It’s common, even for non or non-practicing Christians, to “give something up for Lent.” Fasting during this somber season is an ancient Christian practice. What is fasting? Why should (or shouldn't you) give something up for Lent?
In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes, “Throughout Scripture fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes.” You give something up in order to focus intently on God. It is a private matter between an individual and God (Lk. 4:2, Dan. 10:3). It may also be done corporately, as God’s people would heed the call to fast in a time of communal or national emergency (Joel 2:15, II Chron. 20:1-4).
Fasting in the Bible typically refers to abstaining from food completely. Other practices of fasting modify this to include only certain foods or drinks, or other things such as TV or computer time.
Is there a biblical command to fast?
There is no biblical command that says a Christian has to fast. That said, our freedom in the gospel isn’t a license to avoid forms of spiritual discipline. Fasting is an opportunity, not an obligation. St. Paul was adamant that he was free in Christ, and he fasted (II Cor. 11:27). Jesus’ teaching on fasting made the assumption that his followers would practice times of fasting. He said, “When you fast . . .” (Matt. 6:16). Martin Luther wrote, “It was not Christ’s intention to reject or despise fasting . . . it was his intention to restore proper fasting.”
Why should I fast?
Fasting is an outer expression of an inner reality. Through external deprivation, the Christian gains spiritual clarity. By giving up certain things, we remove distraction for a time of greater focus on God.
You should never fast for a selfish motive. It must never feed self-righteousness. Jesus taught against fasting that is “seen by others” (Matt. 6:16,18). Furthermore, fasting is not a form of penance, as if you could pay for your mistakes by depriving yourself. Also, fasting dare not be a type of manipulation, as if you could try to get God to do something.
The sole focus in fasting is God himself (Zech. 7:5). John Wesley wrote, “First, let fasting be done unto the Lord with our eyes singly fixed on him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father in heaven.” Fasting is a matter of the heart turned toward and fixated on God. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting . . .” (Joel 2:12).
What does fasting do to help me focus on God?
Fasting Exposes Hidden Sins: Richard Foster writes, “Fasting reveals the things that control us . . . We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface.” David wrote, “I humbled my soul with fasting” (Ps. 69:10).
The deep idols of the heart often lurk below the surface. They are big stones hidden under the soil. Fasting is a way of tilling the soil and uncovering pride, anger, insecurity, fear, arrogance, etc. In fasting, choose to give up the superficial thing that you’re using to cover up a deep idol.
Fasting Helps us Focus on God’s Word: Fasting from food reminds you that you do not “live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). By giving up one thing, you’re able to take up something else. For instance, by giving up TV time, you free up time for meditation on God’s word or prayer.
Fasting Helps Us Re-Prioritize: Foster writes, “How easily we begin to allow nonessentials to take precedence in our lives.” Fasting typically involves giving up good things. Food and drink are not inherently bad, but even good things can attempt to unseat God from the throne of our heart. In fasting, we set aside good things to focus on the best. Jesus said to Martha, “You are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary” (Lk. 10:41-42). Fasting helps us to sit at Jesus’ feet and regain proper priorities.
How Do I Fast?
There are many ways to fast. A few examples:
Besides food, there are other things to fast from.