A friend was disapproving when I said that for the six weeks of Lent I was giving up alcohol. “Giving up something for Lent? Oh, those old rules and disciplines aren’t appropriate in this modern age,” she scoffed. “Fasting for Lent became a straitjacket for people and we are well rid of it.”

Well I have to say that it’s not a straitjacket for me.  It’s my choice and my own decision.  And “fasting” doesn’t have to mean “fasting”, it can mean denying oneself anything that is damaging or, at the very least, not helpful in life.

Every year I choose something that will improve my quality of life. For example, two years ago, I decided that for the six weeks I would not play any computer games.  It was difficult because I was completely addicted at the time, but it gave me a start date and an end date, it forced me to exert some self-discipline (for a change) and it isn’t too much to say that it transformed my life that year.  I was so addicted to Spider Solitaire that my hand ached with RSI most of the time (I tried to swap over the mouse to the other hand), it made me a solitary person in my own home, and I spent countless hours / days / weeks of my life obeying the compulsion to play the wretched game and improve my statistics. (I tried to keep my success rate above 60%, then 70% and so on.)  And after six weeks without it I was free of that addiction and have never played since – except occasionally when visiting someone who has it on their computer.

Why Lent?  I guess the thinking behind it is that as we meditate on Jesus “setting his face towards Jerusalem” so unflinchingly, then the least we can do is set our own life in order with a little more self-discipline than we usually do.

But I also believe that we Protestants have lost something quite valuable in our disregard for the whole concept of actual fasting.  I did it once, and I learned that it is not really about food at all.  It was years ago, when apartheid still ruled in South Africa, and the church worldwide – an implacable opponent of apartheid for decades – held a “Day of Prayer and Fasting for South Africa”.  I participated, but it was a weekday so I was at work. At breakfast I was conscious of this symbolic day – but so I was at morning tea when we dashed in from classes for a quick cuppa and I remembered, “Oh! That’s right! South Africa.” And at lunchtime I remembered, and after classes in the tea-room again, and then when I came home in the evening.

I learned that it is not really about physical hunger. Yes, you do get peckish and after a while very hungry; but more than that, it means you are focussed.  All day you are constantly reminded, and you constantly remember.  It’s at the forefront of your mind, all day long.

I don’t know anybody who would be hurt by the occasional burst of fasting, and it truly does wonderfully concentrate the mind and the spirit.  And, seriously, if it is really such a terrible, impossible thing to forgo alcohol for six weeks, if you are so horrified by the idea, then let’s face it, you have a problem.