Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The case for Lent from a (sort of) Reformed perspective

[E]very year somehow it's so easy for Easter to slip up on us, and suddenly we're saying, 'Oh, my goodness, it's palm Sunday already!' Let's think of some ways to be prepared, to be waiting for Easter. [...] 
In some churches, fasting has been a traditional way of expressing dependence on God during Lent. Of course, like any other religious observance, fasting is only as significant as the intent of the heart. The practice may be nothing more than legalism, or on the other hand, it can be a way of saying, 'Oh, God, I want you more than I want any of the good things in my life--food, videos, crossword puzzles, shopping, etc. You are the one who fulfills my desires.' 
We may find that a fast of some sort helps us recognize our reliance on God.  Whether it's a fast from some particular food or meal or from some activity, such as watching TV, reading the newspaper, or surfing the Web, we need to remember that fasting is two-sided. It's not just turning away from something for a while, but it is also turning toward God. In the time that is 'added' to our day through fasting from some activity, we might:
  • consider the depth of our sin and the height of God's love in Jesus, asking God for forgiveness.
  • remember Jesus' forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, and consider the temptations that hit us the hardest.
  • pray for our enemies and the people in our lives who are most difficult to like.
  • pray for the salvation of a neighbor, coworker, or family member. 
[...] Even if we don't feel led to fast during Lent, let's ask God to show us what it is that we depend too much on, and ask him to help us cut back that dependence while we lean all the more on him.
~Treasuring God in Our Traditions, by Noël Piper (pdf available here)
Christian fasting is a test to see what desires control us. 
Fasting reveals the measure of food's mastery over us--or television or computers or whatever we submit to again and again to conceal the weakness of our hunger for God. 
A real lived-out human act of preference for God over his gifts is the actual lived-out glorification of God's excellence for which he created the world. Fasting is not the only way, or even the main way, that we glorify God in preferring him above his gifts.  But it is one way.
~A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer, by John Piper (excerpted in Treasuring God in Our Traditions)

I grew up observing Lent.  Which makes sense, since my family attended a Protestant church that observed Lent (along with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, which we commemorated with a sunrise service in a local cemetery), but even when we switched to a much less liturgical church, I continued my Lenten activities.  And while I understand much of the hostility to liturgy, church calendars, and the empty legalism that so often accompanies Lent, I still cherish this tradition.
I really enjoy food.  A lot.  In fact, I enjoy food so much that the idea of giving up certain foods is positively terrifying.  I have, on occasion, worried that as a result God will smite me with lactose intolerance and I will have to live out the rest of my days in a cheese-less, ice-cream-less world of joyless drudgery, where everything will turn a dingy shade of grey and I will forget how to laugh.  The thought of facing my day without the welcome boost of that first cup of coffee is downright abhorrent to me.  And then there's the whole 'sweets' issue.  Don't even get me started on that.

Anyway, the bottom line is that, all too often, my god is my stomach.  And fasting in general is a great way for me to remind myself that it is God--and not that first cup of hot, delicious, black coffee--who gives me the strength to face the day.  When I fast, I remember that I don't have to give in to temptation.  That just because I want that danish, or that dish of ice cream, or that wedge of brie, doesn't mean I have to have it.  As a child of God, dead to sin and alive in Christ, I have the ability to make choices about what to put in my body.  And sometimes that means enjoying the good things God has made--like hot buttered rum on a cold winter evening or a mouthwatering slice of gooey, cheesy pizza.  And other times, it means letting that bag of chips or tray of cookies pass me by.  These short periods of more strict abstention remind me that I can choose moderation.  I don't have to be a slave to my desires.  Like the Sabbath, food was created for man; not man for food.  And as I learn that I can say no to desires for good things, I remember that I can also resist the temptation to do bad things.  The mere fact of temptation does not require my capitulation.  Fasting is like a warm-up in killing sin and resisting temptation--by temporarily fighting the desire for good things, I remember that in Christ I can now fight the desire for sinful things.  I exercise self-control, and that builds my 'muscle mass', if you will, and makes it easier for me to face situations that call for even more self-control.

Then, too, while fasting, these periodic cravings can serve as reminders to do some positive activity--like a little internal alarm clock set to go off at regular (or irregular) intervals.  So when I find myself tempted, I can turn my mind to intercessory prayer, or to Scripture memorization, or to some other spiritual discipline that tends to get relegated to the back burner.  Not that I am using fasting or prayer or Scripture memory to make me more holy.  It is not a ritualistic obsession, but a purposeful choice to act.

So much for why I am in favor of fasting generally.  Now for Lent.  Theologically speaking, Lent is just another time of year.  Christ is just a risen during Lent as He is after Easter.  I get that.  But Jesus is just as incarnate now as He is Christmas Day, and yet many of the Christians who oppose Lent have no problem whatsoever with a certain amount of pre-Christmas hoopla.  And many churches who ignore Lent still observe Good Friday.  So the opposition to some sort of church calendar seems inconsistent at best. And after all, no one seems to be arguing that the celebration of a birthday is wrong because it somehow disrespects the birthday boy or girl, who of course exists all year long.  Likewise, a husband who honors his wife on their anniversary is rarely criticized for somehow demeaning their marriage as a whole.  (Of course, if he only honors his wife on their anniversary, that is a different matter.  But the mere fact of celebrating an anniversary does not necessarily imply a lack of respect for the day-to-day, and may in fact be an expression of the love and devotion he feels on a daily basis.)  So this idea of choosing a particular day to honor a perpetually existent reality is all but universally accepted in other contexts.

And after all, there's something to be said for this idea of preparation.  I like preparing myself for Christmas.  When I don't, it flies by and I realize I've spent no time at all contemplating the wonder of the incarnation.  The same goes for Easter.  If I'm not careful, it'll blow right by me.  And that is not something I am ok with.  I like to prepare--to think about it, to mull it over, to dwell on the gospel.  Obviously, this is something I should be thinking about on a daily basis--and I do.  But that doesn't mean I don't want to spend a little extra time contemplating Christ's sacrifice in preparation for Easter Sunday.  And Lent is a great way to do that--my cravings remind me of the gospel.

Then, too, there is something to be said for the communal aspect of Lent.  As I fast, I know that millions of other Christians are fasting with me--and millions more have fasted in years past.  I take comfort in knowing that all these Christians counted their God as far more precious than their desires.  They prized the Giver more than the Gifts.  They, too, looked forward to the sorrow of Good Friday and the joyous victory of Easter Sunday.  And just as I enjoy praising God with other saints on Sunday morning, and look forward to spending eternity in corporate worship, I enjoy sharing with other Christians--past, present, and future--the act of worship that is Lenten fasting.

That'll be two cents, please. 

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