Why We Fast (or Don’t, as the Case May Be)

With their newfound appreciation of liturgy and tradition, many Protestants (me included) have rushed headlong into taking up the observance of Lent—ashes, wearing black, fasting, the whole nine yards.  Such a rush to tradition runs the risk of being a mere fleeting aesthetic choice in the consumerized religious marketplace, or of fetishizing such observances as cool just because they’re “old” and “traditional.”  Even for the well-intentioned, there is a danger that, lacking any communal tradition of fasting, they will take it up without much sense of exactly what it’s supposed to accomplish.  In response, other Protestants, slightly slower to wade into the frothy liturgical hot-tub, wring their hands with old worries about superstition, Pharisaism, and self-righteousness, and wonder if fasting isn’t a bad idea altogether.  

So the pastors of the CREC, in preparing an excellent booklet of Lenten devotions for use in their churches, felt compelled to preface the booklet with a skeptical warning against Lenten fasting, particularly the common practice of “partial fasts,” when people give up something particular like meat, or alcohol, or of course chocolate.  (The document is unclear whether fasting entirely from food for short spells of time, such as a day of the week, during Lent, is likewise to be condemned.)  Lent, they emphasize is supposed to be about penitence, about giving up sin, rather than giving up fun.  So I thought it might be helpful to reflect for a bit on why we might fast (partially or otherwise) and what might be gained from it.

The first thing to be emphasized is that Lenten fasting is a matter of sanctification, not justification.  That might seem obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing.  Protestants have insisted forcefully that fasting is not a way of earning merit in God’s eyes; we don’t do it for His benefit, but for our own benefit.  There is thus no ground for self-righteousness; on the contrary, fasting is an act of humility, an acknowledgment that you have a long way to go in becoming righteous, and that’s why it might be helpful to fast.  Moreover, while some matters of sanctification are categorical—every Christian must seek the sanctification that is to be found in weekly worship and sacraments—others are adiaphorous, and fasting is most certainly one of the latter.  That means, it might help you, it might not.  It might help at certain times, but not at others.  It might help in certain ways, but not in others.  There is no one right way you have to fast.  It is most certainly a matter of Christian liberty, and so we should be relaxed about it, not uptight about it.  Now, to be sure, a church or group of churches can decide to call on its members to all observe a particular fast at a particular time, often as a way of offering a public witness of repentance for corporate sin—although very few churches do so anymore.  When this is the case it may be most edifying for everyone to go along with it (although no one’s conscience is bound).  Aside from such cases, I’m not inclined to think that a decreed fast is a very good idea; this is one area where it seems that internal Christian liberty should generally be allowed external expression.  So while I think it may be helpful for churches to create a culture in which Lenten fasts are encouraged and supported, they should also encourage people to feel at liberty, each mindful of their own physical and spiritual needs.

Under this heading, I think I should perhaps offer a bit of an apologia for letting one’s fast be known. Much of the hand-wringing that I see among Protestants about Lenten fasts derives from an overly literal reading of Jesus’s exhortation to fast in secret.  We forget that in that same passage, Jesus speaks also of the need to pray in secret, and yet most of us have not thereby renounced public or family prayer, or shied away from ever telling anyone else that we were going to pray.  Jesus’s point is to discourage ostentatious personal displays of fasting that seek to call attention to one’s own holiness.  It should be obvious that, in a setting where Lenten fasting is the norm, it’s quite a casual matter to mention one’s fasting, without any hint of self-righteousness (just as there’s no self-righteousness in praying publicly at a prayer meeting where everyone’s expected to do so).  Indeed, it is often helpful to the broader community of believers for everyone to be upfront about their fasts.  If I am giving up meat or alcohol, it can quickly create awkwardness when I start turning down offered food and drink at social occasions, or avoiding such social occasions altogether, if no explanation has been given.  Of course, given that many of us do not occupy social circles in which such fasting is simply expected, we do face the temptation that we announce our fasts as a way of showing that we are part of the cool club of liturgically-minded people that do such things.  That’s something to be on guard against, to be sure, but we needn’t freak out automatically at any public mention of fasting.

