When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6.16-18


Turns out, not getting what you want all of the time is actually pretty normal. Training yourself to not get what you want all of the time, however much sense that might make given the inevitability of disappointment, is, in our world, largely abnormal.


We just want what we want, even if we can’t have it. But God help the fool who tries to keep it from us.


Money. Sex. Power. Position. Toys. Homes. Possessions. Fame. Adventure. Security.


There’s that great line in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator, when Commodus, newly raised Emperor of Rome, says: all my desires are bursting in my head. That’s how it is with all of us, isn’t it? Our desires burden and pressure us. They compete, urgently, with each other and with the world around us.


Our desires, by and large, help us with very little, spiritually speaking.  Or more accurately, our worldly ambitions help us very little, as of course desire can be a spiritual endeavor. We desire to know God better. We desire to experience God like those famous biblical heroes, Moses, David, and Ezekiel. We desire to show ourselves worthy of Christ and his sacrificial death on the cross. We desire to make a difference.


To that end we sacrifice our worldly ambitions, desires for fortune, advancement, or whatever, for our spiritual desire for Christian maturity. The manner of this sacrifice is called fasting, and it is one of the hallmarks of the Lenten season.


There are two kinds of fasting – giving up something forever, and giving up something for a while. The former kind is the basis for every monastic order currently in existence. Monks give up sex, wealth, their name, their professional future. The latter kind is that most often practiced by Christian people who choose to stay engaged in the world. We go without eating for a few days, choosing to pray during those meal times instead. We forego pleasures like sweets or films in an effort to find sweetness and wonder in Christ and his story.


There are some, claiming to be experts, who get a bit grouchy about this latter kind of fasting. For example, I was at a pastor’s conference recently where an elderly woman, a presenter, stood up and said: if one more suburban housewife gives up chocolate for Lent I’m going to shoot her. That was a funny thing to say. I laughed, but I was laughing because of how completely backwards this lady had it. She thought that fasting was all or nothing. But it’s not. Our commitment to Christ Jesus must be all or nothing, but our commitment to a certain spiritual practice should only go so far as that practice actually helps us to better understand God. A suburban housewife’s chocolate sacrifice may actually be the perfect next step for her in her journey with God. After all, maybe the woman in question has never had to give up anything before in her life. Maybe this is her first step in giving something up rather than hoarding everything and living in fear of robbery.  Or maybe chocolate has some deeper significance to her, her one luxury, the thing that makes her feel safe. Regardless, the point I’m trying to make is that the elderly presenter had proudly proclaimed some kind of harsh new spiritual legislation instead of validating the fact that most of us never give up anything, but we ought to start. Just like the suburban housewife.


For myself, I’ve tried often to practice self-denial. I try to say no to as many things as I am able to. But it’s hard. I try not to buy anything, but I do. These days, after years of practice, I’m at least able to buy only things for which I can pay in cash and for which I have either saved specifically towards or planned to purchase well in advance. You might scoff at that kind of self-denial, but in my immaturity I can confess that it has taken me over a decade to achieve even this small accomplishment.


I have driven cars I didn’t love, even when I had the money to replace or repair, as a nod towards denying my worldly ambitions: my desire to look cool, to have something I could be proud of, to fit in. I have worn clothes that no longer fit, even though my desire was to buy new ones that fit my slimmer frame, having lost some weight and wanting to show it off. I have read the same books over again, rather than buying new ones, because I buy so many books for work anyway, and I am trying to teach myself to be content with what I already have.


But it’s hard.


And I find fasting even more difficult. I have some experience with it, having fasted maybe a couple of dozen times, but I’m no expert.  The longest fast I’ve ever done was ten days, but I was trying for fourteen. I’ve done several weeklong fasts and a slew of two-day fasts, but to be honest, the only value I think I really got out of them was some kind of bragging right. No, that’s not true. For me, the real value in fasting has been to be able to shut people up who would otherwise criticize me for being a pastor who didn’t fast.


Isn’t that horrible? But it’s true. The merit of fasting ought to be the experience of drawing closer to God, but it seems most people are more concerned with how much you suffer, as if your suffering proves somehow that you are holy.


That’s so backwards. Yes, Christ suffered, and we are meant to be Christ-like. But that doesn’t mean we should inflict ourselves with pointless misery. He suffered so we don’t have to. Any suffering we endure now must be either in service to him or to others, or sadly because others have chosen to afflict us with suffering.


Coming back to my point, fasting ought to produce spiritual growth. If it doesn’t, it will likely only serve to fuel our pride. It will contaminate our noble desire to know God better and turn it into worldly ambition to have others perceive us as holy.


So, I think everyone this Lenten season should spend some time in prayer asking God: what are my worldly ambitions? And how do they get in the way of my noble desire to better know you?


And then we ought to further ask: how can I rearrange my life so as to sacrifice the one kind of desire for the other?


The real question for Lent pertaining to self-denial is not, what should I fast from? but, how shall I fast and why?


This post is from Seasons of Christian Spirituality.