When I was a kid, I never gave up anything for Lent because, well, that was a Catholic thing. Granted, some Protestants follow the traditions of Lent, but I did not grasp that in my younger days. In my immature, impressionable mind, the rites of Catholicism had been established as showy and superficial. I never read in the Bible about having an ashy cross drawn on one’s forehead and participating in a mandated abstinence from hamburgers on Fridays. I considered myself a good little Protestant by treating the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter as ordinary as any other and, shamefully, scoffed at kids in my class who said they had given up meat, pop, chocolate, or sugar for Lent. Hopefully you can forgive this unfair prejudice; it wasn’t the first instance of Protestants and Catholics not understanding each other (can you say, “Ireland”?).
Now that this front pew kid is all grown up, my views on fasting during Lent have changed somewhat. Also, now that the Internet can answer virtually any question, I can find terrific articles to educate me about the history of Lent, the exact rules regarding fasting during Lent for Catholics, and whether, if a person is giving up eating meat on Fridays, chicken counts as a meat. But more importantly, I do not assume that all people who fast during Lent give up the same thing for the same reasons for the same amount of time. I can imagine that some people give up things quietly, telling no one or only those who need to know. This is how I believe people should fast, since this is what Jesus said on the matter:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18).
Bragging or making a show about what you are giving up for Lent is just as repugnant to God as belittling someone for fasting during Lent. After all, during Lent or at any other time of the year, God cares about the motives of our actions rather than the actions themselves. When Saul was king of Israel, God commanded him to destroy a group of people called the Amalekites and everthing that belonged to them. Saul had no qualms about annihilating the people, but instead of killing the best livestock, he thought he’d make himself big in God’s eyes by giving Him the best spoils. When Saul wanted to know why God was furious at him for this, the prophet Samuel said,
“…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 Samuel 15:22).
When you give something up during Lent, you might be sacrificing, but are you still obeying? If you go to Greasy Spoon Cafe on a Friday and order the “Bottomless Catch” fish basket because you’re abstaining from red meat but are rude to the waitress, are you following the commandments to love God with all your being, and to love others as you love yourself? If you “fast” by giving up television but do not fill your now TV-free time with activities that turn your heart to God, what is the point (see Joel 2:12)? You might impress someone with a claim to be abstaining from sugar until Easter, but if a sugar withdrawal makes you sour and bitter, God is not impressed. After all, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7b).
I like the idea of fasting. I like the idea of making a decision to abstain from something and spend the time instead praying, reading the Bible, or listening to praise music. But for me, I do not see how giving up one type of food makes more room for God in my life. Jesus said, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” (Mark 7:15). What would please God more: giving up chocolate…or cheating? lamb…or lying? steak…or sarcasm? pot roast…or pride?
Fasting has been a way to honor God since the Old Testament times, and many Christians still do so today. This front pew kid has a better understanding of why and how it can be done and just might make it a bigger part of her life. Giving up a food can remind us how blessed we are to be able to give something up. Giving up a sinful habit can bring us closer to God’s righteousness. Either way, it should be done quietly. Others might notice the effects. God will definitely know our intentions.
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