Timothy Willard (PhD, King’s College London) is a writer, podcaster, and independent scholar based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, three daughters, and a band of rowdy Great Horned Owls. He is the author of three books and the rider of mountain trails. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
Does giving up espresso bring me closer to God? This thought burned through my mind as I sat and listened to the boys’ choir sing Psalm 37 during Evensong at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, England, a few years ago. With Ash Wednesday a mere two days prior, it seemed like everyone was giving up lattes and social media and the internet and announcing it to the world. One friend defended fasting from these activities because of how they intrude on our daily lives. I agreed. I, too, could use a break from the digital world.
But what happens after Lent and Easter Sunday, I thought to myself. Business as usual? Fire up the espresso machines? Tweet that I’m back from my social media fast?
Though I respected the beauty and depth represented in the tradition of Lent, tension grew in me. I struggled to align the good and holy intent of Lenten fasts with the very public spectacle it has evolved into for Western Christianity. We announce our screen time fasts or “disfigure our faces” when asked why we won’t have a glass of wine. Jesus exhorts his disciples to keep fasting a secret matter—an unseen act of worship to the God who is unseen (Matt. 6:16–18).
I loved how the season leading up to Resurrection Sunday swelled into what J. R. R. Tolkien called the eucatastrophe or the joyous upturn in the story of the human race. But I also observed how the pageantry fades. I loved the idea of abstaining from vices and stepping into Christ’s suffering. But I thought the spiritual discipline of fasting was meant to be more than a seasonal practice to abstain from first-world luxuries.
It was then I began a personal quest to seek out the heart of Lent.
Seeking the Heart of Lent
Historically, some of the first indications of a seasonal fast appear to be even earlier than the Council of Nicea (c. A.D. 325) in practices like fasting before baptism and Easter, which only lasted a few days. But some church scholars now believe that the Lenten 40-day fast dates to a later time in the history of the church. Nicholas Russo, advising dean at the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Notre Dame, suggests the fixed 40-day fast emerged after the Council of Nicaea, and that the early history of Lent is something of a “choose your own adventure,” and an “amalgamation of several early fasting customs and typologies.”
We may not know the direct origins of the present-day Lenten fast, but we do know the significance of the discipline. The Lenten 40-day fast pays homage to the iconic fasts found in Scripture—from Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:28) to Jesus’ wilderness fast (Luke 4:1–13). The Scriptures brim with other examples of fasting: Elijah, Ezra, Nehemiah, David, Esther, John the Baptist, and Paul, among many others.
We’re not wrong to follow suit. St. Augustine exhorted Christians to overcome “the temptations of this age, the crafty traps of the devil, the toils of the world, the allurements of the flesh, the swirl of turbulent times, and all bodily and spiritual adversity,” with fasting. We should use the nails of abstinence to hammer our lusts to the cross, he says.
But at the same time, he warned Christians not to make fasting a pretense by using Lent as a time to simply revise their pleasures, substituting one vice for a different one. “You must certainly beware of just revising, not reducing, your pleasures,” wrote Augustine in Sermon 207. “You can see some people searching out unusual liquors as a substitute for the usual wine. … The result is that the observance of Lent means, not the repression of old lusts, but the occasion for new enjoyments.”
We fast, according to Augustine, so that inordinate affections do not control us. When we fast, “the delights of the flesh are to be held in check. Esau wasn’t rejected over Weiner schnitzel or pâté de foie gras but an inordinate longing for lentils.”
Rowan Williams, master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, said, “The self-denial involved in the period of Lent isn’t about just giving up chocolates or beer; it’s about trying to give up a certain set of pictures of God which are burned into our own selfish wants.”
Williams reminds us of the Pevensie children in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when they first heard Mr. Beaver mention that Aslan was a lion. The children could not conceive of a lion that was both wild and good. Aslan represents something wholly other to the children. Our self-made notions of God quite often need to be (re)awakened to the God that is. We want a God who is safe, one made in our image. A self-centered approach to fasting echoes this sentiment.
The Israelites discovered this the hard way. In Isaiah 58, the premier biblical text for fasting, we find the Israelites confused. They fasted in hopes that God would draw near to them. But their empty religious expressions nauseated God. They fasted but treated others poorly. Their actions did not match their hearts.
“We humbled ourselves,” they complained. But God does not desire a show of humility. I’m reminded of Pascal’s words: “It is better not to fast, and be thereby humbled, than to fast and be self-satisfied therewith.” God desires a fasting in which we turn our hearts toward him and seek to love our neighbor.
In his book Fasting, Scot McKnight warns that evangelical Christianity can often treat fasting as something we do to get a result—like the Israelites in Isaiah 58. Need wisdom for a big decision? Fast. Need to reach your financial goal for that new youth wing? Fast. Need to break the cycle of checking your Instagram feed? Fast.
The Scriptures, however, show fasting used as both a pathway for spiritual breakthroughs (Joel 2:12) and as a response to a grievous sacred moment (2 Sam. 12:16–23). The central focus of fasting remains to draw near to God. It reveals sins from which we must repent. Fasting is an act of worship that changes our spiritual and physical posture toward God.
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Source: Christianity Today