Several days after the dinner party, I was still thinking about the perfect disk of salami I’d wanted to eat—and didn’t. As I write this, several days later, it is still Lent, and I am still craving the meat I’ve sworn off these 40 days.
When Ash Wednesday arrived a couple of weeks ago, I was in the mood for renunciation. Relinquishing seemed a good and right thing. Time, however, threshed my willpower from spiritual endurance. Never has the book of Numbers—providentially scheduled in my Bible reading plan for the Lenten season—spoken with such force: “If only we had meat to eat!” (Num. 11:4).
Lenten fasting is hard, though not for all the reasons I’ve expected. It’s not just my immoderate appetite for food that has been checked these 40 days, even if I persist in pining for that slice of salami. Perhaps even more importantly, what’s been exposed is my disordered relationship with time. I want the quick fix of transformation. I do not want the slow burn of 40 days of prayer and persistence and reliance on grace.
In his book Fasting, Scot McKnight reminds us that fasting is not instrumental. It is not a season of giving up food in order to get blessing from God. There are many reasons Christians throughout the centuries have committed to the practice of fasting.
Augustine saw the benefit of denying ourselves “licit” pleasures in order to grow our capacity for denying “illicit” ones. In the Middle Ages, Gregory the Great believed fasting could check our patterns of eating “too daintily, too sumptuously, too hastily, too greedily, too much.” Even more-contemporary Christian thinkers, like the late Dallas Willard, have emphasized the connection between our embodied experience and our desires for spiritual renovation. “We live from our bodies,” Willard wrote.
According to McKnight, fasting is one of seven ancient practices Christians have inherited from Judaism. Fixed-hour prayer, Sabbath, following a liturgical calendar, and pilgrimage are practices that govern how we live in time, writes McKnight. The other three practices— fasting, tithing, and the Eucharist—inform how we live in our bodies and in space.
My own Lenten fasting has given me pause, however, to consider that this practice (and all the others McKnight mentions) confronts not just how I live in my body but also how my body moves through time. Rebecca DeYoung, author of Glittering Vices, noticed something similar when her Lenten fasting reduced her productivity: “Lord, I gave you my eating. I did not give you control of my schedule and all my plans for what needs to get done.”
The “inefficiency” of a Lenten fast might be one of its greatest benefits. In 21st-century America, a society ruled by the clock’s iron fist, timekeeping is inevitably at the heart of the discipleship project. Whose time will we tell? Fasting reminds me that I live the time of the kingdom, a time measured by the slow rising of yeast, the slow growing of trees. To read the Bible as a record of God’s timekeeping is to notice God will not be hurried.
Productivity thinking has become the primary framework for analyzing the organization of time today in the United States. A good day is the day you get things done, the day you reach the end of your to-do list. Time, in this economical mode, is always money. It must be managed and multiplied, invested and well spent.
Frighteningly, time grows ever scarcer. According to German social theorist Hartmut Rosa, time, in a technological world, is moving faster. Though it took 38 years for radio to reach 50 million listeners, it took only 13 years for television to reach 50 million spectators, and only 4 years for the internet to reach 50 million connections. According to Andrew Root, who explored Rosa’s work in The Congregation in a Secular Age, the “now” of right now grows shorter and shorter. Today, people sleep less, eat faster, and walk more quickly than previous generations.
I’ve come to wonder if sin, as it’s manifested today, isn’t somehow an expression of time intemperance. We live in fear of time running out, and because of this, we are ill-practiced in habits of waiting. DeYoung’s Glittering Vices explores the seven deadly sins and notices how each might be related to time.
I’ve come to wonder if sin, as it’s manifested today, isn’t somehow an expression of time intemperance.
Vainglory, for example, favors shortcuts. Rather than cultivating real virtue, it will settle for image instead. Envy isn’t simply begrudging another’s successes; it’s refusal to develop—slowly, incrementally—one’s own vocational capacities.
Acedia, or sloth, is a resistance to love’s demands, especially the daily diligence required for loving God and loving our neighbor. Avarice hoards not only money but also the time that is money. Wrath short-circuits the long arc of God’s justice; by nature, it is impatient. Gluttony is not only eating too much; it can also be, returning to Gregory the Great, the habit of eating “too hastily.” And finally, lust seeks to gratify one’s pleasures outside the temporal bounds of enduring marital commitment and its lifetime I-do.
Seen in this light, Lenten fasting isn’t simply about forswearing dessert or coffee or sugar or meat. It’s about abandoning the impulse to gain spiritual good in record time. It’s about noticing how briefly a spiritual mood can last, then falling back to the adagio beat of God’s grace. It’s about growing the virtue of endurance, which God’s people have always needed to keep the steady practice of hope in a broken and splintering world.
As the writer of Hebrews reminds his readers, “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For, ‘In just a little while, he who is coming one will come and will not delay’” (Heb. 10:36–37).
Lenten fasting is a practice for inhabiting a consecrated season that tells a different kind of story about time. Christians rehearse a finished and also future work: Jesus Christ has absorbed the debts of sin, including all that I, as a limited human being, will inevitably leave undone. He is coming again to put the world to rights. During Lent, I remember I don’t have to run to earn my existential real estate. Whatever God has for me to do and to become, hurry can’t be involved.
According to Psalm 1, those who belong to God grow from seed to sapling to shady oak. Their discipleship is daily: They meditate on God’s law “day and night” (v. 2). As it turns out, the deeply rooted life isn’t even a 40-day project. It’s the business of a lifetime.
Jen Pollock Michel is a writer, podcast host, and speaker based in Toronto. She’s the author of four books and is working on a fifth: In Good Time: 8 Habits for Reimagining Productivity, Resisting Hurry, and Practicing Peace (Baker Books, 2022).