“the primary significance of fasting during Lent is not found in what is lost or given up, but what is gained in time spent reflecting on what Christ has already done”
So much of the Christian faith is tied to the concept of identity. Though we have been given our individual identities by our Creator, we are often reminded that we are weak and in desperate need of assistance that must come from outside ourselves. Once we come to recognize that we are fallen and that humanity has serious limitations, we can begin to see that our needs can only be met in the promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel, of course means “Good News,” primarily, the good news that Christ came into the world to save sinners through the work of His death, burial, and resurrection, just as the Scriptures foretold. But even after coming to this realization, we maintain our human nature, which, though redeemed, is still fallen. We love ourselves, and we listen to ourselves. We value ourselves more than we value each other. Knowing this about ourselves does not prevent us from trusting our own intuition over that of others. Paul David Tripp has said of this phenomenon, “No one is more influential in your life than you are. Because no one talks to you more than you do.” It is for this reason that we must continually preach the gospel to ourselves as if our life depended upon hearing it. Because it does.
Lent is a way to prepare for the observance of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection during the Passion week. It is an opportunity to spend 40 days reflecting on this gift of Christ, who once came as a babe with the intention of going to the cross as a sacrificial lamb. Let us not get lost in the details or the cultural confusion about its meaning: Lent is not about giving something up for Jesus. It is about a dedicated time of recognizing our own need for a Savior. It is, specifically, about admitting that we cannot save ourselves, and instead, we set aside time to reflect on the life and death of the One who has saved us.
The 40 days are significant because of the various ways the number appears throughout the Old Testament narrative. It is no accident that Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness fasting while being tempted by Satan. It parallels the ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness and seemingly giving in to every temptation offered, meanwhile complaining about the food God provided for them. Jesus appears to be proving something during this time, namely, as the author of Hebrews declares, that He is greater: a greater Moses, a greater Abraham, a greater David. He will not give in to the tempter. He is the last Adam and He will undo the damage of the first Adam.
Therefore, during Lent, we fast because Christ fasted. We do not fast because we expect God to look upon us in our fasting and notice how hard we are working and how wonderfully sacrificial we are. We should not expect our “giving up” during Lent to impress God or change His mind about us. Our God is unchanging. Like our prayers, fasting is not a catalyst for getting a positive response from God. As C.S. Lewis once said, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking, and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
We pray and fast with the knowledge that the Author and Finisher of our faith will sustain us until we meet face to face in glory, and we strive to come to understand His glory by contemplating His power, His suffering, and ultimately His sacrifice. We give up a little of ourselves to allow Him to take more precedence. Just as we use the time of Advent to reflect on Christ’s coming, and to “let all hearts prepare Him room,” during Lent we fill up that room by meditating on Him more and on our material
We do not, however, come to know Christ by our fasting. We know Christ because we know His Word. Jesus Christ is the Word incarnate, the Logos, the Word made knowable by every human sense. But if we were to fast, and to take a time when we would normally be eating to deny ourselves in order to study and meditate on the life and death of Christ, how much more honestly could we join with the psalmist in saying, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)
Practically then, the primary significance of fasting during Lent is not found in what is lost or given up, but what is gained in time spent reflecting on what Christ has already done. Lent is about identifying with Christ, in the full faith and knowledge that when God looks upon us, He thankfully does not see our individual identities. He sees the spotless Lamb of Glory, by whose body our sinful bodies are made whole and clean. When we are in Christ, our identity is in Him; changed from individual members of the kingdom of darkness to unified members of the kingdom of light. Thus, to identify with Christ in His sacrifice does not rob Him of His glory, but it gives us an opportunity to display our love and gratitude for His suffering, and our joy and awe-filled worship for His glorious resurrection. “We easily deceive ourselves that we love God unless our love is frequently put to the test, and we must show our preferences not merely with words but with sacrifice.”
(John Piper, A Hunger for God)
Micah Lovell is the editor of the Songtime Newsletter and has contributed to many publications over the years.
On top of being a respected writer, he is also a close friend to Adam Miller and the Songtime team.