“This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:21)
In 1998, on a Wednesday night during the season of Lent, I found myself with a small group of Christians who had gathered to celebrate the Eucharist at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Conway. For several reasons that had nothing to do with Lent, I had eaten almost nothing since the day before. I wasn’t intentionally fasting. My day at Hendrix College had been exceptionally full; I had simply not had a chance to sit down for a meal. To make matters worse, my insomnia had flared up and I was sleep-deprived.
During the hymns and readings, I had difficulty staying focused on what was happening. The thought occurred to me, “The really reverent thing to do would be to get up and go home and maybe come back next Wednesday when I’m physically and mentally ready to take this seriously. How can I worship God when I’m so weak that I can’t even pay attention?”
But suddenly it was too late for me to leave inconspicuously: people on both sides of me were getting up and heading for the aisles, making their way to the front of the sanctuary. Reluctantly, feeling out of place, I went with the crowd and knelt at the altar.
The priest, Peggy Hayes, came and placed a piece of bread in my outstretched hands: “This is the Body of Christ,” she said. Her acolyte came with a chalice of wine and said, "This is the blood of Christ, shed for you."
I dipped the broken bread into the cup. And when the wine-drenched bread touched my tongue, all heaven broke out in my soul. That was the first time I had ever had what some would call a mystical experience. And it happened when I was sleep- and food-deprived.
Could it be that fasting (abstaining from food) and vigil (denying ourselves the comforts of sleep) put us in a position to experience God in a way that is simply impossible when most of our energy is consumed in digestion and metabolism? Jesus fasted in the desert, and that is where he found the power to triumph in his struggle with Satan (Matthew 4:1-11).
What is true for Jesus is also true for us.
We live, of course, in a culture of self-indulgence. A familiar commercial for Snickers urges us, “Don’t go around hungry!” But Jesus says, “If you want to follow me, first you’ll have to learn how to say ‘No’ to some of your natural appetites.”
And it’s not just about food. It’s about self-denial. It's about taking charge of our appetites rather than letting them control us. It's about learning how to be in submission to nothing or no one except our suffering, dying, risen, ever-living Lord. It’s about turning loose of whatever preoccupations or addictions are standing between us and obedience to the call of our Lord. Not just during Lent but in the whole of the Christian life, Jesus is calling us to a countercultural stance that is willing to say “No” to self in order to say “Yes” to God.
Lent is not the only time—but it’s a very good time—to decide how we are going to respond.
John Farthing is Norma's husband, Landon and Layton's Poppy, and Duke basketball's #1 Fan. He is also a retired Methodist pastor and Professor Emeritus of Religion, Greek, and Latin at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas.