The gospel and fasting
“And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry” (Matthew 4:2). Indeed, one would think that forty days without food might cause the stomach to growl a bit! Most of us get cranky if lunch or dinner is a little late. This is one difficulty people have with fasting. It is viewed as a heroic ascetical exercise that is beyond the average person. And it seems pointless to many. In a culture so thoroughly committed to consumption, it is hard for many to see why we should willingly go without things.
However, fasting has always been a basic part of the Christian life. Wisdom has always taught the people of God that in order to say yes in the right way, we must also be able to say no. It is ironic, but not surprising, that the most overindulged civilization in history is the one most allergic to fasting.
Fasting and the original sin
The inability to say no, to fast, was at the root of the original sin. God said not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But Genesis tells us, “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. And she gave also to her husband with her and he ate” (3:6).
God required only that the first humans fast from one thing. Their inability to say no cost them all the pleasures of the garden. It is ever so. If we cannot say no to things that are evil, out of season or to excess, if we cannot fast at times merely for the sake of maintaining our freedom, we will end up losing the ability to enjoy things at all.
This is the distinction between, on the one hand, being sons and daughters of God, made in his image and exercising dominion over the creation; and, on the other hand, being fallen creatures, alienated from God and being slaves to the creation rather than ruling over it.
Types of fasting
We must always fast from sin. All sin tempts us in the same way as the first sin. It seems attractive in the moment, but results in guilt, shame, fear and death. We must say no to sin. We must fast.
To fast as a spiritual discipline is to abstain from things that are intrinsically good. To fast from food, beverages, media and other pleasures assumes that these things can all be used in ways that honor God. The point of giving them up is that they can become idols if they are used wrongly. What determines wrong use? The occasional candy bar or sweet is good. But the need to have candy five times a day is not. Wine is good—so the Bible says! But the need to drink a bottle or more each day is not. A fine meal is a good thing–maybe even seconds! But the need for seconds or thirds at every meal three times a day, with many snacks in between, is not.
Clearly, we have a slope here that can become slippery. The point is simply that everyone at some point must say no; or else the pleasure will become first a bad habit and then an addiction. If we can’t control it, it will control us. As 2 Peter says, “Whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved” (2:19, RSV). God gives us freedom. He expects us to determine where the boundaries lie in our lives and discipline ourselves to live within them.
There are addictions in the opposite direction. For some the idolatry is appearance. To maintain some ideal—taken, it seems, from the Sports Illustrated swim suit issue—some have trouble eating enough—or keeping what they eat in the stomach. The ideal Lent for someone with an eating disorder would be regular and moderate meals—three a day would be fine. One with an eating disorder would fast from looking in the mirror.
Fasting, an aid to moderation
Fasting helps us to establish and maintain boundaries. Athletes train intensely, beyond the normal exertion required for the game. The intense workout enables them to perform better in the ordinary circumstance of the competition. Spiritual exercise works in the same way. When we abstain completely from things through fasting, we develop better ordinary self control. Our appetites are like a spoiled child. Fasting is the way to teach that spoiled child discipline.
A good rule for Lent is to give up the things that loom too large in our lives. After Lent, we ought to develop the regular habit of going without—perhaps a day a week. This is the primary tool we have for controlling our appetites and maintaining our freedom. Fasting is the spiritual discipline that helps us subdue the flesh to the Spirit. If we practice fasting, combined with prayer, we will develop better self-control. We can begin in small ways and grow in our disciplines. This is the way exercise works.
The real issue: the absence of God.
However, the real issue in fasting is not the food or the pleasure. The real issue is the absence of God. We worship and serve idols because we do not worship and serve God. We fill the emptiness caused by sin with things. We compensate and medicate with food, drink, spending and consumption of various sorts. This is why fasting alone is not enough. The emptiness will be filled by something. If it is not the experience of union with the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit, then it will be some other, greater idol (See Matthew 12:43-46).
This is why fasting and prayer are inseparable in the Christian life. What is removed through fasting and repentance must be replaced with new virtue from the Spirit. This can only be received from God through grace and prayer. Thus, in baptism, we renounce the world, the flesh and the devil and we receive the gift of the Spirit. In the Eucharist we come to the altar to confess our sins, to turn away again from the evil, and also to receive new grace through the body and blood of Jesus in the Sacrament.
Lent is an extended and concentrated season of focusing on what sins we need to remove and what grace and virtue we need to ask God to give us. As we fast over the next several weeks, we create space in our lives for a conversation with God.
The benefit of Lent
Fasting makes us uncomfortable—and that is the point. It disrupts our unfaithful habits and wakes us from our spiritual slumber. It reveals how attached we are to things and how afraid we are of being without our comforts, crutches and medications. Fasting leads us to ask deeper questions. What is really going on in my life? What keeps me from being closer to God? What wrong attitudes do I cling to? Whom do I need to forgive? I have discovered recently that many people need to forgive themselves. Many accept that God forgives their sin, but will still punish themselves for that sin. This is another form of pride.
Though I talk often enough about fasting, I don’t consider myself to be particularly ascetical. Left to my own devices, I would probably never go without anything I want. When I came back to the church thirty years ago, I was told that this is what I should do—and I am extremely grateful that something told me to do it. I have discovered that fasting is powerful spiritual discipline that helps us to make progress in the faith. Without fasting, some unhealthy attachments will never be overcome. As the KJV of Mark 9:29 says, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.”
The church provides Lent to give us an opportunity to push ourselves; to take on our appetites and idols; to make space for God to do new things. Lent proclaims, “Behold, now is the time. Behold, now is the day of salvation.” If you heed the call and join the church in the practice of fasting during this holy season, you will experience spiritual growth and you will be thankful on Easter Day.
As Hebrews says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (12:11).