As is the custom in our culture, many of us will give up something for Lent. Usually we choose some trivial personal pleasure, such as Facebook or chocolate, looking forward to returning to it, with gusto, as soon as the season ends. These kinds of practices derive from and harken back to the traditional Christian practice of fasting and abstinence during Lent, but bear little resemblance to the disciplines observed by the early Christians.
The early Christians changed their behavior radically during Lent. For the duration of the season most strictly fasted, taking no food between sunrise and sunset. And when they broke their fasts, they adhered to a strictly vegan diet, abstaining from all meat, eggs and dairy products.
It is fair to conclude that those early Christians would not recognize their Lenten disciplines in the way most of us tend to observe the season these days.
It is easy to see that John Wesley would be unimpressed with our seemingly trivial Lenten abstinences as well.
Wesley was, of course, a firm believer in the practice of fasting. Throughout his ministry he championed the discipline, often complaining that Christians practiced it too infrequently. “A man that never fasts,” Wesley declared, “is no more in the way to heaven than the man that never prays.”
As one of the reasons for fasting, Wesley identified something that seems particularly relevant in our culture.
“Another reason or ground of fasting is this: many of those who now fear God are deeply sensible how often they have sinned against him by the abuse of these lawful things. They know how much they have sinned by excess of food; how long they have transgressed the holy law of God, with regard to temperance, if not sobriety to; how they have indulged their sensual appetites, perhaps to the impairing of even their bodily health – certainly to the no small hurt of their soul.” (emphasis added)
This, noted Wesley, is “a perpetual reason for fasting.” Those who have chosen to fast for this reason, he said, “keep at a distance from all excess. … They often wholly refrain; always taking care to be sparing and temperate in all things.” By choosing to fast in this way, “Every wise man…will wean (his soul) more and more from all those indulgences of the inferior appetites, which naturally tend to chain it down to earth, and to pollute as well as debase it.”
Rather than merely taking a temporary respite from some minor personal pleasure, perhaps we should see this Lenten season as an opportunity to commence a “perpetual fast” from “inferior appetites,” such as food that we know to be destructive of our health. At a minimum, might we not be able to identify one or two things that we know to be harmful to our health, and in the spirit of the solemnity of Lent begin the process of removing them from our lives altogether?