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Can fasting from sweets can be more than just a vain pursuit or the result of body shame?
I remember the first time I tasted dark chocolate. I was no older than 5 years old. It was midday, the time when sun beams pour through the cracks between the blinds and you can observe dust specks suspended in midair. I’m sitting on my bedroom floor rummaging through one of those plastic ice cream tubs full of what must have been leftover birthday or Halloween candy. Like most sweet tooth kids, I’m craving sugar. I don’t care what form. Licorice, malt balls, caramels, butterscotch, chocolate—it doesn’t matter, or so I think.
Indiscriminately, I unwrap a piece of candy—a chocolate bar. I take a bite. To my surprise, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. I check the wrapper. I find not the silver foil typical of the Hershey’s milk chocolate bar, but a gold wrapper. Hershey’s dark chocolate. Of course, my four- or five-year-old taste buds had savored chocolate before. But this was my first conscious sensory experience of dark chocolate. And it was glorious.
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When Moses meets the Lord at the burning bush, the Lord makes a promise that sounds odd. He promises to deliver the enslaved Hebrews to a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:17). To our freedom-obsessed culture, rescue from slavery makes sense. But milk and honey? Not so much.
Milk and honey were not the latest luxury goods of the ancient world. Rather, they indicated surplus, abundance. At the burning bush, God is promising to meet more than Israel's basic needs. He plans to provide abundantly so that they may flourish and bless all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3).
I wonder how this sounded to the enslaved Hebrews. Who wouldn’t be excited at the prospect of freedom? But at the mention of milk and honey, perhaps they were more reticent. They knew well that their fathers had left the famished land of Canaan. They were likely famished, too. “What about just starting with a land that will give us our daily bread?”
On the other side of the Red Sea, the novelty of their newfound freedom soon wears off. Despite the Lord’s miraculous provision, the Israelites are unsatisfied with life in the wilderness. They start to long for the little they had in Egypt. Some miss it so much that they rebel, fuming: “you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness” (Num 16:13).
Here we witness a diabolical twist: the Israelites’ rebellious ingratitude transforms the sweetness of the Lord’s deliverance into a bitter wormwood and the bitterness of slavery into something honey-sweet.
Sadly, this is nothing new. We’ve seen this happen before—all the way back in the garden Eden.
Despite all Adam and Eve received from God, the serpent deceived them into thinking that they were somehow deprived—that the Lord’s commandment robbed them of some sweetness of life (in this case, wisdom) that should have been theirs. Indeed, this was exactly the serpent’s goal: to deceive humanity into thinking that there is life outside the One who gave them life—the One whose very being and word is life.
Under the spell of the serpent’s deception, Eden's paradisal delights transformed into a bitter wasteland. So Adam and Eve rejected God’s command, and they fell.
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I’ve always been skeptical of people who fast from sweets during Lent. In America, we don’t really need another reason to give up sugar. Our waistline-conscious culture gives us reason enough. Less sugar means fewer pounds. Fewer pounds means a smaller waistline. A smaller waistline means attractiveness, confidence, etc. Hence the skepticism. Are people abstaining from sweets as an act of spiritual devotion? Or are they just following the tug of culture to lose weight?
And in the word “people,” I include myself. Indeed, my distrust of others is really a distrust of myself. Giving up sugar during Lent seems disingenuous precisely because it's the perfect chance for my sinful heart to baptize yet another worldly pursuit.
Part of this distrust is well-founded. The heart is desperately wicked and deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9). My flesh and the enemy want me to think I am engaged in spiritual devotion when I’m actually pursuing a worldly ideal. And I know my sinful heart is eager to take any chance to go after these vain pursuits.
Yet, I realize that my fear of giving up sweets as just another vain pursuit is, in part, a product of worldly thinking itself.
In a world where the trim and lean physique seems to be everything, the goodness of sweetness is obscured. Oftentimes, sweetness is so opposed to the pursuit of the ideal physique that consuming or abstaining from sweets seems intelligible only in relation to one’s pursuit of that ideal.
Put simply, in the cultural calculus, consuming sugar is transgressive.
I have witnessed this thinking in my own life. I have felt the darkness of shame spread in my heart with each morsel of chocolate, each spoonful of mint-chip gelato, each bite of peach pie I savor. Shame, less because I failed at the virtue of moderation (though I have certainly done that), but because I failed in my pursuit of the cultural ideal. For those bewitched by culture's obsession with the ideal physique, sweetness is transformed from a good gift to be enjoyed (in moderation) into a cultural taboo to be avoided.
Within the matrix of this cultural value, then, abstaining from sweets makes perfect sense. The problem is when one goes outside of this framework, as in Lent, where giving up sweets is a practice of spiritual devotion. To our moral imaginations, this is practically unintelligible.
To make sense of this Lenten practice, the cultural matrix of value must be transcended. Scripture does just that. Scripture does not frame sweetness in relation to some ideal physique, but in relation to God. Scripture describes the word of the Lord as delightfully sweet. Praising the goodness of the Lord’s commands, one psalmist declares, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps 119:103). Similarly, Psalm 19 speaks of God’s rules: “more to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of honeycomb.”
This sweeter-than-honey word is the same word on which man was made to live (Deut 8:3).
It is the same word that Eve and Adam rejected in the garden. And the same word that Israel turned from in the wilderness.
And it is this sweet-as-honey, life-giving Word that, “In the beginning was… [and] was with God… [and] was God… [and] became flesh” (John 1:1, 14). The Word who “was life" (John 1:4).
Unlike our first parents and their progeny, the Word-made-flesh did not fail to give thanks and honor God (Rom 1:19). In his own clash with Satan, He refused to seek life outside the One who is life. He alone displayed that, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Matt 4:4).
Ultimately, it is only in this Word—by, through, and for whom all things were created—that sweetness, and all its goodness, finds its source and meaning (Col 1:16).
Only within this Scriptural picture of reality does giving up sweets make sense as an act of spiritual devotion. Christ is the sweetness of life. Fasting from earthly, sugary delights is an embodied demonstration of our dependence on the One who is sweetness—whose sweetness is life itself.
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This year, against my "sweet-tooth" nature, I decided to give up sweetness for Lent. As I prepared for Lent, I decided that I wanted to fast not only from dessert but from sweetness altogether. I haven't just given up sugary treats like chocolate, ice cream, and brownies. I pushed pause on anything whose flavor profile sends my taste buds soaring to the heights of sweetness: fruit, cereal, juice, jam, honey, mixed drinks, and the like.
Unsurprisingly, I find myself longing for sweetness almost constantly. I miss the honey on my Greek yogurt, the piece of 70 percent dark chocolate after dinner, the Bengal Spice tea before bed. Of course, I’ve not been perfect at it. I have given into the impulse of hunger mixed with sloth, eating a bowl of cereal or nibbling on sweets when I’ve been too lazy to make a proper meal. Yet, despite the difficulty (and the lapses), I find myself turning to God in these moments, praying: “Christ, you are my sweetness.”
As I fast from earthly sweets, I notice my heart longing more and more for the glorious sweetness of Christ. And when I indulge in sweet things on Sundays and feast days, I find myself giving thanks to the Lord all the more, knowing that the glimmer of sweetness in these perishable goods is a signpost to the sweetness of Life that abides in Him.
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