunity to turn our hunger and desire from the physical to the spiritual. We fast to turn away from self and toward God. As the hunger created by the fast is directed towards God in prayer, we grow in understanding what Jesus said: "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst" (John 6:35).

So, does it matter if you fast? Nope. Not at all. You are free in Christ to eat all you want during Lent. Your relationship to God does not depend upon your fasting. Your salvation has nothing to do with fasting. Your salvation was secured for you by Jesus and His perfect life, His death on the cross, and His resurrection. It was given to you as the waters of Holy Baptism were poured over you. Your sins are forgiven as the words of the Holy Absolution are spoken into your ears. Forgiveness, life, and salvation are yours in Christ as it is placed in your mouth in the Holy Supper. Fasting has nothing to do with your salvation. Period. However, some Christians through the centuries have found it helpful in their life of faith. It has been a common practice among Christians since the earliest times. It sets apart the Season of Lent from the rest of the seasons. It also has the effect of connecting our spiritual life to our everyday physical life. It is a practice that has largely been lost among us North American Lutherans. Perhaps this Lenten Season would be a good time to rediscover this practice?

One last piece of trivia for you concerning the Season of Lent: The Sundays are not a part of Lent. All the Sundays are Sundays "in Lent" but not of Lent. Why? Because Sundays are always a feast day! Sundays are always a day when Christians gather around our resurrected and ascended Lord. Sundays are always days when we gather to rejoice and receive the gifts Christ comes to give. It is true that the Sundays in Lent will often reflect the penitential themes of the Season, but make no mistake about it: Sundays are always Feast days! So this means that during the Season of Lent--if you choose--Sundays are days during which your fast does not apply!

A blessed Lenten Season to you--however you choose to observe it--as we contemplate the wondrous love shown to us by our Savior, Jesus.

Rev. Michael Keith serves as pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church and SML Christian Academy in Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada. He can be reached at keith@st-matthew.com

Created: February 10th, 2016