Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”Mark 2:18-20
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.
Today the season of Lent begins and many people will consider giving something up as a way to honor the sacrifice of Jesus. Fasting has always been a part of the life of the Church. Jesus, in the above passage, indicates that once He has ascended to the Father, fasting will become a normal part of the life of a disciple. Jesus also gives instructions about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount.
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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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 6:16-18
Notice that Jesus starts with “When you fast…” The assumption is that a normal part of the Christian life will include regular fasting. Also notice here that the focus is on the Father and not on the fast. Our eyes should be on God not on ourselves when we fast. And we should do it in a way that draws little attention to ourselves. Finally, Jesus specifically mentions that there are rewards from the Father for fasting.
The ultimate reward for fasting is an increased focus on the Lord, an increased awareness of His Presence. There is also often an increase in spiritual hunger, insight and breakthrough as a result of fasting, but it is important that we don’t fast in order to “get” something. We fast as a means of giving ourselves more fully to God. Though we often receive way more than we’ve given up, fasting is not an exercise in reciprocity with God. It is a response to the fact that God has already given us so much. It is a response to all that God has given us in Christ. And, in a small way, it is an identification with the sufferings of Christ.
With this in mind, here are some motivations to avoid when doing a Lenten fast:
- We don’t fast to get God’s attention: Fasting is more about getting our attention on Him not His attention on us. You are His beloved son or daughter. You already have His undivided attention.
- We don’t fast to get what we want from God: Our relationship with God is governed by grace and mercy not reciprocity. We don’t surrender to get things. We surrender in response to the fact that He’s already given us everything!
- We don’t fast to lose weight or “detox”: Fasting is not about health benefits but spiritual connection to the Father. The thing most in need of “detox” is our soul. Often food covers buried sins and wounds. Fasting helps these things to emerge and be addressed.
Especially if you fast from food or a favorite food item for Lent, don’t be surprised if things that control you are revealed. We often cover up things in our soul with food. When food is removed, those things can surface and be dealt with. Try to notice these buried sin issues without judging yourself too harshly. For instance, if pride or anger controls us, they will emerge when food is removed. This is an opportunity to surrender these things to the Lord. (If you are battling an eating disorder, have a medical condition that is prohibitive, or a nursing or pregnant mother, you should consider fasting something other than food.)
Here is some wisdom about fasting from Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline:
“We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface…Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting.”
“Fasting reminds us that we are sustained ‘by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matt. 4:4). Food does not sustain us; God sustains us.”
“Fasting helps keep our balance in life. How easily we begin to allow nonessentials to take precedence in our lives. How quickly we crave things we do not need until we are enslaved by them.”
“As with all the Disciplines, a progression should be observed; it is wise to learn to walk well before we try to run. Begin with a partial fast of twenty-four hours’ duration; many have found lunch to lunch to be the best time. This means that you would not eat two meals. Fresh fruit juices are excellent to drink during the fast…In the beginning you will be fascinated with the physical aspects of your experience, but the most important thing to monitor is the inner attitude of the heart. Outwardly you will be performing the regular duties of your day, but inwardly you will be in prayer and adoration, song, and worship. In a new way, cause every task of the day to be a sacred ministry to the Lord.”
“What goes on spiritually is much more important that what is happening bodily…Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way.”Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline
These are all reasons why fasting for Lent should be seen not just as abstaining from food but as feasting on God through prayer and His Word. While our body is fasting and identifying with the sufferings of Christ, our spirit is feasting on the Presence of God and foreshadowing the coming wedding banquet of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7-10).
What will you fast for Lent?