Opinion | What We Give Up for Lent Makes Us Who We Are

Opinion | What We Give Up for Lent Makes Us Who We Are

Tiffany Reed grew up in a biracial Pentecostal family that moved frequently and fasted off and on, according to the direction of her father. “He would read about church history, watch documentaries, and then get excited and introduce a new family practice,” she told me. As an undergraduate at the King’s College, a Christian school in New York City, she watched some evangelical classmates become Anglicans or convert to Catholicism. She graduated in 2016; a few years later, she moved to Waco, Texas, to join Brazos Fellows, a program partnered with Baylor University that offers recent college graduates nine months of theological study. There she found herself drawn to the structure of the Anglican tradition and began investigating early Christians’ approaches to fasting.

While some evangelicals join Anglican churches to escape tight links with the religious right, “For me, politics had nothing to do with it,” Ms. Reed said. “It was more sensing a bit of D.I.Y.-ness to the way Christianity is practiced in the evangelical church. That can be a good thing, giving people room to be more expressive, putting the emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus. But for me, the motivation was needing less of that, because I started to see too much emphasis on your preferences and what feels good.”

Modern secular culture tends to frame personal freedom in terms of “negative liberty,” in the phrase made famous by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin: the absence of constraints, the ability to do what you like as long as you don’t impinge on the liberties of others. But Ms. Reed, who now works as a freelance writer in Waco, explained the paradox of feeling freer during the rule-bound Lenten season: The rules rescue you from the pressure to pretend you are a totally autonomous being. “We live in a culture where you can have every comfort and an extremely high level of self-determination relative to history. You can do what you want with your time and money,” she said. “In that context, taking on Lent is a powerful reminder that you’re a finite, weak creature who has to eat multiple times a day to stay alive. The true nature of our presence in this world is extreme dependence.”

Fasting, she said, is one of the “patterns God has given us for human flourishing. If we trust the patterns, they work, wherever you come from, whatever your background. They might, on the surface, seem like too much, or too oppressive, or ‘that doesn’t fit my personal story.’ But trust that this pattern is a living thing and can work with you. It is not a rigid, dead burden.”

Julie Canlis, who has a doctorate in theology and works at an Anglican church in Washington State, loves talking about the strictures of Lent with secular friends. “If there is anything that secular society does acknowledge, it’s that we limit freedom the most for ourselves,” she told me. “We know that just removing external barriers does not automatically open the path for internal freedom.” Her four teenagers “love fasting, and love Lent,” she said. “They do it because no one is challenging them to do hard things.”

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