The Logic of Lent: What Really Happens when You Fast?
For the last several years that our family has observed Lent, we have individually chosen to observe a partial fast. Each person chooses at least one thing from which to fast and shares it with everyone else. This year, we decided to do it a little differently since our younger ones are on the cusp of understanding what Lent is about. Instead of doing individual fasts, we decided that we would fast as a family from sweet drinks and desserts.
This decision provoked objections during the first few days, but after that everyone settled into the new rhythm. More challenging than doing the actual fast, however, is explaining the logic of fasting to our 5 and 3-year olds (I think our oldest gets it now).
So, how does one explain the logic of Lent to a 3 or 5-year-old? While this may not be the best explanation, I said something like this.
When we fast from sweet drinks and dessert, we choose for a time to not eat or drink these things that we otherwise enjoy. It’s not wrong to enjoy them. So, why do we do this? It helps us loosen and break our attachments to the world and to focus on God.
Boys, you know how you feel when your brother has a toy that you want, and you feel the urge to go take it from him? That’s the fleshly desire driving you to hurt your brother so that you can enjoy something that he has. When we fast, we feel that same urge. Through fasting, we train ourselves to resist that fleshly urge.
It later occurred to me that this corresponds with a principle of spiritual formation that I’ll call the “temptation-sin V diagram” illustrated below. At the very tip or bottom of the V, one finds the intersection of temptation and sin or trigger and response. Most of us live life at the bottom of the V where the moment of temptation is the same moment that we give in to sin.
If someone cuts us off in traffic, we respond in anger. If we accidentally drop something or stub our toe, we curse. If someone pushes our buttons, we push back. If our kids don’t listen, we chew them out. You get the picture.
The key is getting to a place where we can back up a bit from the bottom of the V so that there is some delay introduced between temptation and sin or trigger and response. That is, instead of reacting pre-cognitively, we are able to process the temptation or trigger and then choose an appropriate response rather than reacting automatically.
Doing a partial fast is one way to train ourselves to become more aware of the things that tempt us. This also trains us to introduce a time delay between temptation and sin so that we might choose obedience. Of course, doing a full fast would only intensify the outcome of this training as well as introduce other benefits that a partial fast doesn’t offer. For our family, however, the partial fast works well.