Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lent: A Time for Fasting, Weeping & Mourning

North Shore of Lake Superior

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
    slow to anger and abounding in love. (Joel 2:12-13)

Lent—the forty days leading up to the Cross and the Resurrection—is a season for seeking God afresh in our lives. One of the traditional practices that helps us in our pursuit of God is the biblical discipline of fasting.

Lent is a way of joining Jesus in the forty-day fast that he did before he began his ministry (see Matt 4 and Luke 4). Although Jesus’ disciples did not fast while they were with him, he stated that they would indeed fast when he—the Bridegroom—was not with them (Mark 2:19). Likewise, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated, “When you fast” (Matt 6:16), implying that such was to be a standard practice for his disciples.

Seriously Seeking God
Our pursuit of God is truly getting serious when we are willing to set aside food—our daily bread—in order to focus our hearts, minds, bodies and whole beings on the Lord. We make a declaration to the Lord, and to ourselves, that our relationship with him is more important than our very sustenance.

Fasting is also a form of humbling ourselves and mourning for our sin. When Nehemiah fasted, he wept and mourned and sought God, both for himself and for the people of Israel (Neh 1:4-11). When we fast—especially from food—it takes the energy, self-reliance and pride right out of us. It helps us to lower ourselves and come in need before the Lord. In fact, in the Old Testament, “humbling oneself” is often used as a reference to fasting.

Phenomenal Focus
Fasting helps us seek God because it offers us fresh focus. When I give up the food that I need for daily strength, I need to focus entirely on the Lord. In fact, each time my stomach growls, I use it as a reminder to direct my attention back on him.

We see this focus in Jesus’ forty-day fast. Putting aside one of the very essentials of life itself, Jesus dedicated his time in the wilderness to prayer with God the Father. When Satan tested him at the end of the forty days with the rather benign temptation of turning stones into bread, Jesus’ true focus came out: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3).

Living out our Repentance
Joel 2 calls us to return to the Lord. Such a return is what the New Testament calls metanoia—repentance. When we repent, we turn away from the wrong direction we are headed and return to the Lord with our whole heart.

Lent is an opportunity to walk out our repentance by establishing a new spiritual rhythm, like fasting. This may be a spiritual practice that we adopt just for Lent, or it may be something we begin in Lent and continue on for a long time.

Fasting is a great way to walk out our repentance. It declares our independence from food or any other physical yearning that might put us in bondage. We can fast from many different things: food, TV, worry, busyness, deserts, pop or other drinks, texting, Facebook—anything that pulls on us and distracts us from pursuing God.

Whatever we give up, we must replace with something positive. Instead of TV or Facebook, we can set aside that hour for some special time with the Lord. If we fast one meal a week, we can dedicate that time for prayer.

Are you and I willing to fast and weep and mourn this Lent? Whether it is giving up food for a day—or abstaining from chocolate or other delicacy for the whole forty days—fasting is giving up something we desire or need. In doing so we humble ourselves and reorient our desires and attention on the Lord so that we can pursue him wholeheartedly as we look forward to the celebration of his Resurrection!

© 2013 Glenn E. Myers

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