Depending on the church tradition you grew up in, the season of Lent may mean a variety things for you. If you’re like me, it’s likely not been something you generally pay attention to. My church tradition doesn’t follow the “church calendar” in its official sense other than celebrating the big holidays marking each season, so most of my spiritual upbringing has been spent unaware of the season of Lent or its associated traditions.
If you came to know God in a more traditional church, however, you may be familiar with the fast but it may come alongside twinges of asceticism and shame with a sometimes legalistic emphasis on restriction of the enjoyable parts of life. Or, maybe, it just simply falls somewhere in the middle for you. Maybe you’ve attempted a Lenten fast here and there, maybe you’ve never fully engaged in all 40 days but you have leaned in and gleaned a few spiritual nuggets here and there through the process.
No matter where you are starting, if you are thinking of engaging in a Lenten fast this year this post is for you. It’s not my intention to describe what Lent was originally intended to be, or discuss the theological underpinnings. My goal today is to open your heart to be transformed by this season if you choose to engage in it, releasing any messages of shame you might be holding as well as drawing your heart to see this time as a true spiritual practice rather than “just another thing we do.”
If you’re interested in experiencing a season of Lent that is full of God’s grace, consider the following steps as you outline your 40-day fast:
First, name the goal of Lent.
I am a firm believer that the things we engage in as Christians should have the primary goal of opening our minds and hearts to the presence and good-character of our God. This, as shown by the entire Biblical narrative and especially the life and ministry of Jesus, is how we are to grow into the kind of people who live in and exude the Kingdom of Heaven outward to our friends, family, and neighbors.
So, when we consider the season of Lent, we should look at the things we choose to do or not do as intentional acts on our part to open ourselves to God’s presence. The goal is not to gain a spiritual merit-badge that we abstained from something “bad” for 40 days, nor is it to feel overwhelming amounts of shame so that we “realize how badly we need Christ.” [in quotes because I’ve heard those exact words used more times than I can count in my 15 years as a Christian.]
The goal of participating in Lent is to “clear the clutter,” so to speak, of our emotional and physical lives so that we can be open to a deeper awareness of, understanding of, and connection to our Creator’s movements in our lives.
In lieu of the traditional New Year’s Eve goals this year, I decided to frame my focus on paying attention to the abundant activities in my life (both religious and non-religious) that tend to distract me from awareness of God’s presence. In December and January, I made significant choices in the overall structure of my life to stop doing many things, because I wanted to make sure that my life was being led more by the Spirit than by my own whim or the opinions and expectations of other people. (Galatians 1:10).
So, as I began seeing writer-friends and trusted spiritual mentors discussing the season of Lent, I sensed that it might be a perfect season to bodily practice the habits I was trying to form in my everyday life. Of course, this goal is not confined to the season of Lent, but if you are considering engaging in the fast I do encourage you to start your framework with this goal in mind.
Next, remember the character of the God we’re serving.
The longer I follow Jesus, the more convinced I am that we do not serve a God of shame. Again, depending on the church tradition you’ve come to know Christ in, this may feel like a strange concept to lean into. But let me be clear–any “spiritual” practice that elicits more shame than awareness of God’s good, loving, and kind character is likely not going to serve you this Lenten season (or probably ever in your spiritual-growth journey).
I do not say this to say that we are perfect, or that sin isn’t a problem that we are being faced with during this season of Lent. In fact, as my framework of sin and kingdom-hearted living continues to expand, I am more aware of how unlike Jesus I truly am–to the detriment of many areas and relationships in my life. Growth is certainly the goal of our lives, and through fasting through the season of Lent, but let’s remember that the way of God is to love us into growth.
I could pause here to do a deep dive on the Biblical support for this, but I’ll spare you the theological essay and instead encourage you to reflect on passages like Psalm 23, Psalm 139, 1 Peter 5:10, and Ephesians 3:16-21
Next, as you consider a grace-filled Lenten fast, take time to reflect on the following questions:
Self-reflection is an essential piece of the process to ensure that your season of Lent focuses specifically on your walk with God (rather than your fast looking like the fasts of others).
Personally, I can feel the pull to abstain from all of the things that are known problems in our society–caffeine, sweets, social media, etc. But, if we only choose to abstain from things for the simple fact that they are “bad habits,” I can almost guarantee the spiritual growth as a result of our fast will be stunted.
Instead of simply abstaining from what “seems right” during this fast, I encourage you to prayerfully consider your personal walk with God. What is the makeup of your days? Where are you likely to see God’s presence?What are the actual things in your day that distract you or shadow you from experiencing Him? Taking time to reflect on questions like these before you decide what your season of fasting will look like helps to ensure that the time will be enriching uniquely for your life and your personal walk with God.
Though there is certainly value to the traditional fasts forthe season of Lent, to ensure your actual, personal relationship with God is enriched through this time, take some space for self-reflection on the following questions before deciding what your fast will look like.
What are the things I do in my daily life that tend to distract, numb, or cover over uncomfortable feelings?
In the last several months, what things have I done or experienced that enriched my awareness of God and my connection with him?
What spiritual practices have I been interested in trying, but haven’t because I habitually move toward my distract-tactics before I lean into God?
These questions are designed to prayerfully open your heart to a few small things you might fast from or start doing this season of Lent so that you can move toward our named goal of opening to the awareness of and intimacy with God. If you find that it’s helpful, you can download this free guide I’ve created to help walk you through the steps in this post complete with space to record the things the Spirit is laying on your heart.
Finally, name your fast.
Now that we have goals named, the character of God remembered, and internal heart reflected on, you’re ready to identify 1-3 ways you can intentionally clear the clutter of your days and lean into the awareness of and intimacy with God for the next 40 days.
I encourage you to consider things you can abstain from, as well as things you can add in like spiritual practices, time and space alone or unhurried, intentional time in nature, or any other positive action you can take. As your life is freed up from the things you identified in the first reflection question listed above, adding in intentional spiritual practices or unhurried time can serve to draw you nearer than you’ve been able to go before.
Just one more note of encouragement:
Please remember to serve God through the season, rather than serving the season itself. It’s easy with structured spiritual frameworks to become more married to the structure than to the heart of the practice.
For example, if you’re reading this and it’s already 15 days into the season of Lent, it’s not too late to ask yourself these questions and spend some intentional time clearing away your spiritual clutter and emotional crutches to draw near to God’s presence. There is nothing magical about Ash Wednesday or Easter Sunday that limits spiritual growth to this 40-day period.
Similarly, if you decide to fast from something and realize in 20 days there becomes a reasonable opportunity to drink the Starbucks or eat the brownie, I encourage you to prayerfully consider that from the Lord rather than automatically bowing to the need to fast for the full 40 days. Allow the framework set forth by the early church leaders to serve your spiritual growth, rather than setting the framework of the season of Lent as Lord in this process.
If you’re interested in walking with me through this season of Lent, hearing about the things I’m abstaining from and the things I’m working to add into my life, I encourage you to join my email community! I’ll be off of social media for the season of Lent (spoiler alert!), and so I’d love to be able to encourage you through some semi-regular notes in your email inbox so we can grow together.
Click the link below to download the Guide to a Grace-Filled Lent, which provides the topics of this post in a guided-journal format to be used in your next stolen moment of peace while sipping your lukewarm coffee. I can’t wait to grow with you this season, friend!