By Mike Ruffin
Many Christians observe the Season of Lent. The season falls during the forty days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter Sunday, so we are in the midst of it right now. For Christians who observe it, Lent is a time to renew our commitment to Christ. That is something we should be doing all the time, but it is helpful to have special times to focus on it. (In some church traditions, revival services play a similar role.) I commend Lent observance to you as a helpful spiritual practice.
There are many ways to observe Lent. We might read and study our Bible. We might engage in special times of prayer. We might participate in Lenten worship services. We might make charitable contributions.
Or we might fast.
Many people fast during Lent. In fact, fasting may be the activity that people associate most closely with Lent. It’s not unusual to have someone ask, “What are you giving up for Lent this year?” The idea is to give something up so that when you find yourself wanting it, you reflect on the fact that you ultimately depend on God for everything. For example, let’s say that someone decides to forego lunch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during Lent. When their stomach growls at 4:00 in the afternoon, it can remind them that only God can satisfy their spiritual hunger. Or someone might choose to give up sweets for Lent. When they crave a candy bar, a piece of pie, or some ice cream, they can think about how only God can fulfill life’s deepest cravings. Such fasting is a way to redirect and refocus our thinking so that God has uppermost place in our hearts and minds, which is after all the place God should have.
Fasting can be a helpful practice. Giving something up to increase our awareness of our dependence on God is a positive step. But all of us who take our relationship with God and our responsibilities under God seriously should ponder what God said through the prophet whose words are found in Isaiah 58:6-7:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Real fasting changes the ways we experience, think about, and respond to God. It also changes the ways we experience, think about, and respond to people. True fasting, God says through the prophet, should lead us to do all we can to correct injustice and to help the oppressed.
We may or may not choose as part of our Lenten observance to give up something we enjoy and of which we ordinarily partake. But we all should want to grow in our relationship with God and with each other. We do so by growing in our acceptance of the facts that we depend on God and that people depend on us.
Growing in our acceptance of those facts may require us to give up some of our default settings. For one thing, we may need to give up our sense of privilege that causes us to think that everyone is treated with the same assumptions and greeted with the same expectations that we are. For another thing, we may need to give up our presupposition that everyone else’s experience parallels or even resembles or approximates ours. For a third thing, we may need to embrace the fact that the economic and social systems of our society are stacked against the poor and otherwise oppressed.
If our hearts and minds change in some of those ways, our ways of living—and especially our ways of thinking about, talking about, and treating other people, and particularly the poor and oppressed—will change too.
I hope that some of us will practice the kind of fasting that leads us to do all we can “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.”