Here’s some good news: There’s no need to give up chocolate, electronic gadgets, or your other favorite little indulgences for Lent. A different idea for fasting is making the news this year, thanks to something Pope Francis said in his annual Lenten message last week. Trouble is, this different kind of fasting might be more challenging.
Fasting has been practiced as a Lenten discipline for about as long as there has been a season called Lent, and it was a meaningful spiritual practice long before that. John Wesley was a strong advocate for fasting. Regularly and temporarily giving up something dear to us – especially something necessary, like food – is an effective way to refocus our attention on what’s truly important in life.
But spiritual disciplines like fasting can also distract us from the purpose of those disciplines. The early Christian mystic John Chrysostom said, “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.” No Christian spiritual practice – not fasting, nor prayer, nor worship, nor anything else – is meant only for our personal benefit. The aim of every Christian spiritual practice is to share God’s love with others in order to benefit their lives in practical ways.
Which brings me back to Pope Francis. It may be helpful to give up temptations like chocolate and TV for Lent, but there’s a bigger temptation to avoid: indifference – to our neighbors and to God. “Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns,” the pope said, “there is no longer room for others. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of [God’s] love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.”1
When we fall into indifference, he said, “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” It’s easy to pass the buck, to give someone else the responsibility for helping others, even when we have the ability, resources, and opportunity to offer that help ourselves.
Indifference to the plight of others is not often something we choose. We usually fade into indifference slowly, without noticing, so a fast from indifference can be difficult to start and maintain. It requires a lot of self-awareness and hard work. But such a fast allows us to feast on love. And if Christian faith is not about that, it’s nothing more than a fatal indulgence in ego gratification. “What good is it,” the Letter of James asks, “if you say you have faith but do not have works? Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14, 17).
For John Wesley – and this is part of his great legacy to us – the important thing about faith, the essential thing, was not dogma or teaching or style of worship. It was the willingness of people who fixed their hearts on a maturing love for God and neighbor to join hands in expressing that love in practical, concrete ways. The universal Spirit of God, present in every living person as surely as the air we breathe, does not want to know if we think alike or if we worship alike.
Rather, Wesley thought, God wants to know: Is your heart right with God? Are you filled with the energy of love, and do you express that love for God and for others with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? Are you employed in doing not your will but the will of the God who created you and brought you here? Do you love others, without exception, as you love yourself? Do you show your love by your works? If your answer to these questions is “yes,” he said, then give me your hand.2
By his invitation, “Give me your hand,” Wesley did not mean “share my opinions,” and he did not mean “embrace my style of worship.” He meant, first, that we love one another, truly value one another, and that we act accordingly. Second, he meant that we pray for one another, that when we open our hearts deeply to God, concern for the other person’s welfare is in our consciousness. Third, he meant that we provoke one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24), encouraging one another to fully embrace our vocation in God. And fourth, he meant to love not in word only but in deed and in truth, joining hand-in-hand to do the work of God together.
“Faith, hope, and love abide,” St. Paul wrote, “and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13) – not an attitude toward someone but action for someone. Love is not the way we see another person; it’s what we do to help that person reach his or her full potential, including providing all the resources to make it possible: nutrition and health care; nurture, guidance, and education; affirmation and encouragement; unprejudiced opportunity to work at a meaningful job for a living wage.
When St. Paul wrote of working out our own salvation (Phil. 2:12-13), he was not referring to how we might refine our theology, or dress up our doctrines, or polish our statements of faith. He was referring to how we live our faith in practical expressions of love toward others, especially toward those who are most vulnerable and who need love most.
Opportunities for joining hands to express God’s love are all around us all the time. But when we are truly ready to express that love, the right opportunity will call on us, an authentic invitation to Christian discipleship will speak to us. Then it will be up to us to join hands with one another and live out the true meaning of our faith.