As Ash Wednesday draws near each year, many Christians ask each other, “What are you giving up for Lent?” While the practice of fasting traditionally involves total abstinence from food for a given period, it has become common for Christians to extend the idea, fasting from anything from social media to coffee to Netflix. The decision of what to fast from often seems to hinge on finding something that one enjoys a bit too much and would benefit from cutting back on, like caffeine or binge-watching TV. Observed this way, the forty-day period of Lent seems to be a ready-made opportunity to kick a bad habit—at least temporarily. When even nonreligious magazines like Good Housekeeping become a source of inspiration for “creative things to give up for Lent,” one wonders what any of this has to do with God. Is this Lenten sacrifice anything more than a Christian version of a detox diet or food cleanse?
The Purpose of Fasting
Before we go any further, let me say that I do not think there is anything inherently wrong with the idea of fasting from addictive behaviors. If nothing else, this expanded notion of fasting allows those who cannot abstain from food for various reasons to participate fully in this valuable spiritual discipline. Fasting from food does not make for a more virtuous fast than fasting from television or your favorite dessert.
Additionally, I think there are some strong theological reasons for fasting in this manner. Augustine reminds us that the root of our sinfulness is our disordered love—our tendency to love created things more than the Creator. In other words, when we allow our desire for lesser things to become our ultimate desire, we have made them into idols that take the place of God in our lives. We would never say that we worship coffee or television, of course, and yet when we see them as better able than God to provide what we think we need and turn first to them, we are discipling ourselves to put our trust in them rather than in God. Fasting from these things can help restore our worship—our recognition that God is Jehovah Jireh and that all good things (even coffee and television) come from God. The goal is not simply to watch less television or spend less time scrolling through our social media feeds. Rather, it is to renew our vision and reframe our lives around the vision of the kingdom of God. It is to submit all that we do to this vision so that even our use of social media and consumption of television is geared towards the fulfillment of this vision. Fasting from these things in this manner allows God to change the way that we engage with those things—not to cause us to love them any less, but to rightly order them as subservient to God.
In the same way, traditional food fasts do not imply that food itself is evil or deny our need for it, but simply remind us that God is the one who sustains us through that food and other means. It is God who is the source of living water that never runs dry, the one who feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fish, and the one who can meet our deepest needs. Fasting reminds us that we do not live by bread alone, important as it may be, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).
Fasting, then, is a spiritual discipline that puts us in a position to allow God to transform our vision of life and save us from chasing other lovers (gods) that won’t satisfy. Just as God poured out his grace to Gomer through the prophet Hosea, God gives us this discipline as a means of grace through which God repeatedly draws us back to himself and to the purposes to which he has called us.
How Not to Fast
The end of that last sentence is crucial: it is God who works in us as we fast. It is not our own strength or discipline that wins the attention or power of God, but God who gives himself to us again and again. Hubris is the root of many pitfalls we must avoid when fasting, all of which involve placing ourselves and our sacrifice at center stage:
1. Fasting in a Legalistic Manner
If you find yourself asking, “Can I do XYZ and still have it ‘count’ as fasting?” you’re asking the wrong question. The discipline of fasting is a means to an end, not the end in itself. Rather than focusing on whether we are doing it “right,” we should focus instead on how fasting is transforming our worship and love of God.
2. Fasting for the Sake of Fasting
The mere act of fasting is not the point. Fasting ought to transform us more into Christ’s likeness as we open ourselves to the Spirit. In Isaiah 58, we see God declare his displeasure with the Israelites despite their devotion to fasting because while they fasted, they continued to mistreat their workers and stir up quarrels and divisions. Their fast consisted merely of empty actions as they failed to allow God to transform their lives.
3. Fasting for Glory
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, he criticizes the Pharisees’ public fasting. The target of his criticism was not their act of fasting, but their motivation in doing so—to be “seen” (6:1), “disfigur[ing] their faces” to draw attention to themselves (6:16). We must also beware of fasting to impress God, to show off our “humility” and “pious devotion” (Isaiah 58:3–5). Such pride is the very opposite of what fasting is meant to develop in us. In a culture where we are quick to share everything on social media, we must examine the motivation of our hearts very carefully before posting about our fast.
