How giving up something we love for Lent affects our focus
By Tim Bergdahl
I am writing letters to my 12- and 17-year-old daughters about things I want them to know as well as to celebrate milestones in their lives. I am doing this because it has been a year since my colon cancer was discovered to have metastasized to my liver. It seems prudent to prepare to share my love and thoughts with them on paper.
Lent may seem like a topic of lesser importance under the circumstances, but really it is not. How giving up something we love effects our focus and our relationship with God has been very much on all our minds.
What is Lent?
A short while ago we celebrated Christmas and the run-up to it called Advent—as well as the world’s run-up to Christmas that used to begin with Macy’s Christmas Parade and Black Friday, but now begins even earlier than that. I hope you remember how we anticipated the “reason for the season” as we were reminded that our hope, peace, joy and love come from Jesus Christ.
Easter is also a time for hope, peace, joy and love, but we realize the events of Easter time and all that Christ did and suffered so faithfully according to the will of the Father is due to our sin—our sin, his sacrifice. So we shouldn’t be surprised if the things we do to prepare for Easter remind us of our sin and the need for that sacrifice.
I have to confess that the church tradition in which I was raised focused on Passion Week—or at least Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday—and not on the time referred to as Lent. I think that is too bad, because preparation is always a good thing. Like studying for a test, practicing for a meet, or calming one’s spirit and turning off your cell phone before church starts—it’s always good to step into situations prepared.
Lent gets its name from the lengthening of days that begin after the shortest day of the year. It is 40 days long; the Sundays are not counted. For a very long time, Lent has been a period of fasting as well as a few other things I will mention later. Fasting is, however, what is most commonly associated with the time.
What would you give up?
Many of us have never fasted except in the involuntary sense when we skip a meal or two. The Bible refers to fasting many times, including brief instruction for when we fast. Jesus, Paul and so many others fasted.
Sometimes the fast was from all food. Sometimes it was from all food and drink. Sometimes the fast was from certain kinds of food and drink. Sometimes it was for a day, other times for 40 days and sometimes more or less, depending on the hoped-for results of the fast.
Fasting during Lent is different in that a person might give up food or drink, but they might give up something else instead. It should be something important and difficult to give up. I’ve overheard people joking about giving up something they wouldn’t miss anyway, like homework or chores. I’ve also heard of people giving up things they really shouldn’t be doing anyway, such as smoking, drinking to excess, gambling or arguing with a sibling.
Could you give up watching TV, stop going to the movies, cease surfing the Web, or merely avoid Facebook for 40 days—and nights too? Could you do without your cell phone, dating or taking the car everywhere you want to go? Could you give up red meat or sweets? It is your choice, but that choice needs to be a challenge. It shouldn’t be easy. It needs to be something you’ll miss and even yearn for.
Why? Most people who fast during Lent today practice it as penance for sin. It is a way for them to show they are sorry for what they have done and for the suffering they caused their Savior. Our tradition doesn’t think much of penance, because we insist that we shouldn’t try to owe what Jesus Christ has already paid.
Nevertheless I believe it is worthwhile to take some time and focus on the fact that we Christians should not sin, but when we sin—and we do—we have an advocate with the Father: his Son Jesus Christ.
The one who really matters
Although I have not been known for fasting, I have done so from time to time and it has helped me focus on those things that really matter, the one who really matters. Let me be frank. Even though I have been a Christian for a long time, a missionary for many years and a pastor, I still find it easy to not give God the attention he deserves. I have long wondered if anything would be left over for Caesar if God were given his due. I seem to have lived my life to paraphrase the hymn, “I surrender some.”
Fasting reminds me of what I can do without and of whom I cannot do without. It becomes all the more clear when I give up those created things most precious to me. During Lent it drives thoughts of other things—dare I say bunnies and eggs—so that I can anticipate what Christ’s sacrifice means and what God did through him for me.
I mention that there were other aspects of Lent besides fasting. The other two are prayer and care, many times called “charity.” The three together— prayer, fasting and caring—could be referred to as reaching up, reaching in and reaching out. I have spent more time on the fasting, the reaching in, because if done right it enhances both praying and caring. What I mean is that if you clear your heart and mind of competitors for Christ’s presence then you will be better able to pray according to God’s will and to act toward others according to his purposes.
Giving up something we love affects our focus and our relationship with God. Any time you fast from the created to focus on the Creator I think you will find it worth the sacrifice, just as Jesus Christ found us worth his sacrifice those many years ago.
Tim Bergdahl is the senior pastor at Madera Avenue Bible Church in Madera, Calif., husband of Janine and father of Kayleigh and Pradnya. Bergdahl blogs at likeashepherd.com
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