Tis the season for “giving up.” It is, after all, Lent, the liturgical season prior to Easter, which recalls the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. For centuries, faithful Christians have fasted as a means of preparation, reminiscent of Jesus’s own preparation for his public ministry through prayer and fasting (Luke 4:1–13).
By this point in time, most of us are living into decisions we made regarding Lent. This year, if my Facebook feed is any indicator, there may be as many folks who have given up “giving up” and embraced the wave of “adding in” or even resolved to do “nothing at all.” It’s understandable. Fasting, as a Lenten discipline, waxes and wanes with time. For some, the idea of fasting is contrary to nurturing a relationship with God. There are so many good things in the world: chocolate, caffeine, and cell phones, just to name a few. Why would God want us to go without these delightful bits of creation?
It may also be that fasting, as a religious practice, is easily compromised. Fasting is subject to the twin dangers of legalism, a matter of religious duty, and formalism, becoming an end of itself. It can become a test of spiritual endurance that prizes the willpower over relationship with God. In this light, it can even be misunderstood as an optional extra reserved for especially holy people. Such ideas, of course, are contrary to what fasts are intended. Lenten fasts are not personal goals we need stamina to endure, but an opportunity for renewal of the spirit within us as we reorient our lives to God.
But fasting was never about Lent. Rather, fasting is about letting God be the center of our lives. Long before the Christian church conceived of Lent and developed it as a time of preparation for Easter in the fourth century, fasting was already considered a normative practice of the faithful. Significantly, Jesus’s words about fasting are “when you fast,” not “if you fast” (Matt 6:16–18). And while Jesus offers advice about having the right intention for the fast—with humility—he does not provide further guidance on the technicalities of how to fast. Fasting might be motivated by any number of circumstances: repentance, confession, or during a time of mourning, or when facing adversity. Fasting may also be a means of purification and seeking God for petition or discernment. Regardless of any specific reason, fasting as a spiritual practice, when done with sincerity and intentionality (as opposed to a hypocritical clamoring for attention) typically means one declares and reminds their self that boundless nourishment is contingent on God and not the other delightful bits of creation that only offer temporary satisfaction.
According to The Didache, early Christians typically fasted on Wednesdays and Friday. Wednesday was designated as a fast day because it was the day of the week Judas made arrangements to betray Jesus, so it came with overtones of penitence. Fridays, as the day of Jesus’s crucifixion, recalled his suffering and death. Fasting usually meant one would abstain from meat, fish, butter, and eggs. By drawing sustenance from God rather than relying on nourishment, Christians who fasted regularly cultivated the fruits of the Spirit. By abstaining from food, the fruits of patience and self-control might be allowed to blossom. Regular, weekly fasting recalled the frailties of the human condition, such as the temptations Judas succumbed to and the torture Jesus suffered, and provided space to contemplate what a virtuous life looked like, that it might inspire greater faithfulness, gentleness, and peace. Often, when wealthy Christians fasted, they saved the monies that would have been spent on the richer foods and gave them as alms for the poor, thus cultivating the fruits of kindness, goodness, and love.
Fasting, like any spiritual discipline, is about what it produces in us that God’s goodness might be revealed. To fast is to eliminate distractions we might see God more clearly. Through fasting, we aren’t meant to grow closer to God just for our own spiritual gain. In fasting and prayer, as God becomes the source of our sustenance, our wills are tempered by grace. We are better able to see and know God’s character and allow it to be developed in us. The desert monastics were renowned for their fasting and ascetic practices. But they did not fast because they were holy. They grew in holiness as a result of their fasting.
To fast during Lent is an appropriate way to become more acquainted with this ancient spiritual practice. A fast that proves itself challenging may reveal much about what controls us. An annual opportunity to “reset” ourselves is a good thing. But to limit our fasting to Lent may be to impoverish our faith and relationship with God from more frequent flourishing for the good of our own lives and those we encounter.