The call to fasting and repentance is as ancient as the prophets. Just read Joel 2. There’s nothing like a good fast to, like a defibrillator, shock the unbeating heart of our spirit out of its flatline. However, of monumental, make-or-break importance is to recognize that the season of Lent is far more about Jesus and far less about us.
If we fast, we fast to remember the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness, to, in a tangible way, “be found in him.” And it is precisely Paul’s point in Philippians that being “found in him” means that we recognize that we are found not in ourselves, “not having a righteousness of my own” (Phil 3:9). This is the opposite of fasting to test or flex our spiritual muscles. Now don’t get me wrong. Testing our spiritual muscles is a wonderful thing to do; it is part of the Christian’s life, in response to the gospel, that we would engage in spiritual disciplines like this. But this is not the “big idea” of the Lenten fast. The big idea of Lent is to embrace this truth: Jesus did what I couldn’t do.
Recall that Matthew records Jesus’ 40-day temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11) in order to parallel Israel’s 40-year temptation (Num 32:13). What happened with Israel? They grumbled. They made and worshiped idols. They did not rely, by faith alone, on the Word of God. In short, they failed. Matthew sets up Jesus as the new and true Israel…the kind of Israel that Israel could never be. Jesus, succeeding in the wilderness, proclaims to us, “I came to do for you what you could never do for yourselves.” The Lenten fast is here to remind us that Jesus came “to fulfill all righteousness” where we crashed and burned (Matt 3:15).
What is the victorious Christian life? Lent answers: Jesus.
All this puts our fast into context—the context of the gospel. If you find yourself tempted this Lent, as we all are, to pat yourself on the back for the good and faithful work you’re doing: repent. Change your mind about yourself. You aren’t doing as well as you think. You need a righteousness “not of your own;” you need to be “found in him.”
One great Lenten worship practice I commend is lamentation, because lamentation is the cry of one who can’t find righteousness on their own. And I do mean “righteousness” here in the full-orbed sense of the Bible. The biblical language of “righteousness” certainly speaks to my personal holiness, my pursuit of just actions. And as we’ve said, we need to remember that we don’t have a righteousness of our own. But “righteousness” in Scripture also has to do with justice in the national and global sense.
Lamentation is therefore a double-cry: Things are not right with me, and things are not right with the world. The former is lamentation in the form of personal confession. The latter is lamentation in the form of global confession. Only the victorious Christian—Jesus himself—can solve these kinds of problems. And hopefully, even in our lament, as we groan with the Spirit (Rom 8:22-27), may it be yet another way we can find ourselves in Christ this season.