“Next week is Ash Wednesday,” said the mother to her three young boys. “This year, we’re going to give up candy and ice cream for Lent.” “Aw, Mom,” the youngest one replied, “we already give these up every day between bedtime and breakfast. Isn’t that enough?”
Deep inside, most of us can relate to this little boy. We don’t really like to fast, and we often wonder what the real value of fasting is. What good will it do us if we deny ourselves a specific kind of food or some other form of pleasure? How will that make us holier?
But think about how hard athletes train. They push their bodies to the limits. They follow very restrictive diets. All to win a game! For them, the benefit of winning is well worth the cost of preparation. And that’s how it is with fasting. If we can get a better glimpse of its benefits, we’ll be more willing to take it up. Let’s begin by taking a look at some scriptural stories about fasting and self-denial.
A Holy Wilderness. The Bible often presents the wilderness as a sacred place, a place of testing where people encounter the Lord and come out renewed and strengthened. After their escape from Egypt, the Israelites spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. It was a time of purification and preparation before they entered the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 8:2). Moses spent forty days in prayer and fasting on Mount Sinai in order to prepare to meet the Lord and receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:18). After being fed by the Lord, Elijah found the strength for a forty-day march through the wilderness toward Mount Horeb. There, after his fast had been completed, he too had a deep encounter with the Lord in the form of a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:12).
And of course, Jesus himself spent forty days in the wilderness fasting and praying (Mark 1:13). During this time, Jesus experienced not only extreme hunger but also intense temptation from the devil. Coming just after his baptism, this time in the wilderness was a preparation for Jesus’ ministry—but it was also a foreshadowing of his Passion, when he would give up his life for our sakes.
These stories show us how closely connected fasting and the wilderness are, especially during Lent. During this season of grace, God invites us into our own personal wilderness. He asks us to separate ourselves from the world to a certain extent, to deny ourselves some of our usual pleasures, so that we can meet the Lord more deeply. If we can combine our Lenten fast with this sense of promise in the wilderness, we’ll find so many blessings, just as Elijah, Moses, and Jesus did. We’ll hear God’s voice. We’ll learn his ways. We’ll find new power to do God’s will and reflect his goodness to the people around us.
When you fast . . . your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you. (Matthew 6:16, 18)
Notice how in this passage, Jesus didn’t say “if you fast.” He said “when you fast.” He really wants us to take on this spiritual practice because he knows how deeply we will be blessed by it. Yes, fasting is about dying to ourselves, but it’s so much more than that. When we link it to prayer, fasting is also about experiencing spiritual breakthroughs, just as past heroes of the faith did. Moses received the Ten Commandments. Elijah’s faith was rejuvenated. Jesus left his fast “in the power of the Spirit” and began preaching and performing miracles (Luke 4:14).
We can experience breakthroughs if we spend these next forty days denying ourselves and placing more of our focus on Jesus. Our Father will reward us with gifts of peace, joy, and healing—not because we have convined God to bless us, but because we have emptied ourselves of distractions so that God can fill us with his grace.
Fasting also brings about breakthroughs because it helps us clear our minds. Remember that the wilderness is a place of quiet, a stark place with very few distractions. If we can keep a sense of the wilderness during our fast, we may be able to recognize areas in our lives where we are weak or where we have fallen into sin. The quiet and self-denial that are an integral part of fasting can help lead us to repentance. It can help us become more humble, more open to Jesus’ presence in our lives.
Finally, fasting can help us build a place of quiet and reflection in our hearts. For many of us, life is busy, demanding, and filled with distractions. Even when it’s not too bad, we can find ourselves falling into a false sense of busyness. We can feel as if there are not enough hours in a day to do all that we have to do, and we end up feeling trapped by our responsibilities. But if we want to experience breakthroughs this Lent, we have to carve out time for the Lord. We have to learn how to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). Fasting can help us focus the next forty days on quieting our hearts in God’s presence—to the point where it becomes a regular, habitual part of our lives!
A word of caution: it’s not all about what we do. Dying to ourselves, giving up treats, repenting, reordering our schedules, seeking God first—it can make Lent sound like a completely human-driven time. Of course, what we do counts. It makes a big difference, in fact. But what God does in us is even more important. It’s what all the fasting and self-denial is for!
Fasting and Repentance. Sometime around the year 400 b.c., the prophet Joel called the people of Judah to return to the Lord “with fasting, weeping, and mourning” (Joel 2:12). It was during a time of crisis, when Judah was suffering from a massive locust infestation. All the crops were being destroyed, and the nation was on the brink of disaster.
Joel linked the invasion to the people’s sins, and so he urged everyone to turn back to the Lord in repentance. The people took his word seriously and called a fast. They repented of their sins. They proclaimed that they would treat each other differently.
What happened next? “The Lord was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people” (Joel 2:18). He promised that their grain, wine, and oil would flow abundantly once more. “I will repay you for the years which the locust has eaten,” he said. “You shall eat and be filled, and shall praise the name of the Lord, your God” (2:25, 26).
When we turn to the Lord with fasting and humble repentance, God responds powerfully. He comes to “the aid of our weakness” (Romans 8:26). He guides us through our temptations (1 Corinthians 10:13). He promises to “exalt” us (James 4:10). He gives us real, discernible breakthroughs!
So look for changes as you fast this Lent. Maybe you will find prayer coming more easily. Maybe you will have a greater sense of God’s personal love for you, or find it easier to love your family. Are you becoming more patient? Are you becoming less prone to judge people or to hold resentments? Maybe you are becoming less argumentative or more generous. The possibilities are endless. Never underestimate what God can do with a humble, repentant heart!
Proclaim a Fast. Lent can be a powerful time of renewal. If we adopt the right approach to fasting, prayer, and repentance, we’ll find God inspiring us and empowering us to make real changes in our lives. We may even find God giving us a deeper sense of calling—to a parish ministry, to a local homeless shelter, or to something completely unexpected.
So try to “proclaim a fast” in your home this Lent (Joel 2:15). Try to live more simply over the next forty days. Deny yourself so that you can focus on the Lord. Go ahead and join Jesus in the desert so that on Easter, you can emerge with a heart more like his: more loving, more dedicated, and more able to resist temptation.
Let’s all pray together for Lenten breakthroughs not only for ourselves but also for our family members, our friends, the Church, and the entire world.