I tried fasting from coffee two consecutive years but never made it past the second or third week. Best fasts I ever did.
I learned it was next to impossible for me to be productive without obscene amounts of caffeine. That insight led me to the right questions: What is it about myself and the world I live in that makes dependence on a mild drug a daily need for productivity? And why was productivity the criteria I used to assess the meaningfulness of my life in the first place?
At the time, I was working way too much on things of only trivial value. I would come home, spend time with Alyssa, and then after she went to bed, I worked for another couple hours. My fast didn’t fail; it showed me exactly what values were driving my life.
A friend once chose to fast from sugar during Lent. After failing to make it through the full 40 days, they felt shame and worthlessness. Then they remembered other fasts they failed in the past without ever feeling the same level of despondence. That’s when they realized the real reason they felt so depressed was because they failed to lose weight.
“My fast didn’t fail; it showed me exactly what values were driving my life.”
They chose to fast from sugar hoping it would kickstart a weight-loss journey. When they found they couldn’t abstain from sugar, they felt sure they’d never lose any real weight.
Why did they think losing weight would make them a better Christian or a happier person? Why did they need to hide their real intentions behind spiritual motives? They didn’t finish the fast, but they did succeed in unearthing their true motives and deepest values, and that’s what a Lenten fast is all about.
The Lenten fast isn’t about winning. We don’t award merit badges for being a Super Christian. The point isn’t to live as an ascetic for 40 days and collect a trophy at the end. A fast introduces a controlled disruption into our lives to help us see our lives and our world more clearly. Too small a disruption uncovers nothing, and too large a disruption becomes the wrong kind of test.
Forty days is short enough that we can choose a fast or a practice significant enough to disorder/reorder our habits. When doing endurance drills, an old coach used to tell me I could stand on my head and eat sand for a minute if I had to, so I should be glad he wasn’t demanding more. Forty days is too long to stand on our heads and eat sand, but it’s short enough that we can be ambitious in our goals. Better to fail and learn a difficult truth than to succeed and remain blind to one.
Forty days also is just long enough to sit in the discomfort of a difficult task and gain real insight from it. It’s long enough to experience the fog of a brain being purged of sugar, but it’s also long enough to find the mental clarity on the other side. Forty grouchy, caffeine-free mornings are more than enough to begin seeing capitalism’s contributions to American church culture and how I came to perpetuate them.
An appropriate fast disturbs our normal patterns enough to expose our rough edges and allow us to see ourselves more honestly. If we’re lucky, we’ll discover the very same things we work hard to keep hidden. Because of this nature, Lent is best practiced in community with others who show us grace and compassion. Experiencing grace encourages rigorous honesty while judgment leads to deception.
“Beginning and quitting a fast early isn’t the worst thing that can happen in Lent.”
We need trusted allies who can tell us it’s OK when we fail, because our value doesn’t come from our success. We need gentle guides who can help us translate our experiences into explanations more compassionate and true than the ones we give ourselves.
We didn’t fail a sugar fast because we are weak. We failed because we’re chemically dependent, and it takes herculean strength along with collegiate-level research and planning to eliminate sugar from a modern American diet. Besides, our value doesn’t come from our appearance, but from our personhood, they’ll remind us.
Beginning and quitting a fast early isn’t the worst thing that can happen in Lent. Becoming more self-righteous or self-debasing is.
The Lenten journey is and should be a trying one, and it’s one we shouldn’t take alone. Still, it’s better to go alone than with someone who doesn’t understand the journey.
There’s no place for judgment on this road, because we’re headed to the Cross, which will both expose and save us, if we’ll let it.
Whether we choose to schedule a disruption into our lives this season or simply pay attention to our inner life in a special way, Lent is impossible to get wrong if we’re committed to being honest with ourselves and God.
Jakob Topper serves as pastor of NorthHaven Church in Norman, Okla.
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