It's Lent! Should you give something up?
Maybe. Maybe not.
So here are some thoughts that I shared during our Ash Wednesday worship gathering.
“You don’t see us. You don’t notice us.”
It’s been almost three thousand years since these Jewish believers uttered these cries of spiritual disconnection. And yet that feeling of spiritual emptiness is so relevant to our current experience that they could have been written yesterday. We also know what it feels like to question, to doubt, to miss the experience of knowing God’s presence, to wonder if we ever truly felt it at all.
And maybe, like those ancient Jewish believers, we’ve tried certain spiritual practices to create a space for us to feel spiritually connected. Some of those spiritual practices work by giving us something more - more prayer, more study, more service, more worship. And some spiritual practices work by taking something away - through silence, or solitude, or fasting. Adding something or taking something away can alter our perspective and help us to see/hear/feel God in a fresh way.
Self-denial was a common spiritual practice for ancient Jews. They fasted during mourning periods and during national crises and when they wanted to hear a word from God. Jesus also fasted, famously, for forty days before beginning his ministry. And although Jesus didn’t require his followers to fast, in some Christian traditions fasting has been a way to prepare for certain seasons, like Lent. During Lent, fasting can remind us of the sacrificial love of Jesus who spent his life in service to others.
But our passage tonight is not about a spiritual practice that worked. In this case, the believers did not get what they were looking for. God did show up. But instead of blessing them with approval and favor, God pointed out their hypocrisy and invited them to try a better way. So apparently self-denial is not always good. And this got me thinking about what does make a spiritual practice of self-denial good.
Have you ever tried fasting? Like, not to prepare for a medical test or as part of some fad diet. But truly as a spiritual practice? I experimented with fasting as a young adult. I’m not exactly sure what drew me to it. But I think I was instinctively trying to reconcile my affluent background with my faith in a poor, Palestinian Jew who was murdered by the state. However, I didn’t stick with the practice and I haven’t thought about it in years. It didn’t work for me and this passage from Isaiah has me thinking about the reasons for that. Like, did I just not try hard enough? Or was it something else?
For those of us who have everything they need and maybe even everything they want, denying ourselves something can be a helpful practice. It can be helpful to imagine what it would be like to not be able to eat when you’re hungry. It can be helpful to not experience instant gratification. It can be helpful to be reminded that your body is dependent on the work of others to sustain it. Experiencing discomfort can lead to spiritual awakening. It can remind you about what you owe to God and what you owe to others.
The believers in today’s passage were very eager to get God’s attention with their self-denial. They fasted and perhaps even wore ashes, like many Christians are doing today. Isaiah says they humbled themselves. And the Hebrew word here means diminishing the spirit or soul or vitality. They diminished themselves in order to get God’s approval. But God did not approve.
The reason God gives for this is that although the believers covered themselves with signs of humility and poverty and suffering they did not do anything to relieve the actual poverty and suffering of people around them. Even while they were fasting they continued to oppress their workers and use violence. This is not the kind of fasting that God wants. God does not want us to withhold things from ourselves while also withholding things from others. Fasting fails - self-denial fails - when it doesn’t produce empathy for others and action for justice.
God does not want us to throw our bread away. God wants us to share our food with the hungry. God does not want us to live in the tiny houses of Instagram. God wants us to practice hospitality. God does not want us to buy fewer clothes. God wants us to give the clothes we have for other people to wear. God doesn’t want us to diminish ourselves as much as God wants us to increase others.
These are some things that discomfort can teach us. But not everyone needs more discomfort. Some of us already have more than our fair share of discomfort. In the passage from Isaiah, it’s not the hungry or the homeless who are fasting. It’s the people with power who benefit from limiting themselves in some small way.
I was thinking about that this week after McGann recommended an episode of the podcast Nomad. The topic was embodiment. And the guest was Hillary McBride, a therapist and researcher and spiritual teacher. She talked about how the practice of fasting in American churches is linked to gender. Because the patriarchy protects male power, people who are raised as men are more likely than women to have authority and autonomy in our families and workplaces and churches. Because the patriarchy values thinking more than feeling, men are less likely to feel connected to our bodies. So the practice of fasting may actually serve the spiritual needs of men by putting us in touch with the experience of our bodies and by practicing self-limitation.
But it may be different for people who have been raised as women, who often already have limits imposed on them by others, and who already experience more scrutiny about what they eat and how much. It may be less helpful for women to deny themselves something.
So if you’re thinking about a spiritual practice of self-denial, another thing to consider is the actual context of your life. And not only your gender but also your race and sexual orientation and wealth. Would denying yourself ground you in your body and help you be aware of your privileges? Or would denying yourself add an unnecessary burden to your life? An important question for all of us, actually, during this year of pandemic when everyone is touched by suffering to one degree or another.
I think that the value in a practice of self-denial is that the discomfort is unsettling, it wakes us up from the status quo. So although self-denial is not a good spiritual practice for everyone, there are other ways to pursue discomfort as a spiritual tool.
For example, if you’re already the most comfortable denying yourself, then the real discomfort, the good discomfort might come from giving yourself more. Could you accept that God wants you to have more?
Or, if you’re expected to keep quiet at home or at church or at work, then the real discomfort, the good discomfort might not come from silence but from speaking up. Could you accept that God has given you something important to say?
Or if you’re most comfortable being alone, then the real discomfort, the good discomfort might not come from solitude but from seeking out others. Could you accept that God wants people to know you and love you?
To summarize, a good spiritual practice:
- Produces empathy and action
- Grounds you in your body and makes you aware of your privilege
- Fills you with the confidence to be loved and love others
- Alters your perspective in a way that makes you feel noticed by God