Ash Wednesday kicked off the season of Lent only two days ago, and already I’ve learnt a lot more about fasting. On my personal social media accounts, I announced I’d be fasting from social media (the only exception being this blog’s social media pages so y’all can know about new content). I’ll go over the reasons why later.
In my previous articles on Lent and fasting (the most recent being “Lent: When [Not If] You Fast”), a feature of fasting that was sorely lacking was Christ. Not that my previous articles were entirely legalistic (e.g., “You are not marked by your sins; you are marked by the cross”), but I had previously focused a lot on Christian discipline and repentance rather than the main thing about fasting. A conversation I had with a friend about fasting helped me realise my limited perspective. In the past, I have stated that fasting teaches us Christian discipline in order to repent and give up our sins. While that is an aspect of fasting, it is certainly not the main point. My friend had helped me realise that the whole point of fasting is to focus on Christ. (Thank God for the mutual edification of the saints!)
Fasting: Moving from Mindless Self-Indulgence toward Christ
The whole point of giving up something for Lent—or fasting—is that you give up that thing to replace it with God. For example, in my last article on fasting during Lent, I gave the example of my giving up pizza for Lent last year. While this fasting certainly aided me in Christian discipline to repent of the sin of gluttony, the most important thing is what I replaced the pizza with. If you recall from that article, I had said I fasted from pizza because I ate far too much of it. Almost every Friday I would have pizza for dinner. While my fasting brought me to repentance, the most important thing is that I replaced that time eating pizza with time spent in the Word of God.
Last Lent, I was on vicarage, and because of all its demands I had lost my original devotional habit. Realising that, and desiring to get back into the Word and grow in my faith in Christ, I replaced the time I spent eating pizza with a 1- or 2-hour devotion. At times, this was in the form of reading a theology book or even fiction (you don’t have to read a devotional book to do be devotional). Most of the time, this was time spent reading a short devotion and then journaling about it for an hour or so. Whatever is being given up in fasting, the thing that ought to take its place is Christ. Otherwise, why are you even fasting? To paraphrase my friend, such “fasting” just becomes a New Years resolution and we become no different than the rest of the world.
So, before we begin fasting from something, we should ask ourselves why we’re fasting. Why did I want to fast from pizza? Originally, it was to eat healthier, so it was all about me, myself, and I rather than Christ. Fortunately, throughout the season, I realised it’s about Christ and I need to spend that time with Him. So, whatever it is you want to fast from, ask yourself: Why? “Why do I want to fast from meat and replace it with fish?” Because you’re Catholic and that’s what Catholics have always done? Sorry, but that’s not good enough. The meals of meat ought to be replaced with Christ, not fish. Fish is not enough. (If eating fish somehow informs your faith in Christ, please share that with me. I’m intrigued to know.) “Why do I want to fast from pop” (or “soda” as you weridos call it)? To be healthier and replace it with water? Sorry, but that’s not good enough either. Ask yourself: Where is Christ in my fasting?
So, why have I decided to fast from social media? Where is Christ in my decision? And what have I learnt so far?
What Does It Mean to be Devotional?
To be honest, my initial decision to fast from social media was to address some sins in my life, which is not altogether a bad reason to fast from something. It’s far too easy to say something in anger to someone you don’t even know on social media, which is sinful. I’m very guilty of this. While fasting from something to address a sin in your life is permissible, it shouldn’t be the only reason. So, how can I replace the time I spend mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with Christ? As I did last year, I’m turning to reading as my time spent in devotion.
As I said earlier, reading a devotional book is not the only way to do devotions. You can be devotional in God’s Word by reading a theology book, or reading Luther’s works, or the Church Fathers, even reading fictional books. Concordia Seminary’s 2019 Theological Symposium’s theme was on devotion and I attended a sectional that Rev. Dr. Charles Arand gave. He made the point that devotion is more than reading the Word. Although reading the Word is a crucial point of devotion, he conceded, devotion is a lot more than that. He invited us to ponder: If you’re being devotional, what are you devoted to? Think of a doctrine of Scripture that excites you, he said.
