Failing at Lent: A Five Point Theology of Fasting

I have failed at Lent already.

A good portion of what I am trying to do during Lent is being intentional and focused with my kids. I also gave up coffee.

These two collided quickly.

Im-sorry-for-what-I-said-when-I-was-hungryI came home one day with a headache and feeling tired, and my kids drove me crazy. Eventually this resulted in me snapping at one of them and chaos soon ensued.

It was a parenting fail and a Lent fail.

What I realized was that in my hurry and excitement to begin my fast, I forgot what the fast was all about. It is one thing to engage in the aesthetic practices of Lent. It is an entirely different thing to remember why we engage in those practices.

For Lent to be meaningful, it involves a lot of reflection and understanding why we are doing what we are doing. It is interesting to note that the first time Jesus addresses fasting he addresses motive. Motive is important. Otherwise fasting becomes the end rather than the means.

So here are five quick theological points on fasting (and by fasting here I mean any kind of disciplined self-denial) that can help during this Lenten season:

1. Fasting must be God-centered. Fasting is learning to focus our attention on God. It is a reminder that we are not the center of the universe. It is a reminder of who is the center of the universe. There are side benefits to fasting we receive along the way, but fasting is about learning to allow God to sustain us, and nothing else.

2. As we allow God to sustain us, we realize how many other things we turn to instead of God. Fasting reveals how we chase after the non-essentials. We get side tracked on the things which aren’t important, and we end up in a fog where reality is blurred if not undiscernable. Fasting helps lift the fog and see what is truly essential in life. We learn to choose the better over the good. We learn what to say no to and what to say yes to in order to live fully into the life of Jesus.

3. Fasting helps us face what we cover up. So much of life is appearance management and avoiding the difficult things we would rather not have to face day-in and day-out. Fasting brings these things to the surface. As Richard Foster says, If I find myself angry during a fast, it is not the result of depriving myself, it is because there was anger lurking within me. Ouch. But true. Fasting makes you get up close and personal with the scariest person to face: you.

4. Fasting helps us learn how to live in the non-joyful moments of life. Life is difficult. Suffering happens. It is not “if” difficulty happens, it is a “when.” Lent is a practice run for difficulty and suffering. Jesus tells us not to act miserable during a fast, because we are teaching ourselves how to live on God’s grace and sustenance during the difficult moments. Which brings us to the most important point…

5. Fasting is about grace. To me, this is a huge sigh of relief in light of the others. As I realize how often I push God out of the center of the universe, see how often I miss the point, wrestle with my own sin and darkness, or am in practice for the non-joyful times in life, Lent seems a little bleak. But actually all of this is about grace. It is about keeping my attention on the grace God give in every moment. It is receiving the gift God has right here and now and removing the things which keep me from seeing those gifts. It is the gift of change. It is actually possible for me to deal with the darkness in my own life and begin to let God change me. Lent is learning to practice and live into the resurrection. Denial and death lead to transformation and new life.

And my failures in all these areas do not have the final word.


** This is a really brief overview based on Joan Chittister’s The Liturgical Year, Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines. These are all fantastic resources that I return to over and over.

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