Here’s a great irony: we love to eat, and God loves to feed us. We place a special value on meals shared in homes, and God has asked us to organize our worship at Mass around the idea of eating and drinking.
So why would he ever ask us to fast? If food is so central, it seems illogical that he would tell us to give it up in order to draw closer to him.
No one enjoys fasting. No one enjoys the hunger pangs that fasting brings on. No one enjoys the way fasting can make us feel tired, irritable, or weak. And we know that God, who loves us as his own children, doesn’t delight in seeing us suffer. And yet the Church teaches us that fasting is one of the most powerful spiritual disciplines we can take up.
So let’s take a look at the call to fast during Lent. Let’s look at the blessings that come when we willingly put aside one of God’s greatest gifts—so that we can be filled with something even better.
The “Wing” of Fasting. St. Augustine, one of the great Fathers of the Church, once said, “Do you want your prayer to fly toward God? Then give it two wings: fasting and almsgiving.” For Augustine, fasting was a way to help us pay closer attention to God, to other people, and to the way we are living. It is much more than a weight-loss program or a way to cleanse our bodies. Spiritual fasting is a decision to give up food so that we can draw closer to God.
Part of the reason for fasting is that it can help us overcome our natural drives toward comfort and pleasure. Of course, this is not to say that comfort and pleasure are sinful in and of themselves. The problem comes only when our desires for comfort and pleasure become unbalanced and spill over into self-indulgence.
Thomas Merton captured this potential problem when he said that our desires for food, drink, sex, and pleasure are like little children constantly clamoring for attention and never being satisfied beyond the moment. If we don’t teach them proper boundaries, they can keep us focused on ourselves and block us from loving God and caring for other people.
So when we fast, we have a chance to “teach” our desires to respect the proper boundaries. It’s as if we were telling them, “You’re all good children, but you need to follow me instead of trying to lead me. Come on; let’s work together to get closer to God.”
Miriam’s Story. Miriam’s mother, Rose, was growing old. Not long after Miriam’s father passed away, Rose was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Increasingly, Rose was forgetting simple things, unable to recognize her friends, and unable to remember where she was or what she had been doing.
Seeing her mother’s condition deteriorate, Miriam decided to move her mother into her home with her family. From that point on, Miriam took care of feeding her, bathing her, keeping her safe, and cleaning up after her.
A few years later, Rose passed away. Miriam and her brothers and sisters gathered for the reading of the will. As the lawyer explained their mother’s last wishes, the children were surprised to learn that Rose had left everything she owned to Miriam. The letter explained, “Miriam has given up so much for me—her career, time with her own family, and her freedom. Giving my all to her is the least I could do since she gave her all to me.”
A Divine Exchange. Miriam’s care for her mother—as well as her mother’s response to that care—is one way we can understand the beauty and value of fasting. Every day this Lent, our heavenly Father will stand at the door of our hearts and ask us to give up some of our time, our comfort, and our leisure to be with him. He promises to exchange these sacrifices with a “double portion” of his grace. Miriam gave up much of her own life to care for her mother, and she was richly rewarded—she didn’t even expect it! In a similar way, God will reward us richly whenever we give up something we value in order to spend time with him or to serve his people.
When we fast from comfort and pleasure, we are saying, “Lord, I want to give up these things for a time so that I can keep my mind focused on what life is really about.” We are saying, “I know God wants me to enjoy this beautiful world he has created, but I also know that loving him and serving him are more important than my own comfort and my own pleasure.”
In a sense, fasting is like a microcosm of the whole Christian life, which says, “I am not going to let anything, not even my appetites, be more important than my love for God and my love for people.”
Fasting for Battle. Three of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tell us that at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray for forty days. Mark’s Gospel states it most dramatically: “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert” (Mark 1:12).
Why did the Holy Spirit “drive” Jesus out into the wilderness like this? It was to prepare him for his mission. During that time, Jesus was caught in a battle against Satan. He was hungry. He was weak. He was vulnerable. The devil used the lures of comfort, pleasure, and power to try to cause him to sin. As hard as it was, Jesus returned from the fast victorious.
We are also in a battle, and Satan uses similar tactics on us. Satan’s goal is to make us so concerned about ourselves that we forget about God and his call to love one another. But with the help of the Holy Spirit and the sacraments, we can find the inner strength to say no to his lies. As we engage in this battle, we’ll also discover that our willpower is actually much stronger than we often think.
St. Paul also spoke about this battle for the mind. He called it a battle between the “old self” and the “new self.” He told us that the goal of our lives is to “put away” the old self and “put on” the new self, which is being renewed by the Spirit (Colossians 3:9, 10; Ephesians 4:22, 24).
The old self is dominated by selfish desires. The new self is full of love, peace, patience, and kindness. Each of us is a combination of the old and the new, and both of them want to rule us. We all have so much good in us. We love. We are kind and compassionate. We want to do the right thing. At the same time, we have a lot of not-so-good influences. We get angry. We hurt other people. We resent. We lie and we deceive.
Fasting coupled with prayer can help us win this battle. It can help us grow stronger in our faith and closer to God. It can help us say no when we are tempted.
So over the next forty days, try to win one or two of those battles that always seem to trip you up. Maybe it’s anger or resentment or laziness. Maybe it’s something else. Every day, make a decision to exercise the opposite of that area. If it’s anger, try to put on forgiveness. If it’s lust, try to put on purity. If it’s laziness, make it a point to stay active. Ask Jesus to help you. Do what you can, and God will reward you.
Fasting Has Global Effects. Clearly, fasting is good for us. But fasting extends beyond our own spiritual growth. It can change the world. One example comes from the Book of Esther. In this story, a senior favored official in Persia was plotting to destroy the Jewish population in his country. Mordecai, a well-placed Jew, discovered the plot and asked Queen Esther, also a Jew, to go to the king and expose the plot.
Worried about the king’s response, Esther asked all the Jews to fast and pray for her. Then she also prayed and approached the king. It seems that all that fasting and praying helped, because the king listened to Esther and guaranteed her people’s safety.
Our world has so many problems. We see wars, abortion, family discord, poverty, and famine. The news is almost always gloomy. But like Esther, Mordecai, and all the Jews in Persia, we can fast and pray. We can also rest on God’s promise to answer our prayers. Imagine what could happen if the whole Church were to fast and pray for just one of these problems! Surely God would hear us and stretch out his saving hand.
A Time for Renewal. When we fast, we are telling Jesus, “I want to take authority over my appetites—not just food—so that you can rule me instead.” We are asking him to help us win the battle against our old selves. And we are asking God to come and rescue the world from evil. May our fasting during these forty days of Lent lead to a time of renewal. For everyone!