Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Practices of the Christian Faith: Fasting

In the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, there are dozens of references to fasting. In the Old Testament there are calls to fast and pray for specific times and seasons. In the New Testament it seems as though fasting is a regular part of the life of the faithful. Jesus says to his disciples, “When you fast (Matthew 6.16).” There is no indication that fasting is an option. Jesus did not say “If you fast.” Fasting was a fact of life.

So why is it that people in the 21st Century do not fast? Why is it not even a consideration for our spiritual health? Our physical health?

The first answer- maybe the only one- is that we are selfish. It is easier to eat than not to eat. Eating is comfortable, fun, and even good for us. Fasting is hard work. We must overcome temptation, exercise self-discipline and focus to fast. Jesus expects it of us, but it is difficult. Our culture does not help this either. In fact, if you are involved in a fast you may be tempted to keep it quiet. We don’t want people thinking that we are weird fanatics, after all. No one else is doing, we reason, so why should I?

A spiritual fast is one where the person fasting makes a sacrifice of a particular item, usually food, for a designated period of time. There are various lengths of fast, from a meal to a total fast for several days. There are also fasts that eliminate only meat, or grease, or something else from the diet. Another variation on fasting is giving up one meal each day, or each week.

The most important part of fasting, however, is not what you stop eating, but what you do with the time and energy that you are not using to eat. If I sacrifice my lunch to God’s will, then I should spend my lunch time in prayer, in study, in meditation. As I deny my physical appetites, I should focus on filling my spiritual appetites and growing in my relationship with the Lord.

And now we are faced with the season of Lent. There are two admonitions that Christians are faced with during Lent’s forty days. We are asked to “Take Up” something from Christ. Traditionally we focus more on prayer, spiritual disciplines, study or attendance at worship. In addition, we are asked to “Give Up” something. In many circles (notably Roman Catholics) Christians give up, or fast, meat on Fridays. Others fast another food item for the entire season of Lent.

The question for all of us who follow Jesus is this: What will you take up? What will you give up?

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