Every Lent, as the church invites us to draw closer to the Lord, it calls us to take up the ancient practice of fasting.
Every Ash Wednesday, we are urged to return to the Lord "with fasting, and weeping, and mourning" as we turn away from our sins and seek God’s mercy. Every year, we are called to "blow the trumpet in Zion" and "proclaim a fast" (Joel 2:12,15).
Even though God’s people have been fasting for thousands of years, this revered practice has declined in recent decades. Part of the problem is that we live in a culture that emphasizes instant gratification. Part of the problem is that society doesn’t see much value in self-discipline or self-denial. As a consequence, we do not always see the value in fasting.
Fasting is the practice of abstaining from food or drink for a period of time in order to focus on spiritual growth. By denying ourselves these physical pleasures—which are not bad in and of themselves—we become more open to the spiritual blessings God wants to give us. Also, by seeking the Lord in this more intense way, we find it easier to hear his voice as we face important decisions. We may even discover that our fasting gives us an added boldness in petitioning the Lord for a miracle!
So as we begin this season of Lent, let’s take a look at the blessings that flow from fasting: blessings on our lives, in our families, and upon our church.
The Focus of Fasting. Scripture urges us to fast and, on a number of occasions, points to the tremendous value of fasting. Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and St. Paul all fasted. Even Jesus himself fasted for forty days before beginning his public ministry. Following the example of all these biblical heroes, the church has incorporated fasting into its own life. Along with other precepts like attending Mass each week, confessing our sins, and observing the holy days of obligation, the church has declared certain days and times when we should either abstain from certain foods or fast altogether (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2043).
By including the discipline of fasting with these other important precepts, the church is telling us how valuable it can be. Of course, the emphasis in this sentence should be on the word can. Fasting involves far more than simply going without food for a certain time. Fasting is a beautiful combination of the spiritual and the physical. It’s not just about feeling hungry. It’s about letting our physical hunger uncover our spiritual hunger. It’s about freeing ourselves up so that we can turn to the Lord and ask him to give us his spiritual food. It’s about emptying ourselves so that Jesus can fill us.
In his parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus made the point that fasting, even twice a week, is not of much value if it is done with a prideful heart (Luke 18:12). He also told us to make sure that we do not try to draw attention to ourselves by looking gloomy: "When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you" (Matthew 6:17-18). Clearly, fasting with the wrong attitude will not draw us closer to God, and it will not move us to love others more dearly.
So what is the right attitude? It’s telling Jesus that we want to take our minds off ourselves and focus on him. It’s telling Jesus: "I want to do something extraordinary that will help me focus on the Lord." It’s telling him that we want to take authority over our appetites so that they don’t rule us.
"Worldly" Fasting. While we may not use these words, many of us are already fasting, but in a worldly way. Consider the people who become so immersed in their jobs that they skip meals and work late into the night. Perhaps a project at work has taken on a sense of urgency, and we respond by throwing ourselves into it. It is as if the prophet Joel had said, "Blow the trumpet! Proclaim a fast! The demands of work are upon us."
This example shows us how we would all be willing to "fast" from food, sleep, and maybe even family time, if it were for an important matter. So here’s the question we should all ask ourselves this Lent: "Is God worthy of a fast? Is he worthy of this kind of sacrifice?" We can see that there are times when other demands, like the demands of work or parenting, require such a sacrifice. Can we see any situation in which our relationship with the Lord would call for such a sacrifice as well?
The Blessings of a Fast. Scripture tells us how Noah and his family took refuge in the ark while it rained for forty days and nights. When the flood waters receded and Noah found dry ground, God made a covenant with him and his family. Similarly, when Moses took the Israelites into the wilderness, he was led to Mount Sinai. While the people were camped at the base, Moses climbed the mountain, where he prayed and fasted for forty days. At the end of the fast, God appeared to him and made a covenant with Moses and all of Israel. Centuries later, the prophet Elijah spent forty days in the wilderness, and at the end, God spoke to him and gave him directions that would help him carry on God’s work of restoration.
From a human standpoint, the wilderness is a place of danger: the heat by day, the cold by night, the deadly insects and wild animals, the scarcity of food or water. But from a godly perspective, the wilderness is a place where the Lord prepares his people a place of fasting and isolation. The wilderness gives us a golden opportunity to put aside all other pursuits and distractions so that we can hear God more clearly and receive his grace more fully.
As we said above, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the wilderness just before he began his public ministry. He used this time of prayer to prepare himself to teach, to heal people, and most importantly, to establish a new covenant through his death on the cross.
So when we are called to fast and pray during these forty days of Lent, we should look at it not as a task or a chore but as the start of an adventure. When done with the right disposition, fasting can help prepare us for the works God has in store for us—works that bring healing and restoration, works that actually build his kingdom on earth!
There is one more thing that fasting does for us: It can pave the way for a greater release of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Fasting can open us up to new insights from heaven, insights into God’s perspective, insights into important decisions we have to make, and insights into the ultimate reason why God created us in the first place.
Getting Started. So as we begin this season of Lent, let’s start off on the right foot. Let’s confess our sins and get ourselves right with God. He is a merciful Father who will never refuse us.
Let’s set aside a specific time each day when we will pray. How will we find the Lord if we don’t seek after him? How will we be able to reap any fruit from the feelings of hunger that our fasting produces if we don’t let this hunger turn us to the Lord?
Most of all, let’s remember that fasting is a spiritual discipline that is grounded in our everyday, physical lives. If it’s not combined with a prayerful seeking after God, our fasting will have little effect on us.
When we approach the practice of fasting out of a motive to seek the Lord and to give him glory, wonderful things happen. Not only will we find our petitions answered in unexpected ways. We will find the Lord actually honoring us as we seek him. We will find him blessing our time with him in a very special way. We will find God fulfilling in our lives the promise he spoke through his prophet Joel thousands of years ago:
"You shall eat and be filled, and shall praise the name of the Lord, your God. . . . My people shall nevermore be put to shame. And you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel; I am the Lord, your God, and there is no other; my people shall nevermore be put to shame." (Joel 2:26-27)