The observance of Lent is one of the oldest celebrations of the Christian calendar. It lasts roughly six weeks, officially beginning on Ash Wednesday, which falls on February 17th this year. Even with its convoluted history, Lent is undoubtedly ancient in origin. And “its purpose has always been the same,” writes historian Ted Olson: namely, “self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter.”
Traditionally, the church has pursued this aim with an extended period of fasting and reflective prayer during the weeks leading up to Easter. These practices are no less needed today. Their aim is to wean us off bad habits and unhealthy patterns – perhaps newly cemented by the strange, lonely rhythms that COVID has brought upon us – and direct our attention to our great and glorious Lord.
I don’t know about you, but I have spent a lot more time on screens since March of 2020 than I have ever before in my life (and it got worse in November). We’ve all been very distracted. I’m reminded of what the infernal Screwtape tells his demon apprentice and nephew, Wormwood, in C.S. Lewis’ classic tale of spiritual warfare:
“It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things in their minds; in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”
As celebrated poet, Mary Oliver writes, “attention is the beginning of devotion.” In order then to pull ourselves away from the material demands that occupy so much of our attention, and set ourselves before God, attuned to His presence and Word, we will need daily to take deliberate steps. Fasting is one such time-honored step, directing our attention away from our usual distractions and re-directing it toward God and Scripture in order to more deeply enjoy His presence. Fasting leads to spiritual feasting.
In August 2018, we called the congregation to a month long fast that included both social media and food/drink. And following in the footsteps of great saints who’ve gone before us, the elders would now like to similarly call us all to a time of fasting and self-examination during the Season of Lent.
- As a first level, we are asking everyone to prayerfully consider significantly limiting their time on screens (both social media and electronic forms of entertainment such as Netflix or video games)
- As a second level, we are asking everyone to consider giving up certain foods (sugar, carbohydrates, meat, alcohol, etc.) and/or certain meals throughout the week.
As with any endeavor worth carrying out, it is wise to plan your fast ahead of time. Consider your daily and weekly rhythms as you plan your fast. Take note of when you are most likely to Netflix binge or go to social media. Make plans now to involve someone else in an activity during those times. Maybe take a walk around your neighborhood and plan to talk with at least one person on your street. Maybe print off a list of the members of your small group. Instead of turning to Twitter or Disney +, pull out your list and pray for the members of your group. Don’t merely fast. Feast on something else – Christ, His Word, prayer, worship, fellowship with other Christians, etc.
- What will you fast from?
- How will you do it?
- How and when will you share the challenges and benefits of your fast with others? (Perhaps you can designate some time within your small group to share together regularly.)
See David Mathis’ Fasting for Beginners from Desiring God for some helpful tips on this discipline.
In addition to practicing self-denial, Lent is also a deliberate season of self-examination and reflection. How might you begin your days with a moment of sustained reflection? How might you end your nights with self-examination? In order to aid you in this time of reflection and prayer, we want to offer the following model of prayerful contemplation and self-examination as a weekly practice during Lent:
Can children fast? Yes! As with any spiritual discipline, it is important in discipling our children (helping them understand and follow Christ in their life) to teach them what fasting is, to walk with them through it, and to reflect on the experience with them.
What can they fast from? Because our children largely engage in eating with us and through our discretion, it is not usually advisable to ask them to fast for a meal. Much more than adults, this can affect their regulation and homeostasis much more intensely, and they are not yet cognizant enough to be able to learn self-control when they feel this type of internal need.
Conversely, they can very distinctly understand fasting from things. Children are largely externally motivated until they reach a level of internal and spiritual maturity that often doesn’t take place until our 20’s. Therefore, we can explain the need and method of fasting to them and practice it with them in this season. I would argue with a generation of children that struggle with instant gratification, developing this discipline in our children is not only important but vital.
So start by considering what does your family engage in most together? Is it playing games? Is it television? Is it video games? These things are not bad, but nothing in this world is as good as the best thing…time and intention in our relationship with the Lord. Fasting is a two step process. First, we purposefully pause certain habits to consider if they are mastering us. Second, we spend time in reflection and connection to God as the best use of our time and resources.
What can I expect? Particularly because for younger children, you will need to help them fast from things that they value most like screen time, video games, or their favorite TV show. You can expect a level of whining or complaining, but this is a wonderful opportunity to explain the needs of our flesh. Start small, this is not an exercise in self-punishment as a parent but in teaching our children how to lay things down and not be mastered by anything but the Lord. We are always being discipled by something, and this is time to reflect on what is really pouring into us and teaching us.
Spend time with your spouse or a friend considering the things that you spend the most time on as a family. What are things that don’t inherently add eternal value to your life? How can we sacrifice time on good things for time on the best thing?
Then consider what aspect of relationship to the Lord you can model to them. Do you have musical talents that you can model in worship? Do you enjoy reading to them, and you can spend that time in a storybook bible or bible translation that meets your child’s level instead of a favorite book? Is your spirit drawn to prayer and you can walk with your children on talking to God in this way? Whatever you are drawn to in a personal fast is going to be the easiest thing to model and draw our children into as well!
How can I explain this? This is a sample script of what you could say, you can modify the language as your children understand. Before you speak with them, consider if any of the words may be hard for them to understand, can you use more words to explain the concept, or do you need to use less words to keep their attention?
“When we become Christians, we are saying that our purpose in living is to follow and glorify God. Sometimes we get so caught up in what we want to do that we don’t leave time to be in relationship with God: to pray to him, to sing his praises, to read his bible, to talk and think about him. So, something we are going to do together is pick a 10 minute time block each day to do one of these activities instead of just doing something for ourselves. Since we spend a lot of time doing _________, I think we should __________ as a way to live our life the way God desires for us!! This may be hard, and I know doing different things isn’t always easy, but it is good for us to see if we are able to give up good things for the best thing. If it feels really hard or makes you mad or sad let’s talk about it!”