This is a question I ask myself every year, and if you are among those of us who give something up, the why may be the most important part of your Lenten fast. Do you give something up because your faith community does, and because you always have? Is it a way to jump-start your new diet? Are you trying to quit smoking, overeating or drinking until you blackout? Is there some other habit you want to break and you love the support of a Lent practicing community?? Do you want to undertake some heroic discipline to prove your devotion to God? Do you think if you don’t eat chocolate God loves you more?
The answer to that last question, when we put it so baldly, is an obvious no. God will not love us more if we spend less time on Facebook, don’t eat chocolate or candy, or give up (for the next six weeks) eating green eggs and ham in a box, with a fox, in house, with a mouse, here or there or anywhere. And yet, sometimes our participation in fasts or religious practices feel like it is just us trying to prove our worth to God.
The prophet Samuel’s words to Saul offer us a corrective, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22). To obey is better than sacrifice. Unfortunately, us post-modern pilgrims find neither obedience or sacrifice appealing and sometimes miss the wisdom in the prophet’s words. Sacrifice was a ritual designed to appease a god. When done right, it reminded the person sacrificing of their own brokenness and the way they wound themselves, others, and God. When done poorly, as Saul did in 1 Sam. 15, it was a way to honor God without submitting to God’s desire for our lives. We don’t sacrifice rams, but our Lenten fast can be a similar religious pretending. We may fast before God when our heart is somewhere else.
But obedience is a hard thing for us too. We tend to think of obedience in legalistic terms. A slavish following of rules and a harsh authority structure. One of my favorite movies is the adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club (1993). There is one scene where Suyuan, an immigrant from China, and little girl June clash over her not wanting to take piano lessons, and Suyuan shouts, “Only two kinds of daughter. Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind. Only one kind of daughter lives in this house. Obedient kind!” As a father of girls, I quote this to my daughters all the time. And they both ignore me every single time I say it.
The word obey in Hebrew was shema. It means hearing, listening, attending to. The obedient life is the listening life. It is a lifestyle mindful of God’s presence in our lives. To obey is to pay attention to God and God’s desires for us. This is the first and best reason to give up something for Lent: to train our ears and hearts to hear God and listen to him in all of life. If we give something up, it is because we recognize it as a thing that numbs our sense of the Divine. We eschew distraction in order to be more mindful and to listen well.
The second reason we fast in Lent, is because we believe spiritual transformation is possible. It is why I do it. I recognize I am not who I want to be, and I am not who I pretend to be most of the time. I earnestly wish I was more compassionate, braver, more prayerful, and less petty, shallow, and wounded. I believe in spiritual transformation, that as we give our heart to God, he makes us new. I give something up, I fast, I cast off distractions because I hope it will change me.
But our spiritual transformation is not just about personal change. It is about welcoming the Kingdom of God into our neighborhoods, cities, our nation. One of the reasons we don’t see a greater change in our lives is because of our participation in systems and structures which mitigate against God’s coming kingdom.
For example, we all agree racism is pretty awful. People should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But we do not live in a post-race society. Our culture still bears the mark of centuries of slavery, a hundred years of Jim Crow, historic redlining and discriminatory policies, mass incarceration of African American males (when white American’s guilty of similar crimes get lighter or no sentence), violence against the Black community, etc. As a white privileged person, I am part of a system that has benefited me, even in ways I’m not particularly aware, and hurt other people. Our belief in spiritual transformation challenges these systemic realities. It can’t be only about private devotion. Spiritual transformation means welcoming the system overhaul of the Kingdom of God.
The Bible passage that best informs every Lenten fast (or any other kind of fast) is Isaiah 58. Isaiah 58:6-9 reads:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
When we make fasting and Lent about ourselves and solely about our relationship with God, we are doing it wrong. Yes, it is good to break some bad personal habits, but how can our Lenten Fast participate in God’s justice? Are the oppressed set free because we gave up Scotch (but not other single malts)?
I try to think about Justice with my Lenten fast. For several years, I have given up, to various degrees, eating meat during Lent. But as I’ve done this, I have also tried to faithfully cross-examine my economic participation in America’s industrial food complex. Issues come up like our cruelty to animals, economic oppression of rural farmers, exploitation of immigrants for cheap labor, environmental stewardship, etc. Taking a step back from my consumption of certain things has given me space to examine my lifestyle and choices. I am not vegan (except seasonly, during Lent), but because of trying to practice Lent conscientiously, I have changed some of my buying practices the rest of the time too.
If you give up chocolate, God doesn’t love you more. But when we recognize that the harvesting of cocoa beans in West Africa exploits child labor and slaves and that our conspicuous consumption (not to mention the demand for cheap chocolate) contributes to untold suffering, we begin to make changes. Our fast unties the yoke of injustice.
So give something up for Lent. Use your fast as a way to cast off patterns of life that distract you. Attend to God’s presence in your life. Believe that spiritual transformation is possible and look for ways to participate in God’s justice.