The season of Lent is upon us. Ash Wednesday will mark the beginning of our Lenten discipline where we commit ourselves to a spiritual fast from some unnecessary habit that impinges upon our following Jesus. But how do we choose what to fast from? I have a recommendation that I hope helps you decide.
Too often Lenten fasts devolve into 40-day diets that turn out to serve superficial ends. So, I propose that we do not begin with the question, “What will I fast from for 40 days?” Rather, we ought to begin with the simple question, “What habit in my life is threatening my discipleship to Jesus?” Perhaps it is wasted time and poor planning. Perhaps it is wasted money. Perhaps it is some sort of indulgence that is quickly turning into separation from God. Perhaps it is an overloaded schedule.
Whatever the answer to that question is for you, the idea is to use Lent as an exercise in ridding that unnecessary habit from your life. But, here is the place of warning. Lent cannot simply be about fasting from something unhealthy or unnecessary, or even sinful. Consider this passage:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-26, NRSV)
Lent is not just about fasting. It is not just about getting the ‘house’ clean and putting life in order. It is about replacing the bad habit, the unnecessary thing, with something that brings life.
Joan Chittister has written a wonderful book on the liturgical year and its various seasons, illuminating for us the meaning that rests behind each part of the calendar year. In the section on Lent and the spiritual discipline of “asceticism” associated with it, she reinforces this idea – that Lent is not merely emptying ourselves of unrighteousness, but also about filling ourselves with new disciplines and habits.
“There is nothing passive about asceticism. It is the active giving of the self – physical and spiritual – in order to concentrate the soul, viselike, on the center of life rather than on its peripherals. The ascetic knows that to become what we can become spiritually, some things – even good things, perhaps – must be forgone. It is not that good things must be be forsaken; it is that they must be indulged in with balance. The Talmud says that ‘If a person has the opportunity to taste a new fruit and refuses to do so, he will have to account for that in the next world.’ The ascetic lives with the spiritual awareness that choosing between the good and the better is the discipline that makes us the best of what we set out to be. Asceticism (and Lent) is not about giving up things for their own sake. It is as much about achieving more life – another kind of life – as it is about giving it up.
The ascetic life demands that we deny ourselves physical pleasures. It requires us to distinguish between the superfluous and the necessary. It assumes that bodily comfort must not be allowed to soften the search for spiritual fortitude. Every religious tradition, as a result, requires that the seeker give things up, yes, but it also promises the gifts of the soul that can hardly be acquired any other way.”
So Lent is about giving something up. But it is more. It is about acquiring something new. It is about achieving more life. Lent is about recognizing that in the course of the last year we have softened our search for the living God. Our zeal for the Lord has waned. In the last 365 days we have been transformed, like it or not, oftentimes in the image of the world rather than the likeness of Christ. Habit is what forms us. Disciplines (good or bad) shape us into something. Either we are being formed into the likeness of Christ, or we are being formed into the likeness of the world. Lent, therefore, offers us the opportunity to forsake one thing that is threatening our spiritual formation and to seek a new habit, a new discipline. Lent does not just offer the pain of fasting and self-denial. For we know that it is in dying to self that we find resurrection. Lent points us to Easter. It ends in new life.