If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
—1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Perhaps it would be fitting to add to this list, “If I fast for Lent, but have not love, I gain nothing.” I think the Bible is fairly clear here. If our spiritual endeavors do not produce a practical love, they are for naught. The spiritual life should be pushing us ever further into loving God and loving our neighbor.
We’ve just entered the season of Lent, and many of us have selected something to “give up” or fast from. This fast can reflect our repentance over a sin or an idol that holds a place in our heart. It can cut our dependence on things and remind us of our dependence on God alone. It can bring to mind the sufferings of Christ, as we recall all He laid down for us and for our salvation. But if our focus is only on our own spiritual development and personal holiness, we are missing something important.
Jesus’ spiritual life—his fasting, his prayer, etc.—wasn’t only for the purpose of his own spiritual health. He sacrificed, he gave so that we could receive. His entire being was for the sake of others.
I can’t help but think of God’s words in Isaiah 58:6-7:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
What would this look like—fasting for the sake of others? What would it look like to embrace this active, others-focused, social dimension of our spiritual lives during this Lenten season?
You could fast going out to eat or your morning Starbucks and give that money to feeding the hungry. You could fast from all beverages but water and dedicate the money you would have spent on other drinks to a program providing clean water in developing communities. You could give up social media, television, or online gaming and dedicate that time to helping at a local homeless shelter, addiction recovery center, visiting shut-ins and the sick, or volunteering with a refugee resettlement agency.
John Chrysostom (349-407), an early church father, 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."
Lent is not a spiritual improvement program. And it’s not about “getting closer to God” for 40 days. It’s about transformed lives, marked by the image of Christ, which propels us into lifelong service in the pattern of our Savior. As we look at Christ and see His example, may we consider ever more how to lay down our lives in love for others. I pray this is the sort of transformation we see during this Lenten season.