Lent is not a time of celebration. This is because fasting is not a time of celebration, but of lament and of seeking the Lord. Because Lent is a season of fasting, it cannot be a season of celebration. The celebration comes at the end of Lent when we assemble together to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. We do not celebrate Lent, but we should observe it.
Throughout the Scriptures fasting occurs for several reasons. First, fasting was for seeking the Lord in prayer in order to gain wisdom and direction from the Lord. In Judges 20 all Israel marches on the tribe of Benjamin for Benjamin’s heinous sin. The other tribes demanded Benjamin give up the individual responsible for the sin but the people of Benjamin would not. After two initial setbacks, we read this:
Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD.Judges 20:26 ESV
They were asking the Lord whether to attack Benjamin. Fasting was not a time of celebration. To better hear the voice of the Lord the people fasted. This was also why Jesus fasted for 40 days before beginning his public ministry. He sought his Father’s face through prayer and fasting that he might be prepared for what lay ahead.
A second reason for fasting is to plead with God for others in prayer. In 2 Samuel 12 when David’s child with Bathsheba was sick and close to death we read what David did:
David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground.2 Samuel 12:16 ESV
There was only one who could help the child and through prayer and fasting David pleaded with the Lord to save his child.
A third reason for fasting is lament. In 2 Samuel 1 David learned of the deaths of king Saul and his son Jonathan. It says:
Then David took hold of his clothes and tore them, and so did all the men who were with him. And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the LORD and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.2 Samuel 1:11–12 ESV
Fasting is a sign of grief and of remorse and of lament. It is a response to tragedy that expresses the pain and suffering resulting from the tragedy.
A fourth reason for fasting was to seek the Lord’s protection. In 2 Chronicles 20 Jehoshaphat is king. The Moabites and Ammonites are preparing to attack. We read this:
Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the LORD; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD.2 Chronicles 20:3–4 ESV
The next several verses record Jehoshaphat’s prayer during this corporate fast by the entire nation. All Judah was united in seeking the Lord in prayer while fasting. They needed his help and he was the only one who could rescue them.
Finally, fasting is a time of repentance. In the book of Daniel, Daniel receives a series of visions. In the beginning of the book he is the great interpreter of dreams but by chapter 8 he is confused and perplexed and disturbed by them. At the end of chapter 8 he declared that he “was appalled by the vision and did not understand it” (Daniel 8:27). Here was his response to this confusion and lack of understanding:
Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the LORD my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules.”Daniel 9:3–5 ESV
His response to his lack of understanding was to pray and fast and seek the Lord, and to repent of his and his nation’s sins. The next several verses are Daniel’s cries of repentance and pleas for mercy from God. After confessing his peoples’ sins, he prayed,
Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.Daniel 9:17–19 ESV
The city of Jerusalem was destroyed. God’s temple was in ruins. The people were in exile in Babylon. Daniel prayed for his people while fasting, seeking the Lord. Notice that Daniel is not fasting in order to gain God’s attention, as if fasting were an act of righteousness that somehow binds God to answer his prayer. Daniel does not pray and fast in order to earn God’s favor. Fasting is an outward display of complete and utter dependence on God. Fasting is an act of humility, much like bowing before the throne of God. We see the humbling nature of fasting in God’s instructions to Israel through the prophet Joel.
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.Joel 2:11–13 ESV
God had just revealed through Joel that destruction was coming. All the prosperity and peace they had enjoyed would soon be taken away. Then Joel pleads with the people to repent. Finally, God himself calls them to repent. This repentance would take place through fasting and weeping and mourning. Once again it is not that fasting forces God into mercy. It’s that fasting demonstrates the humility of a person and even helps cultivate that humility even further. To put it another way, fasting that honors the Lord is fasting that comes from faith.
This is why we do not celebrate Lent, but observe it. Whether we spend time praying and fasting for direction from the Lord (as I urged the church to do in last Sunday’s sermon), or we pray and fast on behalf of another in need (whether for physical or spiritual health), or we express our sorrow and lament to the only one who can bring comfort in times of loss, or we seek the Lord’s protection and the end to terrible and costly wars (pray for Ukraine!), or we find ourselves needing to confess sin, fasting is an outward demonstration of our humility and dependence on God, and is the expression of faith in God who hears us in Christ.
Let’s observe Lent together, as a church. Let’s choose to humble ourselves by giving up something good and let’s commit ourselves to praying for one another and for God’s direction for us as a church. Let’s confess our sins and turn from them and commit ourselves to following the Lord Jesus with whole hearts. Let’s pray for friends and neighbors, for co-workers and family members who do not know Jesus. Maybe even invite them on Easter Sunday! Let’s seek ways that God would have us proclaim the good news to them. Let’s show the Lord and one another how utterly dependent on him we really are.
At the end of the day, fasting is for us. It adds nothing to God, but offers us tremendous benefit for it increases our awareness of our dependence and it humbles us by reminding us of that very dependence. The act of sacrifice helps form spiritual discipline in us by reminding us we are not our own. It’s entirely possible to be reminded of this by other spiritual disciplines in our lives, and we should pursue those, too! From the very beginning, however, God’s people have voluntarily sacrificed through fasting, recognizing its incredible value in our lives and in our spiritual development. New City, let’s observe Lent together.