Lent is that weird season where Christians go on a diet. Catholics and Orthodox give up meat (at least on Fridays), and High Church Protestants give up caffeine or booze or chocolate or social media. One of my students this year gave up giving up stuff, meaning, he won’t be participating in the Lenten fast. Historically, its 40-ish days of fasting a la Jesus in the wilderness, preparing the soul for Easter. The truth is most Protestants don’t really get into fasting, in general, or for just 40 days. I characterized this with the true story of Swiss Reformer, Huldrych Zwingli, who literally threw a sausage party the first Sunday of Lent in 1522 to protest Roman Catholic practices. Take that, pope!
John Wesley didn’t actually keep Lent; he essentially did away with it in his Methodist Church calendar. Wesley saw self-denial as crucial to true discipleship, but also recognized it to be one of the most misunderstood practices of the faith. You had extremists to didn’t see the point of fasting, and therefore lived in the liberty and gluttony of enjoying everything to the utmost all the time. You had other extremists who fasted so hard they took their self-deprecation as a point of pride. Wesley proposed, and lived, a much more moderate and regular practice of fasting that is applicable for all people. You should stop reading this and click here to read his sermon on Self Denial right now, because it’s better than anything I could say.
Wesley took Christ’s challenge seriously…to deny yourself and daily take up your cross. For Wesley, self denial didn’t mean mistreatment of your body or super harsh and impossible self-masochism. Self denial means second-hand shopping, it means living below your means so that you can give away the extra to those in need. Self denial always carried with it the practical rule that you give yourself less so that you can give others more. Eat less expensively and extravagantly. Buy less for yourself so that you can budget more for those with nothing. Wesley expected all of his ministers to completely abstain from food every Friday, and to dive deep into prayer on those days. He taught that fasting and self-denial were the ways you feed your relationship with Christ, while feeding ever appetite you have only makes it more difficult to follow Christ.
A partial fast is restricting your diet, something you can do in an ongoing basis. Wesley became a vegetarian for health reasons, though there are good ethical reasons for Christians today to choose to eat less meat (think about the incredible cost to produce meat from the farm to your table). A complete fast is abstaining from all food for a period of time, something that fewer people are able to do with regularity. Granted, Wesley allowed himself to take tea and broth on complete fast days. In any case, Wesley challenges us to take Christ at his word, and to move past a season of fasting to a lifestyle of self denial. Let this Lent be your jump start into taking up your cross daily. I have always found my love for God at its strongest when I have made fasting an ongoing and regular part of my faith walk. There’s something about low blood-sugar and the dizziness that comes from missing a few meals in a row that reminds you of the human condition, that we are truly dependent on God for every good thing, that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed.