Lent: Nudging Us Toward the Lord
The best book I read last year was Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving. In it, Thaler describes his work in helping to found the field of behavioral economics, work that won him this year’s Nobel prize in economics. Thaler’s work focused on examining the differences between how economics says people should behave and how people in fact, actually behave. Economic theory has long depended on the proposition that people, on average, act rationally and do what is best for them. That this is not, in fact, how people act was the focus of Thaler’s work and was news to nobody in the world but economists.
Psychologists, politicians, advertisers, philosophers and the church have long known that people are not rational machines who always make the right choices, that we are embodied, emotional creatures with a whole host of desires and feelings and thoughts that play into our decisions – reason often being pretty low on the list. Drawing on fields outside economics, primarily psychology, Thaler worked on trying to figure out how to help people make better decisions. What he came up with was what he called a “nudge” – designing a system in such a way that it nudges people toward making better decisions. One nudge that Thaler helped successfully implement dealt with retirement savings. Everyone knows they should save more toward retirement, but very few people ever take steps to actually save more toward retirement. Thaler began encouraging companies to simply auto-enroll employees in retirement savings plans. It turns out that people save dramatically more if they are auto-enrolled in retirement savings plans (with the option to opt-out) than if they have to go and fill out a form to opt-in. Designing a system of auto-enrollment was incredibly successful at nudging people into ordering their financial lives in a better way.
As it turns out, the church, in the practice of Lenten fasting and discipline had been nudging people toward a deeper and fuller relationship with God for 1600 years before Richard Thaler was born. The church has long realized that we are embodied people with busy lives who are beset by desire, illogic, distraction and sin – and beginning as early as the fourth century, encouraged a season of penitence and fasting where Christians could implement tangible changes in their everyday lives for a season that nudged them toward the Lord. Our Lord himself recognized this need for a change of circumstances as well – before starting his own ministry he spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness – understanding that, as a fully embodied man, he needed that measure of silence and deprivation to focus his mind and heart on his upcoming ministry.
In my own life, I have found a yearly season of fasting and discipline to be incredibly rich, and I think that in our fast-paced-always-connected-and-beset-by-things-to-do-and-consume world, there has never been a better time to practice Lenten fasting and discipline. By way of suggestion, I offer a few notes from my own experience, to help think about what might be a fruitful practice to nudge you toward the Lord this season.
What to fast from?
First, don’t fast from something you shouldn’t be doing anyway. Don’t fast from committing crimes or getting drunk or swearing at your spouse. The focus isn’t on being good – it’s on giving up something that is good in order to make room for something better.
I think this easiest starting point to find out what to give up is to ask – what do I love? Fasting should be a little painful. C.S. Lewis says that pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. In a little bit of painful fasting, we are nudged toward remembering how weak and sinful we are and how dearly we need the Lord’s salvation. Classically, the church has encouraged fasting from food – even those who don’t take great delight in food take great delight in not being hungry. But food is just one of so many things that give us pleasure: beer, social media, television, sleeping in, or any form of entertainment – all rich fodder for removing a bit of pleasure from our daily lives to make room for the Lord. For me, my most precious commodity is my time, and giving up something that I want to do with my time is the hardest, but also most clearly makes more room (i.e. time) for the Lord in my life.
Casting Off and Taking On.
One important lesson I have learned is that it can be terribly unfruitful to give something up for lent without taking something on. We give up good things so that we can take on better things – namely the grace of God. In Lent, we turn away, for a short time, from some good things in our lives in order to make room to turn toward God.
If you skip lunch one or two days a week and just work through your lunch hour, or spend your lunch break watching TV – you will probably end up with just a bit of hunger. To more effectively use such a fast to practically and tangibly nudge you toward the Lord, consider spending your lunch break reading your bible, praying, listening to a sermon or simply being silent in the Lord’s presence for a few moments.. Likewise, if you were to give up Netflix for this season, and instead spent that time surfing Facebook, or reading the news – you might find yourself a bit better informed, but no closer to knowing the depth of your need for God, and the greatness of God’s love for you.
The goal of Lenten fasting and discipline is not just to make you feel bad – it is for you to give up some tangible pleasure that you may better feel your weakness and sinfulness, and thereby enter into the greater and deeper pleasure of the Lord’s forgiveness and grace.
A list of suggestions
There is infinite room for creativity here for you to create a system of fasting and discipline that is tailored to your life, but in case a list of suggestions is helpful, here is one:
- Making time to read more of the Bible
- Making time to be silent with the Lord
- Giving up some form of entertainment to read some Christian literature
- Replacing the social media apps on your phone with this handy-dandy Lent app
- Replacing podcasts with sermons or Word and Table
- Listening to only Christian music
- Replacing an evening beer with ten minutes of prayer
- Not going shopping (except for food), and using the money/time on someone else
Success is not guaranteed in the practice of Lenten fasting and discipline. In fact, failure is almost certain. 40 days without Facebook will *probably* not lead you to the beatific vision. Even if you are able to keep the letter of the your fast, if you have chosen to fast from something you love, there will be at least a moment that you are tired and just angry at God for the loss of that pleasure. Failure is ok – failure is what Lent is all about. We have failed to be good enough to save ourselves – and we sometimes forget that in our comfortable lives – we can rejoice that in our weakness and failure and sin we are loved and forgiven by a God whose grace is sufficient for our weakness.
Some might think of Lent as a long dark season of penitence where we focus only on our own sin and wretchedness so that when Easter comes we can truly rejoice at our salvation. While there’s a little truth to that, it is largely belied by the opening words of the first service in Lent:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Right at the outset, the liturgy reminds us that we are dearly loved and forgiven – the ending is given away right at the beginning: mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness. Take heart, you are forgiven! And let that forgiveness inspire you, for this short season, to make a little extra time and space in your life for the One who has already accomplished your Salvation.