Did you know that fasting is mentioned more times in Scripture than baptism (about 77 times for fasting , only 75 for baptism)? Did you know that along with prayer and almsgiving, fasting is one of the essential acts required of a Christian? Have you experienced that true fasting can change your life?
Every year we observe and participate in the season of Lent, the liturgical period of prayer, repentance, conversion, fasting and abstinence, spiritual strengthening and preparation to enable us to more fully experience the liturgical feast of the Easter Resurrection and the promises of Pentecost. Actually all these practices should be part of our daily lives, not just confined to the Lenten season.
As Catholics we are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This involves eating only one full meal on those days. The Code of Canon Law #1252 defines fasting: One or two smaller meals may be taken on those days, but may not total one full meal. The required fast does not allow eating anything between meals. Abstinence is to abstain from eating meat and is recommended to be observed every Friday during the Lenten season … and whenever possible during the entire year.
Fasting is an important spiritual discipline wherein as Christians, we voluntary abstain from food or other enjoyable necessities of life for spiritual purposes. Fasting must be God-centered or Christ-centered to be most effective. To be truly pleasing to God, true fasting must be united with love of neighbor, a search for true justice, generous acts of charity and almsgiving, and a spirit of humble obedience to God. When we fast, we accept a divine invitation to experience His grace and guidance in a special way.
To fast is to go without food, for us to experience the effects of not eating. Fasting enables us to be in communion with the rest of the world who could not afford to eat three times (or even once) a day, those who suffer from the scourge of hunger and poverty, and those who have died from malnutrition or starvation.
When we “give up something we enjoy, like or are addicted to”, this is fasting. When we give up something, it creates a vacuum, an emptiness in our lives that must be filled with an act of God’s love. If we decide to fast from TV for two hours a day, then we should use that two hours to please God, perhaps by spending quality time with our children, or studying scripture, or participating in a feeding program for street children. As we fast from an act or thought that draws us away from God, we must feast on something that brings us nearer to Him.
The prophet Isaiah sets out the parameters of what he calls true fasting (Isaiah 58:2-14). In this passage the Lord speaks through his prophet Isaiah not only telling us what we should not do, but also listing the things we should do to improve our spiritual health and moral integrity. It is not enough for us to fast from the worthless, evil and distracting things and thoughts that lead us astray from God. We need to take positive steps to set our lives in order. We do this through the sacrifice and discipline of doing the right things, of withstanding the temptations of the devil, of reaching out in love to those in need, of feasting on pleasing God in all that we do.
Fasting is not a way of bribing God to answer our prayers. It is not a crash diet or a spiritual hunger strike to attract God’s attention. It is not a sure way to attain holiness or to impress God with our piety. It should not be done just to obey the fifth precept of the Church: “You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence”. Why, then, should we, as Christians, fast?
Christian author Donald Whitney in his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life lists down ten reasons for true fasting. Whenever we fast, we should do so for a specific purpose or purposes, and our fasting should satisfy the dual objectives of spiritually strengthening ourselves and of pleasing God. Whitney’s list of ten reasons why we should fast includes:
To strengthen prayer. Fasting has always been closely associated with prayer. Nehemiah, David and Daniel fasted and prayed when they pleaded with God. The church in Antioch fasted and prayed before selecting Paul and Barnabas for their first missionary journey. Jesus himself said that certain healing miracles could only be accomplished through fasting and prayer.
To seek God’s guidance. Throughout the Old Testament when the people sought help from the Lord, they first declared a period of fasting. This kind of sacrifice, while it does not ensure the certainty of receiving clear guidance from God, makes us more receptive to the One who gives us guidance. Fasting does not change God’s hearing so much as it changes us and our receptivity to His voice. Testimonies of saints say that fasting opens one’s mind to divine light and prepares oneself to stand in God’s presence.
To express grief. Sometimes fasting can communicate grief over our sin, or the sin of our community or nation, in a way that mere words cannot. It is a sign of repentance, and a signal of commitment to obedience and renewal of purpose. However, we are cautioned not to use this spiritual discipline as a smokescreen to try to prevent God from seeing the still existing and often hidden sin in our lives.
To seek deliverance or protection. One of the most common fasts in biblical times was a fast to seek salvation from enemies or circumstances. Queen Esther and her followers fasted for three days and nights before she dared to risk her life appearing before the King uninvited to appeal for mercy for the Jews (Esther 4:16 ff). Jesus went into the desert and fasted for forty days and nights before beginning his ministry. King David in Psalm 109 prays and fasts for protection and deliverance from a slanderous enemy.
To express repentance and the return to God. This purpose is more than just fasting to express grief over one’s sin. After God sent Jonah to Nineveh, the king declared a community fast and decreed that everyone call urgently on God in repentance for their evil ways and their violence, and return to God. Fasting without repentance is like faith without action, a dead work.
To humble oneself before God. Fasting, when practiced with the right motives, expresses our humility before God. The story of how the evil King Ahab humbled himself before God (1 Kings 21:27-29) averted imminent disaster in his day.
To express concern for the work of God. Just as a parent might fast and pray for the healing of a child, Christians may fast and pray because they feel a burden for others who are experiencing tragedy or difficulties in the service of the Lord. For instance, we may not be able to physically help missionaries in far away places except through our intercessory prayers strengthened by our fasting.
To minister to the needs of others. In Isaiah 58, God emphasizes that fasting should be for the purpose of meeting the needs of others. He says very clearly that the kind of fasting that pleases Him is one that results in concern for others and not just for ourselves. We can fast by converting our TV time into a time to visit someone in the hospital. We can fast by leaving our office work at the office so we can spend more quality time with our family.
To overcome temptation and dedicate yourself to God. Jesus fasted for forty days and nights prior to His temptation in Matthew 4:1-11. We are not called to fast for this length of time, but Jesus shows us that fasting is a powerful way of overcoming temptation and of freshly dedicating ourselves to God.
To express love and worship to God. We have here the example of Anna in Luke 2:37. She worshiped day and night, fasting and praying in the temple. Fasting can be a testimony that you love God more than food, that seeking Him is more important to you than eating. Fasting can also be a way of preparing for a more intimate relationship with the Lord; one example here is the one-hour fast required before participation in the Eucharistic celebration.
We must always remember that the Christian discipline of fasting must have a spiritual purpose – a God-centered purpose, not a self-centered one – in order for the Lord to bless our fast. True fasting as prompted by the Holy Spirit is a way to experience God’s grace and love. Plus it adds a unique dimension to our spiritual life and helps us grow in Christlikeness. True fasting should always result in a feast of pleasing God in all that we think, say and do. True fasting will only end when we partake of the banquet feast that God has prepared for us when we enter His kingdom.