On Lent, Challenges, and Freedom to Fail

When I was growing up, the scattered few of my evangelical friends who fasted for Lent shared their choices as though letting me in on a hot new trend:

“I’m giving up chocolate!”

“I’m fasting from soda!”

“I’m going to fast from my favorite TV show!”

Lost in these declarations was any real sense of what fasting for Lent was for, or what it was supposed to accomplish, aside from some general sense of deprivation for the sake of deprivation during a Christian-sanctioned period of reflection and the pride of saying that you fasted from something.  Some years I participated; some years I didn’t; and the one year I chose to fast “from anxiety” the process blew up in my face so badly that I wondered if I’d come out of Lent worse spiritually then when I’d entered it.

But this year I am participating in Lent, and I am indeed fasting from something.  I’m not going to share what for the same reason I never share how many books I’ve read in a given year – I’m not a fan of the competitive humble-bragging and misplaced pride those assertions can sometimes foster – but I want to share why I’m doing it in hopes that you will consider doing something, too, even if not for Lent per se.

Mostly, I am fasting for Lent this year because I’ve finally come around, thanks to the writings of many established Christian authors and thinkers, to the purpose of Lent as a time for reflection, a focus on the nature of sin, forgiveness, and redemption, and – maybe most importantly – making more space in my life for God to be present.

I chose the subject of my fast precisely because restraining myself from it will make a profound difference in my relationship to – well, God certainly, but almost everything else, too.  It fills up a lot of my time; it takes up a lot of my resources; it shapes, as do many of my habits and practices, the believer I am and the person I am in ways that are not so great.  Removing that will give God more room to shape me in the ways He wants to shape me.  Giving God space to work, even when I find it very hard, will – I am certain – change some things about me for His glory, if only a little.

But I also chose the subject of my fast because I am almost certain I will fail at it. I don’t want to; don’t plan to; will do my best to avoid it.  And yet, I know I will.  When discussing it with my mother, she laughed when I mentioned the topic.  She knows me well.  So does my husband, who is joining the fast with me, and will no doubt have equal trouble.  I am choosing for Lent to not do a thing I know I will struggle to not do.

Which is exactly the point.

I think a lot of Christians get really fearful of testing out what grace and forgiveness and redemption really mean.  “God will forgive you if you sin,” we say, and then feel compelled to hastily add that we should not then go on sinning, that God’s forgiveness should compel us to not sin in that particular way again.  We don’t like to think about believing Christians who have sinned choosing to sin again after being forgiven.  We don’t like to think about believers engaging in flagrant sin at all.  It’s almost easier for us to think they really weren’t penitent to start with rather than to think that they might have been…and that they sinned again, anyway.

But we sin.  And as believers, we grieve our sin and ask forgiveness for our choices.  In the moment of penitence, we are sorry for what we’ve done and want to never do it again.  Do we do it again, then?  Sure.  Sometimes.  Often guiltily, often knowing we’ve already sinned in this particular way before, often knowing we will likely sin like this again, wondering how far God’s grace can possibly extend, or how many more chances we’ll get.

But Lent is practice in grace.  It will begin with prayer and strengthening myself in Christ, in hope and best intentions, and I will succeed for a while until I don’t – because I am careless, maybe, because I am fallen, because I value the thing I want to do more than I value my desire to not do it for the Lord, for any of a million reasons.  And yet in my failure I will know the next step: to ask forgiveness and know that it’s already been granted, to find safety and permission in an endless well of divine love and grace to start all over new even though I’m still not sure of myself, even though – as Paul said – I am always doing what I don’t want to do, and not doing enough of what I want to do.

Lent is a reminder that I cannot attain righteousness with my own hands.  It’s a reminder that I have grace on tap so that my failures need not be the end of me.  And it’s the heavy understanding of what that grace and freedom cost.  Knowing all of that, how could I not want to at least make the attempt to give God a little more of me?

I met a Christian friend of mine today; he’s from another country and a different Christian tradition, where fasting and speaking in tongues is much more common than it is in my corner of the world.  We had extra cupcakes, and he offered me one.  “Are they good?” I asked.

He shrugged and smiled.  “I don’t know!  I’m fasting, but you should try one.”

I don’t know why he was fasting, though he certainly wore the joyous demeanor of those who fast as Scripture encourages it.  But I was delighted to find him engaged in a fast on a random Monday: an act between Him and between God, a gift, a practice of great devotion.  Whether or not you choose to fast for Lent, I wish you a period of great reflection in these months prior to Easter, and I hope that God shows you, too, the ways in which you might make more space for Him in your life.

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