Through out the history of the Church, Christians have participated in Lent as a way to prepare their hearts and minds to realize more fully the glory of the Easter celebration. Now perhaps more then ever, this time of preparation and anticipation is needed in our churches. Our lives quickly become so filled with obligations and activities that Easter seems to surprise us. Lent offers us the opportunity to focus on the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the power in His resurrection, so that when Easter arrives we are not caught off guard. According to Scott McConnell, the executive director of LifeWay Research, one of the reasons people do not observe Lent is because it involves fasting from pleasures. If the fast seems pointless, or if you need some encouragement during your fast I want to share with you some of what Thomas Aquinas had to say about fasting.
Thomas Aquinas is considered to be one of the most influential Christian philosophers and theologians of all time. In his best know work the Summa Theologica, he explains three reasons for fasting.
“First, in order to bridle the lusts of the flesh.” Aquinas points out that abstaining from food or other pleasures helps us to fight off more sinister desires. By fasting we are choosing to discipline ourselves enough to deny ourselves something that brings us pleasure. If you chose during Lent to abstain from Netflix, or social media you are denying yourself the pleasure of watching your favorite show or the escape of constantly scrolling. As we abstain from these simply pleasures we build the discipline to withstand the temptation of more serious sins. The act of fighting against the temptation causes us to turn to God for strength and builds in us the ability to resist something that may bring us temporary pleasure. On the flip side if we are unable to deny ourselves the pleasure of Netflix, or our favorite candy, it is doubtful we will be able to deny the temptation to take a second glance at a sensual photo or to have one too many beers. Denying simply pleasures helps to prepare us to resist the temptation of things that in the short term may be more pleasurable, but ultimately lead to misery.
“Secondly, we have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things.” When we intentionally sever our attachment to things we find comforting, we are forced to seek comfort somewhere else. Fasting during Lent is an opportunity to force ourselves to turn to God for comfort when normally we may have turned to something else. If at the end of the day you always turn to your favorite video game or channel in order to wind down, consider giving that up. When we suffer through the absence of that comfort we are reminded that our ultimate Comforter is God. Fasting is not simply about denying ourselves something we enjoy; it is about reminding, and perhaps forcing, ourselves to turn to God instead.
“Thirdly, in order to satisfy for sins: wherefore it is written (Joel 2:12): ‘Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning.’” It is difficult at first glance to understand what Aquinas is saying with this third point but when he clarifies with the verse from Joel it becomes clearer. Aquinas is not saying that just because we fast the weight of our sins is removed, that is done through the merciful grace of Christ. What Aquinas is teaching us is that being in a relationship with God is not simply claiming belief in an idea or feeling fuzzy in our souls. God wants all of us to be in love with Him, body, mind, and soul. It is easy to fall into the habit of only worshiping God with our minds, but fasting allows us to worship and adore Him with our bodies. We are denying our bodies something it desires so that our desires can be focused on Him. Whenever we feel the tug in our bodies to consume that candy or just zone out at the end of the day, and we deny it, we are using our physical desires to refocus our attention on God. As we create a habit of having our desires satisfied by God we are more likely in the future to find satisfaction in Him when we have sinful desires. When we are more completely satisfied in God we will begin to realize that sinful things are not truly satisfying. The process of being converted to God with all of our hearts means being won over by God more completely.
If you choose to fast during Lent I hope the words of Thomas Aquinas will help strengthen your resolve. Fasting is difficult, and it is meant to be. Despite its difficulty fasting can be a valuable tool to grow deeper in your relationship with God. Whatever you fast from it is important to remember that fasting is not an opportunity to win the praise of those around us, it is an act of loving devotion to God. Although Aquinas was brilliant he is nothing compared to Our Lord Jesus Christ. So I will leave you with the words of Our Savior from Matthew 6:16-18,
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Author: Nathan Phillips, Associate Pastor of the River Alliance Church