He gave the example of the First Article of the Creed: Creation. In the first article of the Creed, we confess, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” Luther explains:
What does this mean? I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.Small Catechism, The First Article
This article is where we get the phrase “first article gifts” from. Such first article gifts include writing, painting, building, serving, parenting, and so on. He went on to give the example that a person who’s devoted to this doctrine might be moved to devote their time and resources toward caring for the earth. The First Article, then, informs their environmental ethics. This article of the Creed helps them realise God’s love and care for creation and, therefore, their own love and care for creation. Therefore, this Word of God moves them to care for the earth. If I wanted to, I could’ve replaced my time spent eating pizza every weekend with volunteering to clean the highways, or picking up litter at the local park.
The First Article is also personally striking to me. For me, because God has “given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses,” this article of the Creed informs my own first article gifts toward literature. Thus, in my times of devotion, I dedicate this time with God to reading and writing, whether that’s reading theology books or writing poetry to His glory.
Even if I don’t read specifically devotional or theological books to enhance my understanding of God’s Word, I am still devoting my time to God out of my appreciation for the First Article of the Creed if I read a fictional book. When I read The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, such reading causes me to say, “Thank You, Lord, for giving us the gift of human language to compose such masterful pieces. Thank You for this author who has used his first article gift for me and for others, for our joyful appreciation of story telling, of which Your Story is its foundation.” My devotion to reading fiction, or appreciating and interpreting art, or listening to music causes me to give thanks to God for these beautiful first article gifts. Whatever it is, the end is always God.
This same article could inform someone’s devotion to his family where his devotional time is spent with his wife and children (“He has given me… wife and children…”).
I say all this to share what my fasting from social media is being replaced with: first article gifts of theological books, fictional books, and spending more time with my wife. I’ve also included 1 & 2 Peter in my reading list. The main thing I’ve learnt about fasting from social media so far is this: the inordinate, wasteful amount of time I (and we) spend mindlessly scrolling through social media. The amount of time I spend scrolling through social media like a hypnotised zombie could better be replaced with more significant things, like my wife and my first article gifts of creation God has given me through others.
There are certain times of the day where I scroll through social media for a long time, sometimes for several hours (looking at memes, watching videos, arguing with internet strangers, etc.). Social media is not only leading me into sin; it is also taking time away from me that I could better be spending time in the Word, first article gifts, and with my wife.
So What Do I Do When Lent Ends?
The temptation of the end of Lent—or anytime you fast—is always to return to the old habits you were fasting from. If I fast from a certain thing, should I even return to it? Am I being faithful if I return to it? I fasted from pizza or meat or social media for a reason. Am I being faithful by returning to it when Lent ends?
The point of fasting is not the thing in itself; the point is Christ. We fast from things—we’re supposed to fast from things—that are distracting us from Christ. I give something up during Lent because I recognise it is a mindless self-indulgence and I need to refocus on Christ. I’m giving up social media because, yes, it has led me into sin, but also because it has taken up my time that could be better spent with the Lord and my wife—my two greatest loves in that order. During Lent, I learn not to return to those mindlessly self-indulgent habits, not to unapologetically return to the unhelpful and harmful habits of the past.
Can I return to pizza and social media after Lent? Yes, but not to the same degree as before. Last year, I learnt to spend more time on the weekend in the Word rather than eating pizza and binge watching shows on Netflix and Hulu. If I returned to those habits I was fasting from, it would’ve defeated the whole purpose of my fasting. Rather, because I learnt to build the spiritual habits I did, it is vital that I continue that time with the Lord and not return to the way things were. Otherwise, why bother fasting? The point of repentance is not to return to our former sin. The point of fasting is not to return to our former mindless self-indulgence.
As I’m fasting from social media, when Lent ends, I can return to social media but not to the same degree. Rather than spending so much time mindlessly scrolling through various social media networks, I continue the habits I’m starting to spend time with the Lord and my wife.
What are you fasting from? Why? How are you focusing on Christ? Continue this spiritual discipline when Lent ends.