I grew up with the habit of giving something up for Lent. Perhaps you did also. When I was in elementary and middle school I would mull over for several weeks before Ash Wednesday what I would be willing to forego for forty very long days. Sometimes I would simply choose something I wouldn’t miss very much, like pretzels. But when I did that I always felt like I was cheating by making it too easy.
So, usually I would choose something like ice cream or chocolate; something that would require real will-power to resist. And at the end of those forty days, having fought the desire to partake of what I had chosen to give up, I felt like an athlete who had just won a marathon – a bit worn out from the daily temptations, but triumphant just the same. I had persevered.
Yet, in the end, what did all that sacrifice accomplish? Well, I proved to myself and others that I had will-power. But is this something the Lord wants us to acquire? Are we to observe Lent by proving that we can deny ourselves something?
Let’s think about this for a moment. According to the evangelists Matthew and Luke, Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert, just after his baptism and just before the devil tempted him. But we would be wrong to conclude that Jesus fasted in order to see how long he could go without food. He was not trying to prove a point – that he had the right stuff, that he had determination and will-power. He wasn’t participating in some first-century version of Survivorman.
Instead, by fasting, Jesus was seeking to empty himself of anything that distracted him from God’s voice and direction. Giving up food was just a tool in the process of letting go of his own – and anyone else’s – expectations. Fasting didn’t prepare him for the ultimate sacrifice God would require of him. Instead, fasting allowed him to be still and receptive so that God could prepare him for all that lay ahead. And, although at the end of forty days Jesus was hungry physically, he was full spiritually. He was also prepared for whatever temptation the devil had in store for him.
So God didn’t need Jesus to be self-directed or tenacious. We may find these qualities very attractive and helpful in our daily life and work. But what God needed was for Jesus to be obedient. To depend wholly upon his Father and not upon himself; to do his Father’s will and not his own.
Therefore, the sole purpose of fasting for Lent – whether that fast has to do with giving up something to eat, or some other practical thing in our lives, like fasting from television in the evening or from video games on the weekend – is to quiet one “appetite” in order to allow the Holy Spirit to awaken another – our appetite for the Lord. The undertaking of a spiritual discipline is always about giving up something, or taking on something, in order to receive something from God more fully.
So the forty days of Lent are for learning how to listen for and follow God’s direction for our lives. They provide us with an opportunity to stop and ask the Lord what he would have us do and relinquish our own plans for how to be a good person. However, in all honesty it takes a lot longer than forty days to learn the habits of faithfulness and obedience. Thankfully, our salvation is not dependent upon how quickly or well we learn them. Jesus has already brought about our salvation for us. Faithfulness and obedience are learned over the course of a lifetime among others who desire to learn the same things.
Therefore, I invite you to join with me and concede that God does not need self-directed people. Instead, God needs faithful people. People who will surrender their good intentions to him and let him re-direct them; people who will follow Jesus and not simply brief him on their plans and ask for his blessing; people who no longer try to make themselves better by being more determined. For in the end, developing willpower only makes us more resistant to the Lord.
So should you choose to give up or take on something during this season of this Lent, I hope that doing so creates an empty space that only Jesus will fill.
by Rev. Claudia Greggs