On New Years Eve, my wife asked me about my resolutions. I had one: Eat more salad than last year.
So, in the first three weeks of the new year, I ate a total of five salads. Mission accomplished: I ate two more bowls of salad than the previous year (Letters of congratulations will still be accepted, should you feel the need to send them).
Now, as Ash Wednesday approaches, a new season of resolutions is upon many of us, and there’s a tendency to think of fasting during Lent the same way we think of our New Years resolutions.
On New Years, when we make a compact to ourselves, or maybe friends and family, about changing habits, we usually seek to benefit ourselves physically or emotionally or socially. We say things like “I’ll stop drinking an entire 12 pack of Code Red Mountain Dew during the week” (how I am diabetes-free today is beyond me).
We promise to exercise more. We promise to cast away unhealthy friendships and hang-ups. All so we can be shiny new versions of ourselves by the time the next year rolls around. And by the end of the first month, nearly half of us will have failed. Most of us will taper off by 6 months. A handful of freaks will actually make the full year (jerks).
But Lent is different.
We make an internal compact with God, maybe under the witness of friends and family, to change habits so we can benefit ourselves physically or emotionally or socially, but primarily, spiritually. And many people succeed during Lent.
It’s only 40 days! So more of us slackers can actually achieve it! Also, our success, whether some of us are willing to admit it or not, comes from an irrational belief that reneging will bring us one step closer to H-E-doublehockeysticks. The Lenten fast becomes a bargaining tool (ie: if I stop stuffing my gullet with Twinkies, You will give me professional success, a new car, an eternal life). It’s no wonder we have such strong-willed Christians during this season.
Such thinking misses the purpose of fasting, and thus the transformative potential the Lent carries, which differentiates it from New Years.
On New Years, we forgo our vices as our attempt to forget them out of existence. It’s an exercise in building ourselves up so that we can attain a higher quality of life here on Earth. In other words, we shore up our weaknesses so we can establish self-reliance.
During Lent, we forgo our vices as our attempt to remember the reason for our existence. It’s an exercise in breaking down our ego so that we can eliminate distractions during this time of prayer. In other words, we address our superficial weaknesses so we can meditate on our deeper ones.
Giving up candy allows for me to tackle my pride. Cutting down screen time permits me to have more time in the Word. And censoring my road-rage induced cursing…well, I guess it will make me listen to NPR (after all, you can’t be angry if you’re semi-conscious). My point is that “giving-up” during Lent means losing ourselves because we have let God in. When I inevitably feel my sweet tooth calling (for the 32nd time during the day), it is my reminder to pray. I invite God to share in my burden, as inconsequential as it is, and in doing so, I open myself to transformation beyond the flesh.
When I get ashes spread across my forehead, it will be my symbolic initiation into the season–a reminder that I am entirely dependent on my God; that I cannot burn my vices (or my fat…at least for me) without His help; that when I inevitably fail in this life (even if I succeed in not binge-watching Netflix for 40 days) there was a perfect sacrifice made that will give me a second chance I did not earn.
New Years resolutions can be incredibly uplifting and empowering. But I love fasting during Lent because it humbles me beyond understanding, and that, I find, is the best mechanism for change.