Matthew 6:1, 16-18
And When You Fast
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season of prayer and self-denial; a period in which we employ certain spiritual disciplines to heighten our awareness of God and strengthen our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
One discipline Christians have used through the ages is the practice of fasting. Fasting is the intentional abstinence from food and drink for religious purposes. The degree of severity ranges from going without all food and drink except water, to giving up one favorite food such as sweets.
A moderate fast, popular among many Christians today, is to go without solid foods and drink various juices for nourishment. However you choose to do it, the idea is that the body’s natural craving is enough to trigger the conscious mind to center upon God and be reminded that, ultimately, God alone is our strength and salvation. In a former church I served, the husband of our organist was a self-avowed “chocoholic.” Each Lenten Season he would swear off chocolates. “It’s hard,” he confessed, “but it sure keeps my mind on my business.” That’s the spirit of fasting.
As far as I can tell, fasting has never been popular among Christians of the Reformed faith. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin defines fasting, not as abstinence, but as “frugality and sobriety.” (p.1244). He talks about withdrawing from the normal regimen of everyday life and practicing greater restraint in time spent, quality pursued and quantity consumed. If Calvin were alive today, I suspect he would fast by eating a modest sack lunch at his desk rather than go out to a nice restaurant. “Moderation in all things” – that’s Calvin!
While they don’t come right out and say so, I suspect the early reformers rejected the practice of fasting because it smacked of Roman Catholicism. Like the imposition of ashes and the anointing with holy water, reformed Christians sought to abandon all forms of religious expression that leaned toward mysticism and superstition, preferring instead to approach God straightforwardly. In my judgment, when it came to fasting, they went too far. They threw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. Perhaps this is why the present Book of Order reflects a more traditional view on fasting. It reads:
(It is well that) “Christians observe special times and seasons
for the disciplines of fasting,
keeping vigil and other forms of enacted prayer” (W-5.5005).
Still, most Presbyterians are dubious, and I can understand if you have your own misgivings about fasting. Yet, if you’re willing, I’d like to share with you what I consider to be several compelling reasons to reconsider the discipline of fasting.
The first, and most obvious, is the fact that Jesus fasted. You know the story of the temptations. (Mt. 4:1-11) After being baptized in the River Jordan, Jesus went out into the wilderness and fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. It was a means of purging his soul of any impure motives and thus, preparing his heart and mind for the mission to which God was calling him.
Jesus fasted. That’s a pretty good reason to take it seriously. What’s more, he encouraged his disciples to fast. In the particular portion of the Sermon on the Mount just read, he did not say, “And if you should decide to fast…”; rather, he said, “And when you fast…” He assumed the practice. His concern was that fasting not be self-serving. Fasting should draw attention to the presence of God, not the individual.
Another good reason to fast is that it’s good for you. Seriously. Recent studies point to the biological benefits of fasting. Many believe that fasting gives the body a chance to get rid of deadly toxins. The ancient Hindus believed that fasting helped the body to expel a substance called ama, which is believed to be related to stress. The medical director of the Maharishi Medical Center in Massachusetts says, “When you fast you rid yourself of ama. It’s like resetting the body’s thermostat.” (Health, Jul-Aug., 1991, p. 49)
For me, the most compelling reason to fast is the personal witness of those who do. Those whofast consistently report a renewed sense of physical strength and spiritual vitality. I’ve yet to talk with someone who had any regrets. The bottom line is, you never know until you try.
Obviously, if you’re diabetic, hypoglycemic or on medication, you should consult your doctor before fasting, and you ought to start out slowly, abstaining only from meat, perhaps. But given the precautions, the question is: Are you willing to endure a little physical discomfort in exchange for the pleasure of God’s company? Are you willing to make a sacrifice in order to express your devotion to Him? If so, the natural hunger of the body will lead you to a keener sense of your soul’s hunger for God, and the food you do without will be magnified by the spiritual nourishment you’ll receive.
The bus driver on our tour of the Holy Land was a young Moslem named Abraham. He calmed our fears by his safe driving and charmed our souls by his delightful manner. Each day, though, as we stopped for lunch, Abraham would quietly disappear. On the second day I asked our guide, “Where’s Abraham? Wouldn’t he like to eat with us?” Sari replied, “He’s fasting. It’s Ramadan, you know.” Well, I didn’t know, but I soon learned that Ramadan is the ninth month of the Moslem calendar, and in observance of Ramadan, Moslems are called to fast from sunrise to sunset. They eat one meal a day in the evening. Abraham had a big, beautiful smile, and as our days together passed, it seemed to get bigger and bigger as the hunger of his body gave way to the renewing of his soul.
I thought to myself, “I can do that!” And I bet you can too. During this season of Lent, I challenge you to experiment with the discipline of fasting. Skip a meal or two. Go without eating for a day or more. It won’t kill you, and I promise, the benefits will far outweigh the costs. Just remember: Don’t look dismal when you do!
Copyright 2003 Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.