Ash Wednesday, for main-stream churches is traditionally the start of forty days of fasting to observe the Lenten season. I grew up in the Anglican church where it was observed, but when I married into the Baptist church this observance went largely unnoticed. If it wasn't in the Bible it was not something God ordained, so it simply wasn't a "thing" with Baptists or any or Bible-based churches.
Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season is a man-made construct but one that was created with good intentions. It is to be a period of reflection and preparation for Christ's burial and resurrection. It can be a very satisfying spiritual journey when done in the correct way. The forty days is in rememberance of Jesus' time spent in the wilderness, where he fasted and was tempted to sin by the devil, for forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4). But for many Christians this commitment to "fasting" has transitioned more into a second attempt at a New Year's resolution that was forgotten. Now people are goal setting (losing "X" amount of pounds in forty days) or giving up a luxury or guilty pleasure of some sort, (taking the bus instead of a car, or giving up chocolate). Sadly, what the church began as an exercise in growing spritually has devolved into how one can best help themselves for the next forty days. So today I am going to re-appropriate a post I wrote on the true meaning of fasting and share it again here.
This is what God said true fasting should like like:
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
“If you take away the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
If you extend your soul to the hungry
And satisfy the afflicted soul,
Then your light shall dawn in the darkness,
And your darkness shall be as the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;
You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.
Isaiah 58:6-11, NKJV
Jesus carried this teaching through to his disciples. He wanted to see a change of character in those who followed him. He taught the need of purity and simplicity of motive in our fasting. Yes, there were times when fasting was needed (Mark 9:25-29) and yes, private fasts were observed by Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11) and his disciples. Paul fasted to seek God's guidance (Acts 14:23).
Giving up chocolate for Lent or going on a diet for 40 days has no spiritual value. The value comes when you truly deny yourself for the sake of another, not so that you can be edified, but so that someone else can be. That's true fasting and it falls in line in regard to what Jesus taught us about denying ourselves (Luke 9:23) and loving others (John 13:34).