Until this year, I never fasted for Lent. Fasting is a word that has always made me feel a bit uncomfortable. As a child, I remember my parents fasting, and I fasted from a meal for the purpose of prayer a couple of times back in Bible college, but quite honestly haven’t given it much thought ever since.
Even though I’ve known the Lord for years and years and should’ve known better, I think in my head I thought of fasting as something religious people do to make their god happy with them, and something non-religious people do for health reasons. And so when I heard of Christians fasting for Lent — the 40 days before Easter — I didn’t understand. It felt very legalistic to me: “If I give up ____ for 40 days, then God will be pleased with me.”
But one of our pastors, John, preached a sermon about fasting last month to begin the season of Lent, and it had a big impact on me. He spoke of fasting as a way to get hold of the Christian’s attention. We’re so distracted. We don’t truly, deeply hunger for God because we’re never hungry for anything. We’re so desperate to be comfortable, and the opportunities to make ourselves comfortable are limitless.
We fill up on all the gifts this world has to offer, and the consequence is that our appetite for Christ has grown small.
What fasting really is, is the act of setting aside something we really want for a season in order to grow our hunger for what we need.
John told the story of asking his wife Anna what he should give up for Lent. She told him, “Reading.” And he was incredulous. “What!? That’s not even a thing! No one in the history of the Christian church has ever given up reading for Lent!” But she told him when he comes home from work and picks up his phone to read texts or articles on Facebook, when he picks up a book in the evening, he’s distracted. He isn’t connecting with his family. What they need is for his full attention those few hours of the day and of the weekend.
So John decided to listen to her, and give up reading at home for the 40 days of Lent. He shelved his books and checked his phone at the door each evening. He didn’t do it to try and win points with God; he did it in order to pay attention, in order to see if the hunger he felt for his phone and his books would increase His appetite for the right thing. He chose to trade something he really, really wanted, for something that he needed.
He challenged our church family to consider doing the same thing; fasting doesn’t have to be food, although it could. It can be any good gift of God that we hunger for.
I really wanted to try it. And, so after a bit of thought, I made the decision to fast from caffeinated drinks for Lent. I’m not a soda drinker, so what that means for me is coffee (including decaf) and caffeinated tea.
I’ve had a niggling thought in the back of my mind that I needed to stop drinking coffee for a long time, but honestly haven’t had the courage to do it. I adore coffee, as you well know. And I was drinking way too much. Up to three cups a day, with an afternoon teatime of English Breakfast tea.
Drinking coffee and caffeinated tea had such a hold on me, and I feel kind of ridiculous admitting it. More than anything, reflecting back on the last five weeks, I felt like I had a right to have them.
Life is stressful. Social interactions are hard. Running errands is exhausting. So when I feel blue or even just bored, I make another cup of coffee. I bring my travel mug to church and homeschool co-op and swim lessons to get me through the awkwardness of feeling anxiety around people. I stop at Starbucks for a $5 latte because I’ve got a huge to-do list and I deserve a treat.
I also knew that I felt miserable, physically. My stomach always hurt, my bottle of Pepto-Bismal always close at hand. My anxiety was still simmering below the surface of my life most of the time, even with medication and exercise. I was disproportionately stressed and angry. And I couldn’t stop drinking coffee.
But I thought of John’s decision, and it gave me the strength I needed. Fasting is an exchange. It’s setting aside this thing I really, really think I need to survive, in order to pay attention. I don’t want to need it so badly. I want to be a less stressed-and-angry person for my family. I want to need Christ badly. I want to want Him more.
Having said all of this, I was very scared.
I honestly didn’t know how I was going to live for 40 days without my comfort drinks.
But on March 1st, I gave them up. And I learned a whole lot about myself in the past few weeks.
In his book A Hunger for God, John Piper says, “Christian fasting is a test to see what desires control us,” and this month I’ve had some humbling, un-lovely things to learn about my desires.
The biggest thing it exposed is my idol of comfort: that’s what my desire for coffee and tea are really. And if we get honest, this fast only just pulled back the top layer of that idol back since I still consumed many other things that bring me comfort: sweets, wine, the Internet, and books, to name a few.
Removing just one of those crutches showed me how very selfish all those cravings are. They’re about me; making myself comfortable, myself happy.
If Christian fasting is a test to see what desires control me, then I failed the test.
What’s more, the very first week a friend offered me a cup of coffee and without even thinking, I said, “No, I’m okay, thanks, I gave up coffee for Lent.” I actually said those words. I could’ve kicked myself for being that person. No one wants to be around that person.
