There is no secret that I enjoy my morning trips to Starbucks… and my afternoon trips to Starbucks… and my meetings often held at Starbucks. Coffee is perhaps my favourite beverage. By far it is the one I drink the most. I look forward to it in the morning; If I have a free moment during the day I go searching for my refills; It often marks the end of my work day. Given all of this, I must be honest, I was a little unprepared for the amount of shock people had when they learned that part of my Lenten devotion entailed giving up coffee. People seemed generally surprised that I would make this decision. Some saw it as akin to pigs flying and hell freezing over.
Giving up coffee for lent has been something that I have thought about for a some time. Whenever we have something that we enjoy on a regular basis, perhaps becoming so habitual that we rarely think about it, it is good to challenge ourselves to do without it for a while. Lent provides the opportunity for this to happen. This year I decided that I would take the plunge.
What I found interesting, however, was how many people attempted to offer me advice about how I should manage this fast, or even make it easier. Some suggested that I keep a well-stocked supply of dark chocolate to nibble on whenever my body ached for a coffee. Another suggested I merely replace coffee with strong tea or hot chocolate. Then there is the ever popular suggestion pertaining to what can only be referred to as the ‘Lenten loophole’—“Well, you do remember that, technically, Sundays are not part of Lent!’ The obvious implication is that I could choose to faithfully refrain from coffee for six days of the week, and have a pot of coffee with every meal on Sundays. I could have what I want, and still feel good about my Lenten discipline. Everybody wins.
Somehow, I don’t think a Lenten fast is to work that way.
I’m not meaning to disparage these suggestions. People seemed honestly concerned for my well-being. Their suggestions on how to navigate this fast is drawn out of place of care. That in itself should be a head’s up for me regarding a possible unhealthy attachment that coffee plays in my life. Yet, it seems to me that entering our Lenten fast with a mind that searches for the loopholes, or the various things we can do to make our discipline lighter, essentially misses the point.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God charges Israel with this very thing. “On the day of fasting you do as you please, and exploit all your workers, your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.” People were engaging in the external observance of the fast without an inner movement of the heart. Landowners would simply take the day off! Sure, they would say that they would be fasting from all work, all labour and all toil, but then they would turn around and force their workers do their work for them. They found the loophole. Their fast became a discipline of getting what they wanted while pretending to observe a spiritual discipline.
Would going to Starbucks every morning and ordering a Chai-Tea Latte instead of a Toffee-nut Americano amount to the same thing?
The discipline of fasting which is so tied to the observance of Lent is not about replacing one thing with another. Fasting is not about replacement; It is about doing without. We voluntarily remove ourselves from an action or a desire for the expressed purpose of drawing nearer to God. The same holds true if we decide to “Take something on.” Some decide to do the office of Morning Prayer every morning, or read the bible every evening. The point is not simply to do another outward action; it is to inwardly reach out to our Lord and Saviour. Our discipline is about a turning of the heart to God; a turning which is centred in desire to be filled with God’s transforming Spirit.
Lent often holds a sense of difficulty to it, doesn’t it? We don’t relish our entrance into this season. I don’t think I have ever heard someone says ‘Yay, it’s Lent!!” True to form, then, fasting is also seen as a hard discipline. It shocks us—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. People seem concerned about the eventual ‘headache’ that I will have from my withdrawal from coffee. Yet won’t the onset of this headache be a powerful testimony to my over-dependence on something as trite as a $4 beverage?
Our Lenten disciplines have the power, when done properly, to uncover how much of our life may in fact be lived in pursuit of our appetites. They disclose, sometimes uncomfortably, how dependent we may be on the superfluous stuff we fill our lives with, and the luxury items that we happily consume. It shows us how much time, money, and effort we spend in chasing after transitory things, and how little amount we spend in seeking first the kingdom of God.
Yet as hard as these disciplines may be, they are transformative. They are powerful. They are healing. Jesus says that this type of discipline, done in the secret places of our lives, is that which is rewarded by the Father. In uncovering these deep and hidden places of over-indulgence, dependence, or neglect, we free ourselves from the tedium of pursuing that which ultimately does not satisfy or nourish. We are then able to turn these secret places of our lives over to Jesus’ Lordship and mastery. We realize—again physically, emotionally, and spiritually—that our lives are upheld by the gracious compassion of God and that as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for us.