When I start this discussion, I want to be very clear. I love Ash Wednesday, and I love the season of Lent. (If you grew up under an evangelical rock like I did and are unfamiliar with these terms then here’s a good article to get you started, and here’s another one.)
Ash Wednesday and Lent are times when we can reflect on our sin and brokenness, and be thankful for God’s grace working in and through our lives to conform us to the image of Christ.
However, something I’m not a big fan of is people who go to an early Ash Wednesday service in the morning or maybe they receive ashes sometime around noon and then they wear their ashes on their forehead in public all day long.
I think receiving the ashes is a helpful reminder that we are sinful creatures that deserve death, and the ashes remind us that we will return to the dust from which we came. However, wearing them in public shows people that you’re celebrating Lent, and if people know that you’re celebrating Lent, then they know that you are fasting from something.
Jesus very plainly tells us in His Sermon on the Mount that we shouldn’t make our righteousness obvious to people.
“Whenever you fast, don’t be gloomy like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so that their fasting is obvious to people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting isn’t obvious to others but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” – Matthew 6:16-18, CSB
If we have to practice our righteousness before others in order for it to be valid, then we prove that our righteousness is not genuine, and if our righteousness is not genuine, then it’s not a righteousness that comes from Christ.
In Isaiah 58, God speaks through Isaiah to condemn the way that God’s people were fasting. They were giving up their food just fine, but they couldn’t give up their power, their greed, or their mistreatment of others. They finally ask in Isaiah 58:3, “Why have we fasted, but you have not seen? We have denied ourselves, but you haven’t noticed!”
And then God gives them the answer: “Look, you do as you please on the day of your fast, and oppress all your workers. You fast with contention and strife to strike viciously with your fist. You cannot fast as you do today, hoping to make your voice heard on high.”(Isaiah 58:3-4, CSB)
In The Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster notes that when we fast we really become aware of the things that have a stronghold on us. (I’m paraphrasing.) If we can give up food, but we can’t give up power, privilege, or prestige, then what do we really live off of? Where does our life come from? Are we genuinely seeking God or are we just wearing our ash for a hat?
From Isaiah 58 to Matthew 6, and even up to now, people haven’t changed that much, but God’s word to them still remains the same. If we’re going to fast during Lent, we should do so biblically, and to fast biblically is to fast discreetly, and we should give up the things that matter – our wills, our desires, and our own righteousness.
Instead, we should seek after God’s will, God’s desires, and God’s righteousness. Do we care about what God cares about? Do we want the same things that God wants? Lent is the perfect time to pray, fast, open our Bibles, and listen to Him.