The Lenten season is drawing to an end. Admittedly, I do not observe the season of Lent. When asked what I gave up for Lent, a common response from me is “Lent.”
I often wonder what is a person’s motivation in giving up (fasting) from something during the 40 days of Lent. In my conversations with different people, I have heard different responses such as “Sacrificing (insert the item) helps me better understand the sacrifice of Christ” and “Giving up (insert the item) helps me better focus on God” or “Giving up (insert the item) draws me closer to God.”
This might sound harsh to some, but I, in no way, believe that giving up chocolate or coffee or something else, for a period of 40 days even remotely begins to allow one to understand the sacrifice of Christ and what He went through, unless that giving up involves being beaten within an inch of your life and then killed. It’s not even close, and I believe it arrogant to think that it does. Sorry if you find that harsh, but I’m not really sorry; I believe it’s reality.
And how does giving up chocolate or coffee or something else help one focus on God, especially if it is not done with God’s heart intention for fasting, whether that be from food or something else?
God had two issues with the Jews in how they went about fasting. (This is based upon Isaiah 58) The first issue was that appearances was the motivation for the action. During Isaiah’s time, and even into the time of Jesus earthly ministry, the focus was on the action, not the heart behind the action, because it was the action determined if one was righteous or not. They knew the Scriptures had authority over all aspects of life. God may have been a mystery to them, but behavior was not. It was scrupulous behavior, not the condition of the heart, that defined a “righteous” person. Thus, many Jews had a desire to honor God by doing all the right things. This reality was one of Jesus’ main criticisms against the teaching of the religious leaders of his day which is why Jesus said, “It is not what enters the mouth that defiles the person, but what proceeds out of the mouth that defiles the man.” He further explained to Peter that “the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart.” (Matthew 15:11,18)
The second issue was that people misunderstood the intention behind the fasting. It is far too common that giving something up is all about the one giving it up, even if the stated reason is drawing closer to God. But the action itself does not truly draw one closer to God’s heart if the result of the fasting, or giving up whatever the thing is, God’s true heart intention behind the action, is not accomplished.
For example, the Jews back in Isaiah’s day thought they were being good and obedient and God-honoring people by fasting. The problem was this: they were using fasting as a savings plan for themselves or using the money that would have been spent on food on something else for themselves. God states that was not His heart intention behind the command to fast. His heart intention for fasting was that the money not spent on food would be used to help those in need. This is the reason why God says, “Is this not the fast I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:6-8)
God’s heart intention was that the fasting would result in an action; it would result in a type of redemption.
So here’s my question. If you gave up a daily latte from Starbucks during the 40 days of Lent, what happened to that money you would have otherwise spent? Did you just spent it on yourself in a different way? Then I would contend that you have not drawn near to God’s heart because God’s heart has the intention that the money not spent of a daily latte be used to help one in need. Doing the action itself does not draw one close to God’s heart if the desired result of God’s heart does not occur.
If you gave up some type of behavior, say being critical of people or anger, were you instead making positive comments to people or demonstrating gentleness? If not, then I would contend that giving up being critical of people or anger has not truly drawn you near to God’s heart because His heart’s desired action for opposite behavior was not present.
Maybe you gave up some type of activity and did not spend time on that activity. How did you spend that time? Did you just fill it with another activity for yourself, or did you spend it on others, being with them and demonstrating care for them? If not, then I would contend that giving up that activity has not truly drawn you near to God’s heart because His heart’s desired action for that time was not present.
All of this has to do with something that is very close to the center of God’s heart – redemption. And it is something that should be done on a daily basis, not just during a 40 day period, which is why I do not observe Lent. God’s intention is that redemption occurs on a daily basis. And we can participate ourselves in redemption when we take that money not spent, or behavior not demonstrated, or time not spent doing that activity and use that money or action or time to impact the lives of others with God’s heart, love, and goodness and do this year round.