A second thing to emphasize is that, if the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath, all the more so for Lent.  It’s a human tradition, which may be edifying, but isn’t automatically.  If you’re sick, or you’re pregnant, or you’re malnourished, fasting doesn’t make much sense.  If you haven’t seen your wife in awhile, and Valentine’s Day is two days into Lent, and you want to treat her to a really nice meal and a bottle of wine, then let Lent wait, for Pete’s sake!  Legalism is a genuine danger, and the best way to avoid it is to hold traditions like Lenten fasting very lightly.  If you really think you need to cultivate self-discipline, then maybe you need to be kinda strict with yourself, but if there’s a good reason to make an exception (say your buddy just graduated and you want to take him out to celebrate), then make an exception!  And of course, one thing this means is that, if fasting isn’t helpful for you, if you find yourself just doing it because other people are doing it, or because you think you’re supposed to get some spiritual benefit that doesn’t seem to be coming, then don’t!  There are many many great ways to observe Lent.

Which leads to the third point—of course, fasting is just supposed to be one small part of  the picture.  The Lenten exhortation invites us “to observe a Holy Lent, by self-examination and penitence, by prayer and fasting, by practicing works of love, and by reading and reflecting on God’s Holy Word.”  If your Lent consists of giving up Godiva chocolate and that’s it, then you probably have, as the CREC booklet worries, missed the point.  All of the other things listed here are more important than fasting itself, though fasting can be helpfully combined with each of these, as I shall outline below.

So, these three prolegomenal points having been made, what are some things that might be gained in this day and age from fasting, and yea, from partial fasting?

Let’s work from the words of imposition used in the Ash Wednesday service: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Turn away from evil, and follow Christ.”  

Remember that you are dust…

As I have argued in the past, one of the most valuable uses of the Lenten discipline of fasting can be, quite simply, to remind us that we have bodies, and to remind us of their limitations.  Ironically, in our materialistic age, we are perhaps most at risk of forgetting our bodiliness, because we can maintain it so effortlessly.  In an earlier age, when sickness and hunger were never long absent, when food and drink could often only be won by focused toil, and travel required significant bodily exertion, it was difficult to forget that one was made from the earth, and was therefore radically dependent on the earth for one’s continued strength and existence.  Academics like myself, especially, are prone to think of ourselves as disembodied minds, as drawing all our strength and resources from the power of our own thoughts.  Once you go without food for just 18 hours, it becomes difficult indeed to screen out the stubborn fact of embodiment, and you find quickly that those brilliant thoughts don’t come so naturally when the blood sugar runs low.  Far from encouraging self-righteousness, then, fasting can help to instill the most radical humility, reminding us of how little we can accomplish without the lowly daily gifts of food and drink.  With such humility comes greater gratitude toward God for providing us so richly with such means of sustenance. 

And to dust you shall return…

Along with the awareness of embodiment goes the renewed awareness of mortality.  Again, our need for this is much more urgent today than in most former ages, when death was a fairly common companion.  Most of us, especially young folks like myself, have never actually watched someone die, and rarely experience the death of a close friend or family member.  Scripture is full of exhortations for us to remember our mortality, without which we are liable to forget God, and indulge in prideful fantasies about our own importance or indestructibility.  By bringing us face to face with the fragility of our bodies, their constant reliance on food to maintain their strength, fasting can be a good way of teaching us that these bodies will have an end, and that we must live in light of that end.

It bears noting that these first two closely related functions of fasting are likely to work much better through short regular complete fasts (e.g., not eating for a day, or even a meal, out of each week), rather than through simply giving up some favorite food or drink, but consuming roughly the same amount of total sustenance.

Turn away from evil…

This is probably the most important and often-emphasized dimension of fasting.  But how does it work?  What exactly is the connection between fasting and penitence?  If you are like me, you may have puzzled over this when you first experimented with fasting: “OK, so I’m really hungry now…how exactly is this supposed to make me sin less?  All I can think about right now is a steak, not my sin.”  There are actually several possible dimensions to consider here.

