Fasting is perhaps the most prominent and well-known feature of the season of Lent, even though many people today don’t practice it. One of the issues that presents itself to people seems to be that fasting is often misunderstood. Since today is Friday, a fast day, let’s take a look at a few examples of what fasting isn’t, and what it actually is.
Fasting is not an end unto itself
Simply “giving something up for Lent” or refraining from eating certain foods at certain times does not make a person more holy. All foods were created for our enjoyment, provided we give thanks to God. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). Fasting, however, is a powerful tool in the toolbox of spiritual disciplines if used rightly. Fasting is a discipline that we can celebrate and use in conjunction with prayer and alms-giving. You can read more about that connection in Isaiah 58 and in part of this short article.
Fasting is not abstinence
It is not always clear in the Bible, but there is a difference between fasting and abstinence. Fasting is a reduction, abstinence is an elimination. When Moses, Jesus, or others fasted for 40 days, it does not typically mean that they ate or drank nothing at all – the human body can survive without food that long if properly prepared, but certainly not without water. One might appeal to divine providence in certain cases, but to belabor that point would be to miss the spiritual point: the discipline of fasting before special occasions or for special intercessory or penitential purposes is valuable to every believer. To fast is to reduce the amount or luxury of a thing. The biggest traditional example of this is to cut meat out of the diet because eating meat was associated with feasting, celebration, even worship. If you want some tips on what fasting might look like in today’s world, you can check out this article.
Fasting is not self-harm
Again, fasting is a spiritual discipline. It is geared toward exercising self-denial such that your spiritual attentions are provoked and improved in some way. Thus, fasting in such a way that your health suffers is not a true fast. The goal is redirect your passions, not make yourself sick. This is not about self-punishment, but self-control. This is why, traditionally, the young, the old, the sick, and pregnant women have been exempt from rules of fasting. It’s not that we’re going easy on “the weak”, but that people must not be encouraged to harm themselves. If you’re on medication, have dietary issues, or other food-related situation, fasting from food is something that you should not pursue without pastoral and medical advice.
Fasting is not just about food
Last of all, there are many other things that can be reduced or eliminated by way of the spiritual discipline of fasting. Social media, television, other activities of leisure or entertainment, are all excellent examples of things that can profitably be reduced or set aside for the sake of increased spiritual pursuits. Don’t get hung up on “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent!” when there are so many other possibilities out there. Look to where your habits and desires are found, and explore ways to curb and control those habits and desires – that is where you truly learn self-control.