February 14th this year is both Valentine’s day and Ash Wednesday. Perhaps not the obvious pairing of celebration days as one calls for romance and the other calls for self-denial. Actually, I’m sure an argument could be made that true romance does involve an element of self-denial – treating your loved one rather than treating yourself – nevertheless, for many Christians, it probably won’t be romance that they have on their minds on Wednesday 14th February. This is because Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent a season of penitence and self-denial which invites us to focus on God.
Lent remembers Jesus’ own 40 day period of fasting in the desert. Even at his weakest Jesus was able to deny himself and resist temptation and Lent encourages us to practise self-denial as well. Of course, self-denial is not confined to Lent, any more than romance is confined to Valentine’s day, but marking these things in our calendar can remind us to do what we’ve been meaning to do all along.
Society is moving in a direction of immediate gratification. Why only eat strawberries in the summer when you can get them all year round? Why only eat chocolate eggs at Easter when they are in the shops from January? Why get up and change the TV channel when you can do it immediately with a remote control? Why get up to change the thermostat when you can control it from your phone? Why wait for the 10:00 news when the headline notifications appear on your phone immediately? We want it and we want it now. And increasingly we can get it now as well.
Some thinkers have even suggested that a society of immediate gratification is having an adverse effect on some young adults. They have grown up getting what they want very quickly – and so when they become adults and their hopes, dreams, and career plans don’t fall into place straight away, they can find it hard to deal with.
Fasting really goes against the grain. In a society where we are told about the importance of 3 square meals a day, and where snacking is encouraged, it can be surprisingly difficult to cut out snacks, or coffee, or to miss meals, but that is the nature of self-denial – it’s difficult. Some may choose to have a media fast. In a society where Media is all around us it can be a very strange experience to take a break from our radios, TVs and the internet. Some Christians may choose to take something on rather than give something up. A time of personal prayer each day, or reading a book – like Rick Warren’s ‘Purpose Driven Life’ for example.
Whilst these disciplines can be hard to keep to – the benefits are significant. For those who miss meals, feeling the occasional pangs of hunger can help us to know our bodies better and we will almost certainly feel more grateful for our next meal – fasting can dramatically increase our sense of thankfulness. In addition, fasting can help in your relationship with God. Sometimes praying to God can be like talking to him in a crowded room with many other distractions going on. You can shout but you can’t really hear anything. Fasting can help to remove some of that noise, some of those distractions and so prayer with fasting can help you connect with God in a more intimate way.
Will you be taking on a fast / Spiritual disciple over Lent this year? What benefits have you experienced from fasting in the past?
Rev Andy Clark