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Why do we give up things for Lent?

One of the most ancient traditions in Lent that is still celebrated today is the annual setting aside of some activity for the 40 days of Lent. As Lutherans, we confess and believe that we are saved by grace through faith and not by any works. So, sometimes the idea of giving something up for Lent smacks us as being a little too works oriented. Sometimes we are even tempted to replay when asked what we have given up is “I gave up trying to save myself and I let God do it for me!” Or the even snarkier “I gave up giving up things in Lent.” However, I am going to recommend that you pick up this ancient practice again, not as a habit of working salvation, but as a reminder of what you have all.

The closely related practice in the Bible is the practice of fasting and I think we can learn a proper use of Lent by what God teaches us about fasting. A “fast” is a predetermined amount of time in which you willingly abstain from food. Some people like to say they are fasting from TV or Internet or going to school(!) but the primary fast is about food and when Jesus says “when you fast” he is talking about food.

There are two main purposes for fasting:

1. To spend time in prayer with God and

2. To help with the needs of the hungry and homeless around you.  

I believe that both are necessary for a fast. If you only fast to help yourself then you are helping no one. In Isaiah 58 the people were engaging in fasting to show how much they loved God yet God did not hear them or listen to them and He told them “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure” and “Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.”

The first purpose of fasting is to have more time to let the needs of the body be placed as secondary to the needs of the soul. Most of our life we make the needs of the body our primary focus. We work hard for house and home and retirement and vacation. We spend our time worrying about our children and our future and we spend precious little time with our Lord. This is why the Lord Jesus tells us immediately after His instructions about fasting to “not be anxious about what you will wear or eat or drink…. but seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you.” Fasting helps us let our anxious thoughts about this life go and allows us to seek the kingdom of God.

The secondary purpose of fasting is to open our eyes to the needs of the poor around us. In Isaiah 58 God says this through the prophet “this is the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps 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 him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

The second great commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves and the secondary use of the fast is to help us see the needs of our neighbor. The Lord says to give our bread and clothes to the needy. While this is certainly possible we can also set aside the money we would have spent on that day’s food and intentionally give it to the poor.

When we set aside a time to fast we are to use that time to pray and meditate on God’s Word and we are to specifically ask God to open a door to allow us to help the poor around us.

I encourage you to take up this ancient practice this year and let God work in your heart both faith and love.

PS. Sundays are not counted as days of Lent for they are the day of the Resurrection. There is to be no fasting done on Sundays because every Sunday is really an Easter Sunday when Christians are to feast and give thanks for God’s great and abundant gifts.