What do the following actions—prayerful worship and seeking spiritual guidance (Acts 13:2), commissioning missionaries (13:3), consecrating elders and priests (14:23), responding to times of danger (Esther 4:16), mourning a death (1 Samuel 31:11-13), repentance (1 Kings 21:27), and intercession for the sick (2 Samuel 12:15-17)—have in common?
If you said fasting, you’re right. Scripture is filled with stories of people who were moved to fast for a wide variety of reasons. On two different occasions, Moses fasted for forty days (Exodus 24:18; 34:28). Ezra proclaimed a fast for the Israelites returning from exile in hopes that God would give them a safe journey (Ezra 8:21). Nehemiah fasted when he heard about trouble in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:4). Joel called for a national fast to help the people get right with God (Joel 2:12-14). The prophetess Anna fasted regularly in the Temple (Luke 2:36-38). Paul fasted after his conversion (Acts 9:9). Even Jesus fasted while he was in the desert (Luke 4:1-2).
While the practice of fasting has been around for thousands of years, it looks as if it’s becoming a lost art. We question its value or dismiss its effectiveness. Yet if so many spiritual giants from the past have testified to its power, perhaps we should try to rediscover its blessings. So let’s take a look at some of the key spiritual elements behind fasting to help guide us as we fast this Lent.
Food is a wonderful gift from God. It does far more than just nourish us and give us energy. It is also a source of enjoyment and a means of deepening friendship with one another. From the earliest time, people have come together over a meal as a way of sharing their lives with one another. Such well-respected concepts as fellowship, hospitality, and even communion are all rooted in the practice of breaking bread—or sharing a meal—with other people. Even today, having dinner together is recognized as one of the primary ways a family binds itself together in fellowship and love.
Clearly, there is a strong spiritual dimension to the act of eating food—a spiritual dimension that is raised to its highest height when we gather at Mass to eat the Bread of Life and drink the cup of salvation. And yet, for all the blessings that food gives us, there are times when we can find even greater blessings by avoiding it through the practice of fasting. Seen in this light, fasting involves a decision to forego the physical nourishment and the human fellowship that come from food in the hopes of finding the spiritual nourishment and fellowship that come from intimacy with God.
The goal of fasting is to bring us to the point where we are completely taken up with God. True fasting gives us the opportunity to become totally involved with God—immersed in him to the point that we are willing to leave food aside for a time—or that we will even forget about it altogether. Food, that wonderful gift from God, loses its attraction, and we begin to consider not eating to be more profitable than eating.
St. John Chrysostom liked to refer to fasting as medicine for the soul—medicine, that is, that works best when applied to a humble heart that knows its need. Chrysostom felt that the right disposition behind a fast was as critical as the amount of prayer a person undertook. He felt that humility begins and ends with our confessing our need for God and our emptiness without him. By contrast, Chrysostom taught, a proud disposition can actually negate the benefits of a fast. Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a classic illustration of this truth (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee in this parable was very diligent about fasting, but he did not receive its benefits because his fast was rooted in a prideful heart.
Fasting forces us to confront our vanity and our pride. By its very nature, self-denial separates us from the worldly trappings that we often look to for validation and self-worth. So when we deny ourselves the comfort of food—just as when we separate ourselves from materialism, self-centeredness, prestige, and power—we are more inclined to look to God for our sustenance. Going without food for a time is a demanding and humbling experience. The hunger, the sense of self-denial, even the irritability that may come as a result of our hunger all tend to reveal our neediness. And neediness leads to humility. And humility leads to God.
Very often, the focus of a fast is only on the dimension of self-denial, on what we have to give up. However, this approach can cause us to miss the mark. Of course, the purpose of a fast is to deny ourselves; that is, to take our eyes off the things of the world. But this is only so that we can fix our eyes on God in prayer. When we decide to fast, we are telling God, “I want to be close to you; I need your help, and I am willing to deny myself in order to find you and the grace you want to give me.”
St. John Colobos, one of the desert fathers, believed that fasting makes us strong in the Lord and able to fight off the temptations of our fallen appetites. He once said: “If a king wants to take a city whose citizens are hostile, he first captures their food and water. Then, when they are starving, he is able to subdue them. So it is with gluttony. If a man is earnest in fasting, the enemies that trouble his soul will grow weak.” It is one of Christianity’s great paradoxes that the weakness that comes from fasting actually strengthens us. It makes us more dependent on God and, when coupled with prayer, opens us up to the overflowing grace that he wants to give us.
Prayerful fasting is also a way to grow closer to the Lord. On Mount Sinai, Moses fasted for forty days before he was taken into the Lord’s presence and received the revelation of the Torah (Exodus 34:28). Similarly, Elijah experienced a dramatic revelation from God—in desert silence—while he fasted (1 Kings 19:8). When we fast and pray, our spiritual connection to Jesus increases. Our purity, our humility, and our decision to deny ourselves all work together to make us more receptive to the Holy Spirit. When we lose ourselves for the sake of Jesus, we find ourselves in Jesus.
In a sense, every time we fast, we are preparing ourselves for that time when every one of our hopes, dreams, and desires will be perfectly fulfilled. Then, all the fruits of our fasting, all the blessings of our desert times with the Lord, will be revealed, and we will be overwhelmed by the love and power poured into us.
So are you ready to go into the desert this Lent? Are the possibilities getting you excited? No matter how prepared or unprepared you may feel, you can trust that the Holy Spirit is eager to give you divine strength, to reveal Jesus to you more clearly, and to give you his own peace and assurance. May none of us allow fear, unbelief, or doubt to keep us from the desert. May none of us minimize the grace that is awaiting us as we fast and immerse ourselves in Jesus!