We’re just entering the season of Lent - 40 days before Easter (not counting Sundays), corresponding to Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Since we are told that Jesus ‘ate nothing during those days’ (Luke 4:2), it’s natural that fasting of one kind or another is associated with the season. In fact, growing up the only thing I knew about Lent was that people gave things up for Lent (normally chocolate) . But this Lent, I want to encourage you to try the traditional Christian practice of fasting - eating or drinking nothing except water for part or all of a day.
Jesus expects those who follow him to fast. In Matthew 6:16 Jesus says ‘when you fast’ - not if you fast. And then in Matthew 9:11 Jesus explains that ‘the time will come when the bridegroom [Jesus] is taken from them [his followers]: then they will fast’. Jesus is no longer physically present with us, and we are to practice fasting until he returns. Now in some sense that should be all the encouragement you need to fast - Jesus expects it of us. But I want to share three ways that fasting has helped me to grow as a follower of Jesus.
Throughout the Scriptures fasting and prayer go hand in hand (e.g. Jonah 3:8), and one very simple way in which fasting can help us follow Jesus better is giving us more time to pray. I’ve found that missing lunch in particular can create a space for prayer in the middle of the working day that I’d never carve out otherwise. But it’s not just at mealtimes that fasting can help us to pray - it can also prompt us to pray throughout the day. It might just be me, but once I’ve deliberately not eaten a meal it’s not very long at all until I’m hungry! That hunger tends to be what my mind settles on when I’ve got a spare moment - I find myself wondering why I feel so hungry. And when I remember it’s because I’m fasting I can use that as a prompt to fire up a quick “arrow” prayer at any time of day.
Dependence on God is the fundamental reality of our lives. We are not ‘self-made’ men and women but His creatures. We are not ‘self-sustaining’ in any sense, but instead are sustained moment by moment by Him. But I find it so hard to remember that, and live the prayerful, grateful life that would reflect the reality of my dependence. I have found, however, that fasting has helped me to see my dependence on God. In Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses tells Israel that God used their need for food to teach them about their need for God and his word, and that has been my experience too. Tasting our physical dependence on food makes our spiritual dependence real to us in a way no amount of ‘thinking about it’ could achieve.
It might seem obvious that one of the ways fasting helps us grow is in exerting our self-control - my experience of giving things up for Lent was certainly that it seemed mostly a way for people to test their willpower. But for a long time I was suspicious of the idea that fasting helps us grow in the kind of self-control that really matters, that the New Testament speaks of as a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and as a crucial part of living in light of the gospel (Titus 2:2,5-6). After all, the self-control that matters is the ability to resist sin, and it’s not sinful to have a mid-afternoon biscuit when you’d intended to fast until dinner. But to focus on that distinction is to miss something crucial: ‘fasting trains our bodies to not get what they want’1 (italics original). It might not be sinful to eat that mid-afternoon biscuit, but every time I’m able to keep fasting with the Spirit’s help I’m weakening the hold my bodily desires have over me and building up the embodied habit of self-control. So that when I find myself wanting something that is sinful, I’m in the habit of being able to say no to my body.
So this Lent I would encourage you to try fasting, not just from chocolate or from Twitter, but from food itself. Maybe start by committing to miss lunch one day a week and then build from there by dropping further meals. And by God’s grace you may well find that as well as being hungry you’ll be more prayerful, more aware of your dependence and more self-controlled.
1 John Mark Comer, ‘Live No Lies’, p179