So from that moment on, suitably chastened, I decided not to talk about it, except to a very few people. That isn’t what this exercise is about at all, having people know what I’m doing. And more than anything, the goal of all of it is to help make coffee not the point of my life. Constantly talking about giving up coffee is still making it the point.
That first week was the hardest. When I felt those overwhelming cravings and even surges of anger and feeling like a victim, I made a practice of saying to the Lord, “I hunger and thirst for You more than coffee.” Many times it was just words. Many times I really hungered and thirsted for coffee way more than God.
I’ve gone off coffee one time before, several years ago, and remembered this: that first week left me literally depressed. I wanted to sleep all the time. I felt a thick, dark weight settle over my life. I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.
At the beginning I counted down the days until I could drink coffee again. I fantasized about sitting down with our straight-from-the-oven Easter cinnamon rolls and a steaming mug and my mouth would water. I’m not sure if that’s the exact right thing to fill my mind with during a fast.
But I also remembered that it gets easier over time.
Gradually, over the 40 days, it did get easier. Until, ironically, last week leading up to the end I rarely thought about the breaking of my fast. I finally started to enjoy my cup of hot herbal tea. And when I woke up on Saturday morning and made myself a French press of Starbucks Pike Place roast, it tasted delicious, but I didn’t even finish the cup. It was decaf, but it instantly made me feel sick (is coffee intolerance a thing!?), and just didn’t feel worth it to me. So I heated water for a cup of Rooibos tea.
I wish I could tell you I had some really deep quiet times with the Lord over this month, but you know what? I didn’t. I take medication for anxiety that left me so very sleepy without caffeine. I don’t think I ever once got out of bed before 7:00 am this month, and usually it was 7:30 or later. I rarely exercised because I didn’t have the energy.
I feel like I lost a big part of my personality all month.
But after the initial withdrawal wore off, you know what I also lost? A lot of my anger. And stress. And anxiety.
So much so, that I had to gradually keep shaving off my medication dose over the past few weeks. That was never my intention; I just needed to do it in order to be functional. Now I take a fraction of the dose. I can wake up early in the morning again. I went for a run today. I have energy. And I feel great.
I found a lot of my other driving desires seemed to be less intense. I didn’t crave a glass of red wine every evening. I didn’t need our bedroom addition to look like a Pinterest post. I didn’t need to be on Instagram — in fact, a couple of weeks into Lent I stopped checking it altogether.
Quitting coffee did not solve all my life problems (wouldn’t that be nice?). I still get stressed and angry and anxious and materialistic. But I would say it’s at a much more proportionate level to the reality of my life and my sinful heart.
And I was reminded, many many times I day, how much I do not hunger for God.
Isn’t it just like Him that I give up something I desperately desire and have so foolishly chased after, and He gives me gifts? I don’t deserve that at all. I deserve His displeasure, because I replace wanting Him with silly, silly things like coffee and tea. At the very least, I deserve His halfhearted, distracted attention, because that’s what I give to Him.
But instead He blesses me and blesses me and blesses me. With His good pleasure. With His forgiveness. With His attention and with freedom from my addiction to self. This month He’s allowed me to taste and see that He is good in a fresh new way. Before, I had what I wanted, but really I was missing out. In what other areas of my life am I doing that?
I used to be a bit terrified of fasting. It felt like too much to ask. I thought of every reason to rationalize my way out of it by pretending it was about legalism. And, just as with sin, the person I was hurting the most was myself.
I’m not scared anymore. I’m stronger than I thought I was. I don’t “need” all these comforts in my life, all the time. There are things I really need, and I’m interested to be embarking on a journey to learn more about them.
I also know this now: fasting is very deep.
It’s deep in a way that sitting with my Bible and going to church on Sunday aren’t. Maybe that sounds irreverent. I believe those two practices are essential to the Christian life. But possibly, by neglecting the practice of fasting, I’m not fully experiencing the good that the other spiritual disciplines have to offer me.
I’m still perpetually, unceasingly “nibbling at the table of the world,” as John Piper says. Like Anna’s example of trying to have a conversation with John while he’s checking his texts, I’m giving half my attention to God and half to things that don’t matter.
Fasting isn’t about making God happy. God is happy with me, because of Jesus’ perfect righteousness. Fasting is about longing. It’s about looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. It’s about joy and it’s about freedom.
My first Lenten fast was imperfect — there’s much more I could’ve done, more I could have given up. It didn’t begin to plumb the depths that fasting has to offer me. After 40 days, I see that more clearly than ever. But it’s a start, and somehow, I feel like starting may be half the battle. It’s made me hungry for more.