I have to admit, I haven’t always had the best relationship with Lent. I remember as a teenager resolving to give up swearing for Lent, and failing after a week while rapping along to Rage Against the Machine.
I’m now a Pentecostal pastor, and as such I travel through the year with most of the church calendar passing me by – other than the big three of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. So I haven’t engaged with Lent in a few years.
This year, our lead pastor Iain decided he was going to do the Daniel Fast in the lead-up to Easter. He invited the church to join him, and quite a few have done. We produced a 21-day devotional booklet to accompany the fast, reflecting on the parable of the prodigal son, and off we went!
If you’re unaware of the Daniel Fast, there are lots of websites that will tell you all about it. Essentially, it’s a vegan die, with a few extra exclusions like only drinking water, based on two moments in the life of Daniel. Daniel chose to eat only vegetables, rather than rich food from the king’s table, for 10 days. Later in his life, Daniel fasted for 21 days. These two moments are combined in the Daniel Fast, so you eat only fruit and vegetables for 21 days.
My theology on fasting has developed a fair amount in recent years. I don’t recall ever hearing any teaching on it growing up, so my perception for a long time was that the purpose of fasting was to fast for a specific outcome. I never really understood the idea that by abstaining from food, a person could somehow convince God to answer their prayers. I’ve been asked a few times throughout this fast why we’re doing it. Each time, the tone of the question has implied: “What specifically are you asking God to do for you?”
The first few times I was asked this, I didn’t have a very good answer. I think that honestly, to begin with, the only reason I was doing it was because I wanted to join in. That doesn’t sound very spiritual, does it? Even so, there is something about joining together in unity as a church that lends some weight to that reason. Of course, I was determined for that not to be the only reason I was doing the fast.
In my mind, the primary purpose of fasting is closeness with God. We choose to abstain from something that is enjoyable, in order to devote ourselves more fully to Him. As a result of that intimacy, our prayers may be more faith-filled – not because God is so impressed with our holiness in giving up a few meals, but because our hearts are more aligned with His through spending time in His presence. We become more like Jesus when we devote ourselves to spending time with him.
Isaiah 58:1-12 gives us God’s blunt opinion on the right and wrong motives for fasting. If we fast with selfish motives, God isn’t impressed, but when we fast with hearts turned towards God, the result is godly character and action.
So what have I learned through this fast? Here’s my honest assessment: I haven’t loved it. It’s been hard at times. I’ve missed meat and pasta. I’ve had horrendous trapped wind. The first couple of days I had headaches and my legs ached terribly. There have been some days when the only reason I kept going with it was because I didn’t want to be the one who quit. In the midst of that, it’s been hard to retain a spiritual focus on why I’m doing it. I haven’t necessarily felt closer to God, although going through the devotional booklet with my wife has been great. Even though we wrote it, we’ve still found some of the questions difficult to answer!
I’m aware that some people from my church may read this, so I’ll admit that I was tempted to write as if the whole thing was easy and I’ve reached the most incredible standard of spirituality and holiness. Instead I’ve been honest – hopefully not too honest – because I think I’m probably not the only person who doesn’t find fasting easy. My heart wasn’t always in it. I’m already looking forward to my first trip to Nando’s after Easter.
In case you’re like me, let me share with you some of the questions I’m asking myself as I come to the end of this fast and as I reflect on it afterwards.
1. I love food. That’s not a problem in itself, but do I love food more than I love Jesus?
2. What have I wrongly believed about myself and about God that made it hard for me to connect with Him through this fast? My first thought on this one would be that my initial reason for doing the fast wasn’t good enough and therefore neither am I.
3. Am I prepared to build short periods of fasting into my rule of life to deliberately seek intimacy with Jesus?
This all seems a bit negative, doesn’t it? As I write this, I’m just over halfway through my fast. I’m going to spend the remaining days of this fast seeking intimacy with God, using these questions to help me. Fasting isn’t meant to be easy, but it is a spiritual discipline that we all should engage with.