First, fasting can serve as a way of demonstrating the authenticity of our penitence.  This seems often to be the role of fasting in Scripture.  After all, it’s all too easy to say, “Well, dang, I’m sorry God.  I really wish I could stop sinning in this way, and I’ll try to, promise,” and then to move on, forget about it, and promptly sin again.  By fasting, we say to ourselves and to God, “No, this sin is serious enough that I need to actually do something about it.  I need to start changing my lifestyle.  And I’m going to mark and signify that change of lifestyle by changing the way I eat/drink/etc. as I pray about this sin.”  Or it can be a way of saying, “Sin hurts.  Sin has a cost.  By casually asking for forgiveness, I can ignore this fact, but I need to show that I recognize the seriousness of this sin by being willing to suffer a little bit for it.”  Such asceticism can be dangerous, if we start thinking that we can atone for our sin by punishing ourselves for it.  But done correctly, it can simply be an acknowledgement of the fact that habits are formed by associations, and physical discomfort can leaves a deep impression on us.  Just as we discipline a child, causing them physical pain to help them remember the painful cost of sin, so we may need to discipline ourselves by depriving ourselves of ordinary pleasures as we struggle to overcome a sin.  

This leads into a second point, which is that fasting can help serve as a way of disciplining our sinful, or at the very least intemperate, desires.  If the sins of which we are repenting are fleshly sins, sins involving an idolization of comfort, or addiction to pleasure, or an inability to control our physical reactions—a category that can include sins like gluttony, sloth, greed, lust, anger, and many more—then fasting may be particularly appropriate or useful.  This is perhaps particularly obvious in the case of gluttony, where fasting may be a way of directly combating the sin.  However, any sin that involves an overindulgence of the flesh and its desires is one which fasting may help us to overcoming by training us in patterns of self-discipline.  Indeed, although the CREC booklet seems to doubt that practices of “partial fasting”—abstaining from some common habit or particularly preferred indulgence throughout the season of Lent—could serve in any way toward this end, it seems on the contrary that a long-term partial fast may be more effective in disciplining the flesh than short periods of complete fasting.  Denying oneself that usual pint of beer, or eating any kind of meat, day after day may prove more painful on the whole, and will likely tend to form habits of self-control more effectively, than abstaining from food altogether for a day or two.  

Finally, such fasting, while an effective means of responding to known sins, can also help us identify sins we didn’t know we had, and can thus be a helpful aid to the “self-examination” that Lent is often used for.  I may have had no idea that I was a glutton, or overly fond of strong drink, until I find just how hard it is to go without my favorite food or whiskey for a few weeks.  

…and follow Christ

One of the biggest complaints against fasting is that, by causing us to observe Lent in purely negative fashion, by not-doing something, it distracts us from the more important purpose of Lent, which is actively devoting ourselves to Christ and to others.  Accordingly, many churches emphasize the value of “taking something up” for Lent—a new prayer routine, a couple hours a week helping at the homeless shelter, a deeper study of Scripture—instead of “giving something up.”  This is the more important, as Lenten fasting is usually temporary, but the new patterns of devotion we take up may become part of our long-term routine of serving God and others.  However, the two are not mutually exclusive, and for some of us, fasting can help us to take up such positive practices of devotion.  

First, and most centrally, fasting can be a way of focusing us on Christ himself by helping us to remember his sufferings: we take up our own cross in some small way to help us remember his taking up the cross; we follow him both into the wilderness and on his road to Calvary.  Such an emphasis should be qualified carefully, of course, because we mustn’t forget that Christ has died, Christ is risen, his work is done; therefore, our reflection on the work of Christ should chiefly be a reflection on the forgiveness he has already wrought for us, rather than camping out in the asceticism of pre-Calvary.  However, inasmuch as redemption is already/not yet, inasmuch as we are simul justus et peccator and have not yet entered into glory, we may profit by reflecting on the sufferings of Christ, and not merely fast-forwarding to the glory of Easter.

Beyond this, fasting can help us take up the various other activities recommended in the Lenten exhortation: self examination and penitence we have already covered; the others are prayer, practicing works of love, and reading and reflecting on God’s Holy Word.  

