For many, Lent is a time of fasting - a time to focus in on spiritual disciplines as a part of one’s journey with Jesus. It’s a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter - resurrection!
But why? Why do all sorts of acts to symbolize our journeying with Christ - to symbolize our life as God’s people?
There can be a tendency to equate spiritual disciplines with, well, spiritual things. We pray to connect with God in our spirits. We fast to remind ourselves of our dependence on God for all things. We gather for worship as communities to be reminded of our unity around the One who calls us his “chosen people” (Col 3:12). All these things are worthy and beneficial for our faith.
But framed this way we can equate spirituality with interior disposition. We disengage the world to engage God. But this ends up spiritualizing spirituality. We neglect the wholeness of spirituality as God’s image-bearing people. And by image-bearing, I’m not talking about some intangible stamp of divine DNA within us that glows brighter the more “spiritual” we are in our actions. No, as made in God’s image our spiritual disciplines are intended to re-orient our focus towards living out our image-bearing role. As Psalm 8 reflects, we are crowned with glory and honor, a little lower than angels (v. 5). But keep reading. Humans are made this way why? To rule - to lead - over the works of God’s hands (v. 6). We are intended to be God’s image-bearers in the world.
It’s not surprising that people have often questioned the validity of spiritual disciplines, the observance of Lent being one example. Lent can easily become overly ritualistic with little or no connection to one’s personal journey as a Jesus-follower. Or as I state above, it can become overly disengaged from life. Or it can even become a formulaic process to somehow secure God’s favor. Spiritual disciplines become all about us. And we see this in the Bible:
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’ (Is. 58:3).
God’s people call out to basically say, “Look at us God! Have favor on because we fasted!” If we’re honest, I think we can relate: “40 days of spiritual discipline in Lenten observance, of course God will bless me!”
But again, we need to keep reading:
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
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. 58:3-5)
The point is clear: spiritual disciplines - fasting in this case - are not an end in and of themselves. One hour of committed prayer is pointless if there are twenty-three hours of committed selfishness. Spiritual disciplines are not a therapeutic exercise to make us feel better inside. Spiritual disciplines are intended to make us better people in the world.
“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?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. (Is. 58:6-9)
Withdrawal from society or escape to find your “inner-self” is not the point. Spiritual disciplines, such as those around Lent, by their very nature point outward. The “Glory of the Lord” - God’s blessing on us - leads to a transformed life of love for others, especially the broken, hurting, hungry, and poor among us - “the least of these” as Jesus taught (Mt. 25:40).
As Jesus followers, then, spirituality is an active, disciplined life of loving others. Times such as Lent remind us who we are in Jesus, but always for the purpose of engaging deeper in the world around us.