When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. (Matthew 6.16)
Gravity and Joy
“Saints, it’s time we turn our plates over, set our wants aside, and seek God,” the pastor would say and the church would answer, “Amen!” The room would fall into stillness as believers listened intently to the pastor’s instructions. Sometimes the fast lasted a week. At other times the minister called us to fast one day a week for the indefinite future. Sometimes it was called without protocol, leaving each person to decide what, when, and how long he/she would practice self-denial. Whatever the fast’s form, what I recall most from my youth was the galvanizing mix of gravity and joy it produced. We rigorously obeyed its command to make more room and time for God’s presence in our lives. Yet we entered the prescribed test with high hopes, knowing we’d be stronger, richer, and purer when we came out.
After my need for a more affirmative faith environment led me to a “mainstream” church, I found a very similar, if less demonstrative spirit arose as the people prepared for Lent. Prior to that, since my family’s tradition didn’t observe Lent, the little I gleaned about it from friends and colleagues jaundiced my perceptions. From what I heard, Lent was a 40-day obligation to “give up” something they could easily do without (chocolate, alcohol, red meat) or shouldn’t do at all (cursing, gossiping, fibbing)—more about self-discipline than self-denial. I didn’t realize my exposure was limited to Lent lamenters, however, people whose hearts weren’t in it and apparently understood it no better than I. Once I met believers who greeted the season with the same gravity and joy I associated with fasting, Lent came to life. It was a deeply personal, yet significantly collective experience, an intensely sacred testing period begun in hope and ending in renewed strength and fervor. What’s more, I learned this mainly by observation because, unlike Lent lamenters, authentic Lent fasters don’t wear their sacrifices on their sleeves.
A Curious Business
Fasting is a curious business. Its primary focus—clearing distractions to make way for prayerful contemplation—must be preceded by prayerful contemplation of what distracts us. The verb “to fast” is interesting and enlightening in itself, as it derives from the gothic German fastan, “to hold fast.” Thus, the benefits of fasting aren’t in what we’re rid of but what remains. That’s why sacrifice is secondary to experienced fasters. Their attention literally fastens on spiritual priorities. They go into fasts having already considered what they can and can’t do without, and they concentrate on the former by denying the latter. This transforms fasting from obligation into opportunity. It becomes a season of joy and growth rather than one of angst and deprivation.
Many misconstrue fasting as a means of honoring God by voluntarily refusing to indulge in things they love. They think fasting denotes commitment and piety, and approach it as a sort of holy drudgery. By no means is fasting easy, but neither is it intended to impress God with how tough it is to give up what we don’t truly need. That’s Jesus’s message in Matthew 6. “Don’t look somber as the hypocrites do,” He says. “For they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (v16-18) Jesus’s logic completely checks out with what fasting actually means. It’s a sifting time that gets us back to what really matters. The opinions of others don’t merit the effort to make a big deal of what we’re letting go. The reward comes when what we decide to hold fast in our hearts pleases our Maker.
Essentials from Non-Essentials
Lent gives us time to separate the essentials from non-essentials. What needs to go so what remains can resume prominence in our lives? If only it were as simple as surviving from Ash Wednesday to Easter without a candy bar or tasty morsels of gossip! To get the most from our fast entails much introspection. It asks us to undertake the trial fully aware of any weakness that loosens our grip on virtues and aspirations we hold dearest. And whatever that is (or they are), that’s what we must sacrifice. When we understand what fasting is really about, we realize Lent is sacred, not somber, joyful, not lamentable. It isn’t about giving up what we’d love to keep. It’s about holding on to what we'd hate to lose.
Fasting is a sifting time. We let go of what we can’t use to hold on to what we value most.
Postscript: Question 9
Is fasting a lost art?