What Is Lent?
Lent is the 40 day period that begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. It’s a time of searching and assessing oneself in order to repent, draw closer to God, and live more honest lives.
The 40 days of Lent mimic Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness immediately after his baptism, and in them, we do many of the same things Jesus did- fast, pray, and wrestle with temptation. Some people choose something to fast from in order to remind themselves of their dependence on God and to expose idols. Rather than subtract, many others choose to add something like Bible reading or prayer in traditional or nontraditional ways. And anyone who sets a new intention or seeks to break a habit knows that the temptation not to follow through is inevitable.
If we choose to observe a fast during Lent, we are encouraged to make the guidelines serve our spiritual needs rather than forcing ourselves to conform to an ancient tradition. However, ancient traditions rarely endure the test of time if they don’t also have some real life benefits that make them meaningful year after year. It’s possible that by fasting in the midst of a society that is constantly and carelessly pushing us to over-consume, we find the space needed to see God and faith from an altogether new vantage point. We may begin to look at ourselves or our world differently too.
I tried fasting from coffee two consecutive years, but never made it past the 2nd or 3rd week. Does that mean the fast was a failure? Absolutely not. I learned that it was next to impossible for me to be productive without obscene amounts of caffeine. That insight led me to the right questions: What is it about myself and the world I live in that makes dependence on a mild drug a daily need for productivity? And why was productivity the criteria I used to assess the meaningfulness of my life in the first place?
At the time, I was working way too much on things that were of only trivial value. I would come home, spend time with Alyssa, and then after she went to bed, I worked for another couple of hours. My fast didn’t fail; it showed me exactly what values were driving my life.
A friend once chose to fast from sugar during Lent. After failing to make it through the full 40 days, she told me it was the best fast she’d ever done precisely because she failed. Initially she felt remorse and worthlessness. Then she remembered other fasts she failed without ever feeling the same level of despondence. She realized that the real reason she felt so depressed was because she failed to lose weight. Why did she think losing weight would make her a better Christian and a better person? Why did she need to hide her real intentions behind spiritual motives? She didn’t succeed in her fast, but she did succeed in finding her true motives, and that’s what a Lenten fast is all about.
The Lenten fast isn’t about winning. We don’t award merit badges for being a Super Christian. The point isn’t to live as an ascetic for 40 days. A fast introduces a controlled disruption into our lives.
Forty days is short enough that we can choose a fast or a practice significant enough to disorder/reorder our habits. When doing endurance drills, an old coach used to tell me that I could stand on my head and eat sand for a minute if I had to, so I should be glad he wasn’t demanding more. Forty days is too long to stand on our heads and eat sand, but it’s short enough that we can be ambitious in our goals. Better to fail and learn a difficult truth than to succeed and remain blind to one.
Forty days is also just long enough to sit in the discomfort of a difficult task and gain real insight. It’s long enough to experience the fog of a brain being purged of sugar, but it’s also long enough to find the mental clarity on the other side. Forty grouchy, caffeine-free mornings are more than enough to begin seeing capitalism’s contributions to American church culture, and how I came to perpetuate them.
An appropriate fast disrupts our normal patterns enough to expose our rough edges and allow us to see ourselves more honestly. If we’re lucky, we’ll discover the very same things we work so hard to hide from ourselves. Because of this nature, Lent is best practiced in community with others who show us grace and compassion. Experiencing grace encourages rigorous honesty while judgement leads to deception.
We need trusted allies who can tell us that it’s okay when we fail, because our value doesn’t come from our success. We need gentle guides who can help us translate our experiences into explanations more compassionate and true than the ones we give ourselves: We didn’t fail a sugar fast because we are weak. We failed because we’re chemically dependent, and it takes both herculean strength and collegiate level research and planning to eliminate sugar from a modern American diet. Besides, our value doesn’t come from our appearance, but from our personhood.
Beginning and quitting a fast early isn’t the worst thing that can happen in Lent. Becoming more self-righteous or self-debasing is.
The Lenten journey is and should be a trying one, and it’s one we shouldn’t take alone. Still, it’s better to go alone than with someone who doesn’t understand the journey. There’s no place for judgement on this road, because we’re headed to the cross where it will both expose and save us, if we’ll let it. So whether we choose to schedule a disruption into our lives this season or simply pay attention to our inner life in a special way, Lent is impossible to get wrong if we’re committed to being honest with ourselves and God.