4. Fasting to Manipulate God
There are times when we may fast in order to seek God’s wisdom and help (e.g., 1 Samuel 7; Nehemiah 1; Jonah 3). What we must remember is that it is God who decides whether and how to act. We do not control God with our fasting, as though making a sacrifice to pagan gods. I find it helpful to think of it this way: fasting does not change God; it changes me. Fasting puts me in a posture of humility and worship that allows me to hear God speak or recognize how God is working in my life.
The Kind of Fast God Desires
With its emphasis on self-reflection and penitence, both fasting and Lent in general can sometimes seem like spiritual navel gazing. However, God’s tirade against the Israelites in Isaiah 58 includes a powerful and compelling vision of the kind of fast that God desires, and it is one that is concerned with how we respond to those in our sphere of influence who are in need of God’s justice:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
—Isaiah 58:6–7, NRSV
As we fast, we are not only to look inward at our disordered loves. We must allow God to direct our vision and action outward toward those in need of God’s justice and love.
Fasting as a Way of Life
When we consider what the Lord says in Isaiah 58 about the kind of fast God desires, we must realize that the call to such a fast cannot simply be limited to forty out of 365 days a year. In the time of the early church, it was commonplace for Christians to fast weekly, usually twice a week, as well as during special periods such as before a baptism or during a time of mourning or great trouble.
If you are introducing your congregation to the discipline of fasting, Lent is a fitting season to begin given the tradition of Lenten fasting as well as the thematic emphases of repentance and humility. But don’t stop there. Help your congregation understand that fasting is a discipline meant to keep us focused on the call to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God—a call that extends far beyond Lent. Instead of focusing a Lenten fast on the question of what we will give up, try focusing on the question of what God wants to change and grow in us.
One possibility for what this might look like is inviting the congregation to use their Lenten fast to ask God what areas God might be calling them to grow into in the coming year, both as individuals and as a community. Regularly invite reflection and responses, and pray for God’s revelation in worship together. As God reveals areas in which the congregation has fallen short, include focused times for confession and repentance and for continuing to seek God’s direction together.
Toward the end of Lent, invite the congregation to commit to continuing a form of fasting as well as to take up a form of missional action in line with what God has spoken. This may be done in small groups, with each group focusing on a different mission, or as a whole church gathered around the same broad mission. For example, if God is calling your church to be more active in feeding the hungry in your community, invite congregants to be a part of that in some way. Perhaps some could give up a few hours of their time each week to volunteer at the local soup kitchen. Others might forgo certain meals and use the money they save to buy a meal for the homeless in their community. Still others may feel called to regularly share a table with the homeless. As you celebrate Easter and the new life Christ has given us, commission the congregation to bring that life into the world in the ways in which they have committed. Continue to invite testimonies and prayer requests, building this initiative into the worship life of the church. Remember that the goal of all these spiritual disciplines is not simply that we do them, but that our lives be formed and transformed. Use your pastoral wisdom to discern what is best for your congregation.
As Lent approaches this year, let us consider what Christ gave up for us and why so that our fasting may be guided by Christ’s vision for the world. The church calendar helps us to ensure balance in our spiritual lives by inviting us to emphasize certain things during each season, but taken as a whole, it reminds us that the Christian life consists of all these things. We are, simultaneously and always, both a Lenten people and an Easter people. We are people of the crucifixion and the resurrection. We experience the God-with-us-ness of Emmanuel alongside the seeming absence of Christ on Holy Saturday and the difficult longing of Advent during which despair lurks nearby. During Lent and beyond, the discipline of fasting ultimately invites us to a way of life, a commitment to avoid self-gratification and pride in all areas of our lives and to seek first the kingdom of God and join Christ in the work that he is doing to renew this broken world.