As we get nearer to Lent and continue our personal and spiritual preparations for our Lenten journeys, I want to take a moment to consider the topic of Fasting. It is an oft misunderstood and, in our modern western society, seldom practiced discipline. While much could be said about this topic, suffice it for the moment for me to consider one of the foundational questions related to the topic, which is the question of why we fast.
Let me put it simply right up front, we do not fast to convince or manipulate God to do something. As with our prayers and our worship and the whole of our lives of spiritual piety, we do not enter into acts of devotion in an attempt to woo God to do something for us.
In his book Fasting, Scot McKnight writes,
We fast, not because by fasting we will gain a closer hearing from God but because it is the best and most integrated response to life's sacred moments. There is a joy in simply communicating wholly with God. Communication with God is, in my opinion, the intent of fasting.
Still, too many Christians through the ages have had much come to them after they have fasted for us to ignore the benefits of fasting--as long as (to repeat a point) we don't think it is the fasting that brings the benefits. All good gifts come from God; we lay ourselves before God and sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we don't. But the prayer of a righteous person is heard, James informs us (5:6)--and sometimes the righteous find that fasting is the only way to express themselves. So, in what follows we discover that the person who yields herself or himself completely to God sometimes discovers space for God, freedom from sin, answers to prayer, and justice for the poor. Perhaps I can begin with one of the most significant treatises ever written on prayer, Basil's sermon "About Fasting":
"Fasting gives birth to prophets, she strengthens the powerful. Fasting makes lawmakers wise. She is a safeguard of a soul, a stabilizing companion to the body, a weapon for the brave, a discipline for champions. Fasting knocks over temptations, anoints for godliness. She is a companion for sobriety, the crafter of a sound mind. In wars she fights bravely, in peace she teaches tranquility. She sanctifies the Nazarite, and she perfects the priest."
There is a mysterious union between fasting and communing with God that, as McKnight describes, comes from wholly communicating with Him. The focus and intent of fasting should never be to sway the will of God, rather it should be to wholly submit ourselves to the will of God. In fasting, we are putting aside earthly comfort and willfully withholding from ourselves bodily nourishment, and in so doing we are putting ourselves fully into the hands of God for our sustenance and our wellbeing. This act of the body should coincide with an act of the inner spirit to give ourselves, our souls and bodies, unto God as a living sacrifice.
We don't need to know why fasting helps us to feel closer to God in order to enter into the discipline no more than we need to know how the digestive system works to transport nutrients from the food we eat into energy to sustain our bodies in order to eat a meal and appreciate those benefits. Rather, we hear the words of Jesus to His disciples that they failed in casting out demons because they had not fasted (Matt. 21:17, Mark 9:29), we see Jesus entering into a period of fasting before His showdown with Satan (Matt. 4:2), and we see the early church fasting as they prayed for God's guidance in installing elders in the various churches (Acts 14:23). We hear the call of our savior to wholly communicate with Him in body and spirit and so we obey, even when we don't fully understand how and why.
We don't need to know how fasting works to enter into this discipline, but we do need to enter into with a heart that is ready to commune with God and with spirits that are humble and ready to submit to the Divine will as it is revealed to us. As we enter our Lenten journeys, may we be willing to put aside our own needs and desires and adopt the divine will as our own will.
(as published in St. Luke’s weekly email newsletter, 2/21/19)