“What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:10)
The Christian life is not a halfhearted affair. It is not like a cardigan that we put on when it is cold and take off when it gets hot. The Lord asks for our devotion in good times and bad, regardless of external circumstances or internal feelings. Jesus describes it this way, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) It is a great step forward in our spiritual journey when Jesus’ words have sunk so deeply into our soul that we are moved from a “Sunday only” kind of faith to an everyday, all-in discipleship. This is a dynamic life of faith that seeks first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. A life where acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God are the desires of the heart. A thoughtful, active, and growing life marked by righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
And yet all of us, even the most ardent followers of Jesus, have times of stagnation or wandering. Unless there are robust rhythms in our spiritual lives, we can stumble and fall. This is why the church holds weekly services for ongoing equipping and renewal. It is also why the church has set aside yearly commemorations for specific attention and spiritual practices. One of these is the season of Lent – a period of forty days commencing on Ash Wednesday and ending the day before Easter (Sundays are not counted in the forty days). Lent is one of the oldest extra-biblical observations in Christendom. Its formal roots go back to the Council of Nicaea in 325, which drew from practices from the earliest days of the church – days that involved preparation for Easter. This year Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, commences two weeks from now, on February 14.
Lent is a time for reflection on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, which should lead his disciples into self-reflection, repentance, and renewal. Traditionally, this has been through prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor – actions intended to disrupt the normal patterns of living and focus our attention on Jesus. While these practices are not the exclusive province of Lent, there is much to be gained by an annual remembrance.
There is no single way to observe Lent. Some Christians will take on a new discipline such as daily prayer or quiet time. Some will give to the poor or volunteer. But the most common practice is a fast from food and increasingly from technology. According to a 2014 study, roughly 17% of adults in the U.S. plan to actively participate in some form of physical fasting during Lent. The breakdown is described as follows: “Among those who plan to celebrate Lent this year, the most common abstentions include food or drink, such as chocolate (30%), meat (28%), sugar (28%), soda drinks (26%), alcohol (24%), fruit (14%) and butter or cream (11%). Although less common, many Americans who fast for Lent are planning to abstain from technology or entertainment. This includes curtailing use of social networks (16%), smartphones (13%), television (11%), video games (10%), movies (9%) and the Internet (9%). Activities that were mentioned by fewer than 2% of respondents include sex, smoking and swearing.” (The Barna Group)
Fasting from food can be an important spiritual discipline. I know several people who do it as a regular practice to great benefit. Yet, we must not forget that the purpose of all fasting is to draw us closer to God and His kingdom. God spoke very clearly on this (through the prophet Isaiah) by criticizing those who physically fasted, even as their hearts were hardened to the people in their family and community. “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? … If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” (Isaiah 58:5-10)
While the concept of an external fast from food is well established, the passage in Isaiah reveals God’s desire that we should also fast from the evil in our heart – things such as injustice, oppression, greed, selfishness, gossip, and anger. What good is a fast from externals when internals are ignored? God does not say that physical fasting from food is wrong, just that it is subordinate to the deeper internal matters of the heart. Indeed, this is precisely the reason Jesus chastised the Pharisees – their fasting was accompanied by pride and self-righteousness. (Matthew 6:16-18) Fasting from food does not avail when there is sin in the soul. This isn’t about the merits of an external fast from what we eat, rather the importance of an internal fast from what we have in our heart. God, it seems, would have us fast from the sin that arises from our inside, which manifests itself in our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. For as Jesus declared, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:10). Clearly, we need to attend to the things in our heart and not only what we put in our stomach.
The idea of an internal fast first came to me when I read Catherine Marshall’s experiment in fasting from criticism. She writes, “The Lord continues to deal with me about my critical spirit, convicting me that I have been wrong to judge any person or situation. … One morning last week He gave me the assignment for one day I was to go on a “fast” from criticism. I was not to criticize anybody about anything. Into my mind crowded the usual objections. ‘But then what happens to value judgments? You Yourself, Lord, spoke of ‘righteous judgment.’ How could society operate without standards and limits?’ All such resistance was brushed aside. ‘Just obey Me without questioning.’” Her journal continues, “For the first half of the day, I simply felt a void, almost as if I had been wiped out as a person. This was especially true at lunch [with some family members]. Several topics came up (school prayer, abortion, the ERA amendment) about which I had definite opinions. I listened to the others and kept silent. Barbed comments on the tip of my tongue about certain world leaders were suppressed. In our talkative family no one seemed to notice.” (A Closer Walk) She goes on to write that her fast revealed the degree to which her critical spirit had hurt herself and others.
And so, I would challenge those of you who are inclined to observe Lent this year to experiment with an internal fast. Fasting from something in your heart – a character trait that is in opposition to the kingdom of God, something that inhibits your spiritual walk. It could be, like Catherine Marshall, you sometimes have a critical spirit – in which case why not use this Lenten season to fast from criticism? Or maybe you have a lot of anxiety, in which case why not resolve to fast from worrying? The possibilities are really endless. Perhaps something in the following list touches your conscience? Anger, bitterness, complaining, criticism, cynicism, defensiveness, despair, dishonesty, dissatisfaction, envy, gluttony, gossip, greed, impatience, indifference, laziness, lust, negativity, passivity, pride, quarreling, resentment, stinginess, selfishness, unforgiveness, worrying.
One could usefully spend the days leading up to Ash Wednesday praying for the Holy Spirit to reveal one thing about your character that is holding you back in your spiritual walk. It may be a deeply rooted sin like an anger or lust, or it may be something that you are barely aware of like defensiveness or pride – perhaps even something you don’t think is a problem but that someone close to you has commented on about your character. The challenge is to identify one area of sin in your soul and resolve that by God’s strength you will make every effort to abstain from it during Lent.
1) Focus on Christ. We fast during Lent to remind ourselves of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. He is the one who has invited us into the kingdom of God, and whatever we do it is to follow him. It is the Lord who leads us into self-reflection, repentance, and renewal. An internal fast is a practical way of keeping in step with the Spirit to draw us closer to God.
2) Read and Write. Look for Bible references and other writings about the matter you have selected. I can pretty much guarantee that even a simple Internet search will turn up material that you can read and incorporate into your quiet times. Also, consider journaling, or at least keeping a few notes about your experience. Even if you are not a writer, you may be surprised at what emerges when you start recording your thoughts.
3) Don’t Quit. You will likely fail many times during your fast. I base this on my own experience and on empirical evidence from friends who have attempted this in the past. Happily, we often learn more from our failures than successes. So when you slip, confess it to the Lord and then resume your fast.
The word “Lent” was originally the word for springtime, the season of renewal when out of the dead of winter we are born anew, fully alive to the joy and hope of new life in the kingdom of God. Lent is a time for remembering that the way to Easter and the Resurrection is through Good Friday and the Cross, that the way to life is through death. When we fast from the evil within, we are taking up our cross and dying to that which separates us from experiencing Christ and the abundant life he promises. May this Lent be for us a time of renewal where we can once again feel the joy of a new life through the cleansing blood of our Savior.
PS The photo is the Monastery of St. Naum, overlooking Lake Ohrid, Macedonia