“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?” (Isaiah 58:5)
Today is Ash Wednesday which marks the start of Lent. This forty-day period running up to Easter is traditionally used as a time of penitence – a time to reflect, take stock, and confess before God those areas of our lives which we need to change.
For most of us this season shows itself in giving something up for Lent. Have you chosen something to give up this year? Some people use this time to start to give up a habit they would like to lost permanently, such as smoking. Most of us probably choose to give up something just for this season, such as chocolate or alcohol, coffee or social media.
Is giving something up for Lent a helpful practice? Well, it can be, as long as we give up without giving up. What do I mean by this?
Don’t do it just for a short time. Many people give up chocolate for Lent, which can be a good and healthy thing to do. The problem is that our willpower only lasts until Easter (at least mine does) when we get to gorge ourselves on all those delicious chocolate Easter eggs.
God speaks to us about this in Isaiah 58:5 when he says, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself?” The danger of giving something up for Lent is that we give up giving up after the forty days are over. We change, but only for a short time – a ‘day’ to humble ourselves – instead of changing for the long term.
When it comes to eating chocolate or not, for most of us that doesn’t really matter. But what about when it comes to giving up some more serious habit or sinful behaviour? Or for those who chose to start a new habit, such as exercise or Bible reading, instead of stopping something for Lent? We mustn’t give up doing these things after a short time. Lent ought to have an effect on us – how will your life be different after Lent this year?
Don’t focus just on externals. Isaiah 58:5 again exposes the problem with our attitude so much of the time: “ Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed…?”
If we let it, Lent can easily become a time for ‘bowing our head like a reed’, having a visible, external type of change but not changing deep within where it matters. We can try and fix the outside, even to be seen to be devout, but neglect the inside. We can give up giving up before it gets to the place it needs to.
Traditionally Ash Wednesday has been marked by a morning service where people receive ashes placed on their foreheads. The ashes form a cross which they keep visible throughout the day before washing in the evening.
This practice of ‘ashing’ can be very powerful and moving, although not exactly easy in our current Covid restrictions. But it can also make us focus on looking right on the outside instead of changing fully on the inside. The cross on your forehead ought to be a sign of the transforming work of the cross on your heart, mind and soul.
Will we let Lent work on our insides as well as our outsides? Isaiah 58 tells us what this inside change will look like: loosening the chains of injustice, setting the oppressed free (v6), sharing food with the hungry, proving for the poor and needy (v7), stopping malicious talk and pointing fingers (v9) instead spending ourselves in hqebalf of the hungry and oppressed (v10).
That is a great deal more challenging than giving up chocolate! But this is the change that God wants to bring in us. I need that, you need that, we all need that – and it is only possible by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work in us.
So this Lent, by all means give something up. But let’s not stop there. Let’s not give up at giving up, but let’s crave true and lasting change in our lives and our attitudes, and let’s ask the God who has the power to change to bring that transformation in our lives this Lent and beyond.