Every year more and more evangelicals seem to be observing Lent. We’ve recognized it as a time of profound reorientation. We all are, as the hymn “Come, Thou Fount” aptly puts it, “prone to wander.” We are frail, sinful people who need to often reconsider our priorities, motives, and commitments. And fasting, which has both historical and biblical precedent, is a great way to foster reorientation.
In Scripture, we see that fasting is a sign of sorrow over sin (Deut. 9:9, 18; 10:10; Ezra 10:6), a sign of repentance (1 Sam. 7:6), and an aid to prayer (Ezra 8:21–23; Acts 13:2–3). This discipline of abstinence, therefore, is often described as a way to grow closer to God. It prompts us to recognize our weakness and sinfulness, and it tangibly reminds us of our constant need for God’s grace and strength.
Lent is also a time to imitate Christ and participate in his life in concrete ways. Lent, after all, commemorates Christ’s 40-day fast in the wilderness. For many, it is a spiritual journey whereby we identify with Christ, hoping to become more like him.
All that is good, but many wonder if this hyperfocus on personal holiness is always healthy. Could it not turn into so much navel gazing? Perhaps we’ve lost sight of a vital aspect of Christ’s wilderness fast.
If we want to truly imitate Christ’s fast and participate in his life these 40 days, perhaps we should consider fasting for the sake of others.
Christ—True and Faithful Israel
It might seem odd that Jesus would fast. Fasting was often a sign of grief over sin and repentance. As Craig Blomberg explains, Jews usually fasted “to spend more time in prayer and develop greater spiritual receptivity.” Why, then, would a sinless, divine Jesus, already one with the Father, abstain from food for so long?
It’s possible that he was preparing himself for his public ministry. Jesus had just been baptized by John. Scholars recognize this event as Jesus’ “anointing,” the time when he was installed or commissioned for ministry. So what better way to begin ministry than with prolonged time in prayer and fasting?
But this was not a spiritual retreat. At least not the kind we usually imagine. Matthew doesn’t tell us that Jesus went into the wilderness to commune with God. Rather, he went “to be tempted by the devil” (4:1). It was far more than a time of ministry preparation. Jesus was going head to head with Satan himself. The reason? To relive and redeem the story of Israel.
The scene recalls the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness. Just as God led Israel through the Red Sea and into the wilderness for 40 years to be tested (Deut. 8:2), so the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted. The obedient Son of God is contrasted with disobedient Israel, and the parallels between their two stories are striking.
The Israelites in the wilderness complained time and again about food, saying that they didn’t have enough to eat and that the cuisine back in Egypt was preferable (Exod. 16). Jesus, however, resisted the temptation to turn stones into bread when he was hungry, saying, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt. 4:4). Second, whereas the Israelites constantly put God to the test, doubting his love and provision (Exod. 17:2–7), Jesus refused to test God by jumping off the temple. Finally, Jesus was tempted to bend his knee to the Devil. In the wilderness—and throughout the whole Old Testament, for that matter—Israel betrayed her covenant God by worshiping an object of creation (Exod. 32). But Jesus resisted, saying, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matt. 4:10).
By clinging to the very Law that the Israelites received from the hand of God, and by resisting the wiles of the devil, Jesus emerged as the true representative and fulfillment of Israel. Where they had failed, he succeeded. Where they were faithless, he was faithful.
Not only that, Jesus relived all of humanity’s experience. In the Garden, humanity doubted God’s word, reached for forbidden food and, in so doing, grasped at equality with God. Yet, as N. T. Wright says, “The temptation of Christ was not to snatch at a forbidden equality with God, but to cling to his rights and thereby opt out of the task allotted to him, that he should undo the results of Adam’s snatching.” And undo the results of humanity’s rebellion he did. For 40 days, Jesus gave up food, comfort, and security and gave a beating to the devil so he could gain back what humanity had given away.
And all of this points to something greater.
Christ—Servant for All
The truth is Christ didn’t forego privileges and battle for humanity for only 40 days. The scene of Jesus in the wilderness is a synecdoche for his entire early life—and ultimately his incarnation. A synecdoche is a figure of speech, or in this case an action, in which a part is made to represent the whole. By becoming human, God the Son laid aside certain rights and privileges so that we might become co-heirs with him. That’s what Paul gets at in Philippians:
[Jesus], being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness. (2:6–7)
From this, theologians have developed a doctrine known as kenosis, stemming from a Greek term meaning “emptying.” Christ emptied himself, or “made himself nothing,” when he became man. This doesn’t mean that God the Son somehow abandoned his divine attributes, as if he were less divine than in his pre-incarnate existence. For Paul says elsewhere, “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). Christ made himself nothing by becoming a servant. He did not use his divinity to his own advantage, as Paul put it, but largely to walk a life-long path of self-sacrifice.
And the very reason Jesus took up this servanthood, relinquishing certain rights and privileges, was so you and I might gain his benefits. John Calvin put it well:
This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us, that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.
That’s good news! Christ’s whole life was lived on behalf of others, a continuous pursuit of others’ wellbeing. And Christ’s fast in the wilderness is a crucial example of that reality. So if we want to imitate his life and his fast to the degree we can, then we should consider fasting on behalf of others—that is, for their benefit and blessing. This is exactly the type of fast Isaiah talks about:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (58:6–7)
Lent is not just about personal holiness. Nor is it about pursuing simplicity of life for its own sake. Lent also has a remarkable social dimension. As pastor and columnist Chuck B. Colson said, “Lent gives us the opportunity to move towards our neighbor in charity” because it “emphasizes simplicity for the sake of others.” It’s fine and good to give up sweets, alcohol, TV, or whatever you might abstain from. But what if our abstinence reflected our care for others more than our care for ourselves? What if, as Colson suggests, we allocated the savings from our fasting and gave them to the poor and marginalized?
Perhaps we could adapt Jen Hatmaker’s experiment. In her book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, Hatmaker recounts how her family de-cluttered in seven areas of their life, enabling them not only to focus more on God but also give more generously to those in need. If charity became an integral part of our fasting, then, we would move closer to participating in the deeper meaning of Christ’s life and his fast.
The scene of Christ in the wilderness and his incarnation help us see the Christian life as an upward, inward, and outward movement. Lent teaches us to look to Christ as our sole redeemer and source of strength. It teaches us to look within ourselves, to examine our hearts and surrender them to Christ. And it teaches us to look to others, to see how we might serve and lay down our lives for others as Christ has done for us.
Kevin P. Emmert is assistant online editor for CT. You can follow him on Twitter @Kevin_P_Emmert.