How might fasting help us pray?  I had always thought that somehow the sense of hunger and weakness was supposed to help focus the spirit and remove distractions, though truth be told, in my own experience, it often seems to merely add an extra distraction.  Perhaps the connection, for many of us, is rather more mundane and straightforward than that.  If we know that we are fasting in order to focus on prayer, then the sensation of hunger can serve simply as a reminder to take a few moments to pray—after all, how often do we find that we intend to pray, and time simply got away from us? Hunger pangs can make good alarm clocks.  Or, if we are fasting completely from a meal or meals, we can resolve to use the time we would otherwise be eating to pray instead.  Most of us probably will find that we spend so little time in focused prayer that even skipping a few meals can give us far more time to pray than we are accustomed.  Fasting may serve in the exact same ways to help us to take up more Scripture reading and reflection: both as a reminder, and as a way of carving out more time.  Although this is another area in which occasional full fasts are likely to be more effective than giving up a favorite food (how does abstaining from meat necessarily enrich one’s prayer life?), an ongoing fast from a favorite activity or habit, as some people practice (say, “fasting” from watching TV) can serve a similar function.

Similar things can be said of “practicing works of love.”  Here, there is perhaps a direct spiritual connection to be made, in addition to the more pragmatic considerations.  In fasting, we are consciously denying ourselves luxuries, things that we usually treat ourselves to, but can technically do without.  If done in a spirit of love, this self-denial may turn our thoughts to those who must do without such luxuries out of necessity, those who can never afford meat, or who go to bed hungry every night.  Fasting may thus serve as a direct stimulus to animate us with compassion and love for the needy, and to move us to act on their behalf.  More practically, it frees up resources of time and perhaps money that we can dedicate to their service.  Just as some Christians are tempted to think of Lent as a convenient time to lose weight that they otherwise wanted to lose, sometimes we can be tempted to think of it as a good time to balance a budget that was being overspent, as less delicacies are purchased.  Better, perhaps, to try to set aside that extra $50 a month saved on groceries for charitable use, and perhaps better still to dedicate time saved to works of service.   

Obviously, with all of this “giving something up to take something up,” the danger is that our changed habits will last only for a season, after which we will revert to our usual complacency and consumerism.  If this is happening, if Lenten practices are having no effect on the rest of our lives, then there is little point, and the practices are in danger of becoming an empty ritual, or worse, a means of trying to earn merit before God: “See, God, see how much I’m denying myself right now?  I think you’ll agree that this should earn me enough brownie points to last me to next Lent, so I don’t have to worry about this self-denial business in the meantime.”  This, I think, is actually one argument in favor of “partial fasting.”  Better to take baby steps that you can keep up consistently than to take off at a sprint only to give up in exhaustion and vow never to try again.  If we fast too aggressively, and it comes to feel like an unbearable burden, we’ll find ourselves sticking with it solely out of pride, and eagerly going back to the status quo.  But if we try to temper our self-indulgence in some small, but still significant way, it may help form habits that will continue to shape our lives well beyond Lent.  

Of course, there’s a balance here, since fasting is supposed to be fasting, and it’s hard to see that many of the spiritual benefits mentioned above could be reaped by “giving up Godiva chocolate” (to use the CREC booklet’s example).  On the other hand, the key point is “if you fast, fast for your own edification.”  I have described here what might be some ways in which fasting might edify, but these will not work for everyone in the same way, or even at all, and so no one need feel bound to try them.  Conversely, no one ought to judge his brother’s fasting or lack thereof.  If you’re so into Godiva chocolate that you think giving it up for Lent might really be a good spiritual discipline for you, far be it from me to tell you it couldn’t be.  

And I should add—lest anyone imagine that this lengthy list of ways that fasting might edify means that I am some kind of fasting warrior, I’m afraid I’m nothing of the sort.  This is much more a list of things I’d like to try than things that I have tried.  Being, indeed, a complete novice in the ways of fasting, I would quite welcome input in the comments as to whether others have found fasting helpful in these ways or not, or in other ways that I haven’t mentioned.

2 thoughts on “Why We Fast (or Don’t, as the Case May Be)

  1. Daniel Bakken

    Brad,

    This is an excellent article, full of principle and practice. Thanks for sharing it with us. Peace be with you and your family during this season.

    Like

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