"'Everything is permissible for me'—but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is permissible for me'—but I will not be mastered by anything." 1 Cor. 6:12
This is the most secular reason for a fast, perhaps: the idea that we need to be self-controlled, and that taking time to say “no” to a particular thing (drink or food or whatever) that we have become in some sense dependent upon is a good thing in itself.
But as the verse above shows, this isn’t just a secular idea, not just a need to be in control. The only master we are to have is Christ; therefore, anything that has mastery over us should be broken, by our own choices if possible, by God’s direct intervention if necessary.
I don’t want to be ruled by caffeine. Or the internet. Or sweets.
I want to be ruled by Christ. Lent helps us find our way to freedom from the things that, perhaps, we weren’t aware of, things that have been encroaching on our territory bit by stealthy bit.
My pastor refers to the practice of Lent as “making space for God.”
I like this, since it takes the focus off ourselves, off the effort we’re putting into self-denial, and points us towards the reason for that self-denial. We’re not supposed to fast to win points with God; it’s a way of clearing something out of our lives so that we will have more room for the Spirit. And it’s effective, if only because every time I head for the coffeepot I remember that I’m not drinking coffee, and then I remember why.
Self-denial is a terribly effective memory aid. Like tying a string--tightly--around one’s finger.
I’ve noticed that making space for God in this fashion seems to take a very specific form, at least for me.
By denying myself something that I rely on, that I enjoy, that I expect as part of my daily life, I am removing one of the buffers that keeps life from being too much for me. I’m ditching a coping mechanism. While most of those things are not bad in themselves (I maintain that coffee is a gift from God), the point of a buffer is to prevent me from being hurt by the world around me, to give myself rest or a treat or a break on my own terms.
That same mindset can prevent us from hearing what God would say to us. How He might want us to change. Or even how He might want to commend and encourage us.
Lent is a season of thoughtful examination and penitence, but it’s also a season of preparation: it is a call to set ourselves apart once again, to remember the darkness from which we were saved (and are continually being saved) and the light to which we have been called as beloved and holy children of God.
That’s why self-denial is important in this season. It gives us more than just spiritual motivation to seek God’s face; it makes our interactions with the physical world a symbol of our commitment and a sign pointing us back to Christ every day.
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, on God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(From The Book of Common Prayer: the Collect for Ash Wednesday)