Because the date of Easter moves each year, the holiday sometimes sneaks up on me. Instead of arriving to church ready to worship my risen Savior, I come with bags under my eyes because I’ve been up late putting together Easter baskets, cleaning for company, and frantically preparing my brunch.
You may be able to relate.
Fortunately, there is a section of the traditional church calendar specifically designed to help prepare us to fully engage in worship and celebration come Resurrection Sunday: the season of Lent.
Some of us may have grown up in a more classically liturgical tradition that encouraged abstaining from food or other indulgences during this season, and many modern evangelical Christians are also discovering the practice of Lenten fasting as they seek new ways to deepen their faith and connect with God.
So what is Lent, why do we fast, and how do we get the most out of this rich church tradition?
What Is Lent?
Lent is the forty-day preparation period leading up to Easter that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Good Friday. (Because Sundays are traditionally a time to take a break from your fast, these days are not tallied in the forty-day count, meaning the whole Lenten season is actually forty-six days.)
There are several forty-day periods used as preparation throughout Scripture. For example, The Israelites spent forty years in the desert before they reached the promised land (Exodus 16:35), and Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights (Exodus 24:18). God caused it to rain for forty days while Noah was in the ark (Genesis 7:12). Each instance was full of trials that refined the faith of those who chose to draw near to the Lord.
Jesus, our ultimate example, spent forty days and nights in the desert before his public ministry (Matthew 4:2, Mark 1:13, Luke 4:2).
Historians believe that the church began observing Lent shortly after the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. While not found explicitly in Scripture, the practice of a Lenten fast has been observed by Christians for centuries, and the faithful have found great spiritual value in it.
That said, like all spiritual practices, a Lenten fast can have some serious pitfalls that are good to be aware of.
Primarily, we should guard ourselves against legalism when it comes to Lent. We do not need to feel obligated to observe the season or practice a fast just because of how we grew up or what a particular church leader says or what religious organizations dictate. Nor is it healthy for us to approach the practice as a way to gain favor with God or look better in the eyes of others.
In Luke 11:37–53, Jesus spoke out against this kind of legalism. Jesus caps off his lengthy reprimand of the Pharisees by saying in verse 52: “Woe to you experts in the law! You have taken away the key to knowledge. You didn’t go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were trying to go in.”
Let us then approach Lent with a heart of worship and humble openness to whatever God might want to do during this time.
What Is Fasting?
Spiritual fasting is simply abstaining from something, usually food, or refraining from certain activities so that we can pursue a deeper relationship with God. There are dozens of examples of fasting throughout the Bible, and in every example, we are reminded that a fast is a surrender of our desires and wills for the sake of God’s.
According to the official NIV Blog, “Fasting is not an end unto itself, but a means of focusing our minds and bodies for a spiritual reason.”
Fasting is a way for us to outwardly express that we have come to the end of ourselves. This provides space for us to grieve our sins, cry out to God for wisdom or protection, intercede for individuals or ministries, and worship the Lord.
Fasting during Lent can be a powerful spiritual discipline. Now that we’ve taken time to understand what a Lenten fast is, here are four ways that you can get the most out of the practice.
- Seek the Lord in Prayer
A Lenten fast is an opportunity to refocus on God, his timing, and an eternal perspective. Whether you choose to give up a meal, social media, or another indulgence, use your time to seek the Lord.
Yet when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled myself with fasting, and my prayer was genuine. (Psalm 35:13)
Practically, you could go on a prayer walk over lunch at work, sacrifice sleep by waking thirty minutes earlier, or spend your evening praying through the Psalms instead of scrolling on Instagram.
- Remember Your Sin
Repentance of our sins is more than a half-hearted apology or “trying harder” to avoid sin patterns. It is so much richer.
this is the Lord’s declaration—
turn to me with all your heart,
with fasting, weeping, and mourning.
Tear your hearts,
not just your clothes,
and return to the Lord your God.
For he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger, abounding in faithful love,
and he relents from sending disaster. (Joel 2:12–13)
Take time during this season to confess your sins and submit your will to the Father. During this season of fasting, ask God to open your eyes to your sin and your heart to his transformation. If you are struggling with a difficult relationship, ask the Lord to soften your heart. If you have difficult decisions to make, confess your tendency to seek to control the outcome instead of to trust in God’s timing.
No matter what you’ve done or what you’re facing, you’ll find lasting peace as you run into his loving embrace.
- Find Purpose for This Specific Season
A biblical fast is for a set duration of time, generally with a specific purpose. Before you start a fast, spend time in prayer, asking God to help you to understand how he would like you to grow.
The early church fasted as a part of corporate worship—both in Acts 13:2 and 14:23. But unlike our call to ceaseless prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18), the discipline of fasting is only intended for a set-aside season. Though talking about physical intimacy, 1 Corinthians 7:5 does uncover some helpful principles about fasting:
Do not deprive one another—except when you agree for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
- Keep It Secret
Jesus is pretty clear that we should avoid drawing attention to ourselves during fasting of all kinds.
“Whenever you fast, don’t be gloomy like the hypocrites. For they disfigure their faces so that their fasting is obvious to people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting isn’t obvious to others but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16–18)
We must remember not to flex our spiritual muscles like the self-righteous religious leaders. Instead, we should keep our fast as a private commitment to the Lord and quietly submit ourselves to him as we refocus ourselves on God’s desires.
Fasting during Lent can teach us to rely on God alone and grow our gratitude for the extravagant grace that Jesus made possible on the cross. As you prepare for this Lenten season and for Easter beyond, prayerfully consider what God might be calling you to in this season.