Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." ~ Matthew 6:16
Each year, around this time of the year, the Church celebrates a special day on the liturgical calendar. Ash Wednesday. It is a day which reminds us “From dust you came and into dust you will return,” as ashes are rubbed onto our foreheads. It is also the day which marks the start of the season of Lent.
Lent is a period lasting 40 days (not counting Sundays) before Easter during which prayer and fasting are two of the primary spiritual disciplines which are emphasized. Drawing heavily from the account of Jesus’ 40 days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness after his baptism, it is time set aside by many churches to call Christians to ready their hearts in a special way to celebrate the upcoming Easter season. This week, as we prepare to celebrate Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent soon, we are going to focus on what the spiritual discipline of fasting is all about.
Before you start to worry, I want to start off with saying that very few people are called to fast for 40 days as Jesus did. A fast of that length should only be undertaken after much prayer and proper research on how to do it safely. Which leads me to a second foundational consideration: fasting should not be done as a way to prove how “good” of a Christian you are. It isn’t about earning bragging rights when it comes to holiness.
The motivation of one’s heart is important when it comes to fasting. So much so that Jesus specifically teaches his followers that it isn’t about putting on a show. In fact, Jesus encourages us to keep fasting between God and ourselves. His encouragement was not a new thing. The prophets who came before him had also admonished people to be sure of their heart and motivation when it came to fasting. (See Zechariah 7) If we are fasting primarily to show God how much we deserve some reward, to manipulate God into doing something we want to have happen, then we are doing it for the wrong reasons and will see little or no spiritual benefit in our lives.
Instead, our primary motivation for fasting must be to glorify God the Father. If you talk to those who have seriously undertaken the practice of fasting, they will likely tell you about numerous benefits and blessings they have experienced as a result. And while they are not uncommon, they should not be the goal or expectation if you are considering fasting. Always in our relationship with God, we must be careful to not love and desire the blessing more than the blesser.
Now that we have our heart and motivation in the right place, let’s talk about what fasting actually is. Fasting is, at its most basic, purposely choosing to deny oneself of some pleasurable part of life. A common form of fasting is to give up food for some period of time. Why? Because we all enjoy having a full stomach over an empty one. But perhaps there is something else you could give up which would make in impact in your life. Ultimately, you are looking to abstain from something which you will miss regularly throughout the day to serve as a reminder of the sacrifices which Christ has made on your behalf. Take some time and think about something that has become so much a part of your routine that you do it without evening thinking. What has become so ingrained into your routine that it would be harder to be without that habit or item than it would be skip spending time one of one with God. Other than meals or specific food items, such as chocolate, recently popular items have been social media, television, shopping, or hobbies that have gotten out of hand.
At the start, I promised I wasn’t going to be advocating for you to go without food for 40 days while wandering in the dessert. That is something Jesus did specifically because His Father called him to do so. If you are new to fasting, let me offer some thoughts on getting started.
First of all, spend time in prayer before hand asking God to guide you in your fasting. Don’t, for example, cancel your Facebook account simply because you know a lot of people who are taking that step in their lives at the moment. Or give up chocolate because you can’t think of anything better to give up for Lent. And speaking of chocolate, as mentioned above, food is a common thing to give up. If you are feeling called to try fasting from food, start small and set yourself up for success. Skip one meal and spend that time in prayer instead of preparing and eating food. Or you can give up one particular type of food, use the money would spend on it to give to a charity of some sort and then pray each time you find yourself reaching for or craving that food.
Next, set a time frame for your fast. Again, it’s ok to start small and then build on your success. It’s also OK to have some trial and error to see what works for you. The important thing is that you are following the promptings of the Holy Spirit in putting your fast into action. You might find that your body or mind is more addicted to something than you thought (have you ever tried to cut refined sugars or caffeine out of your diet cold turkey?!) so the timing of your fast with the other commitments in your life becomes important so you can manage the withdrawal symptoms. Or you might find that, after a day, week, or month without something that you don’t really miss it and want to make the change more permanent. It’s not about the destination, you don’t earn a gold star for doing a perfect fast. It is about the journey fasting can take you on in your faith.
And finally, don’t fast just to fast. Commit to spending the time you would have spent eating, engaging in social media, binge watching that latest TV show you heard about in prayer, seeking God’s wisdom for your life and praying for others. If your fast involves spending less money, ask God what he would have you do with those extra finances. One year, during the season of Lent, I gave up late night TV. At 10pm, my TV was turned off. The first few nights I didn’t know what to do with myself so I just went to bed. By the end of the week, I discovered that my earlier bedtime was causing me to wake up so much more well-rested and ready to take on my day and so finding time to spend in prayer and study was much less of a chore and much more a natural rhythm in my life.
Fasting can be a daunting discipline to undertake. After all, it is about giving up something you generally enjoy and that is not something which comes easily or naturally to most of us. It is easy to give in and then give up. This upcoming season of Lent gives many of us a natural time to start small knowing that we aren’t alone as many other Christians consider what they can give up between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. This year may be the year for you to dip your toe in and see what God has for you this Lenten season.
- Have you ever given up something for Lent? If so, what was it and how did it go? If not, why not? Are you considering giving up something for Lent this year?
- When you think about fasting, what is your primary motivation? What work might you need to do to be sure you focused on the Father and not any potential blessings you might receive?
- Often when fasting, people choose to commit the time and/or resources which are freed up to praying for, helping, or giving towards a specific person or cause. Have you considered a similar approach?
Primary Resources Used:
"Fasting is Feasting" from Soul Shepherding
"The Purpose of Fasting" by Richard J. Foster