And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:16-18
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assumes that regular fasting will be a part of his disciples’ rhythm of spiritual life. Certainly, he commends fasting with the right intentions and in the right ways, but he also assures us that fasting is rewarded by our heavenly Father.
In this post, I want to talk about how fasting is particularly important to us as a spiritual discipline. Then the next post will look at some practical aspects of fasting.
First, fasting acts as a particularly powerful form of prayer. When we fast, we pray with our whole bodies. We know how to pray with our minds and with our voices, but we are incarnate people and fasting allows our entire bodies to pray. When we fast, we tell God that as long as we are not eating (or as long as we are not eating certain foods) we are going to be in prayer. Our rumbling tummy and sagging energy are reminders to us that we are using our entire beings for prayer. When our focus may be on work, or errands, or even cooking dinner for our family, our bodies are continuing to pray. We are praying constantly while we fast, because as long as we are not eating, we have signaled to God that we are praying – and God honors that intention. No matter what kind of prayer we are engaging, when we fast, we supercharge those prayers. We remember the woman who ceaselessly nags the unjust judge in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18. Finally, the judge wears down and grants her petition. When we fast, we become like that woman, offering a constant cry before the throne of heaven for our prayer intentions.
The other important benefit of fasting is that it helps us reign in our appetites. As 21st-century Americans, we live in a consumerist utopia of immediate gratification. We can eat dessert at every meal, in addition to between meals. We can eat more meat than almost anyone in history. We can have people prepare foods from the other side of the world for us for a couple of bucks, and get irritated if they take too long. In this kind of world, we need opportunities to tell ourselves “no”. We need to be able to train our appetites to take direction in ways that are good for us. If we can deny ourselves food for a day, maybe we can also deepen our self-control in other aspects of our life. Maybe we can control our tongues when a piece of juicy gossip or a harsh word is on its tip. Maybe we can turn off the TV or the Facebook feed when we should really be saying our prayers before bed. Maybe we can find the energy to go help someone with something when we might rather stay home and do nothing. Maybe we can curb our own ego a bit to be more loving and generous with those around us. Fasting offers us the opportunity to train ourselves to do the right thing. If we can walk by the Snickers bar when we haven’t eaten lunch, we are in a much better position to resist more harmful temptations in other aspects of our lives.
Both of these benefits are especially helpful in relation to repentance. Fasting often accompanies repentance because when we are repenting we need serious prayer and the ability to increase our self-discipline. God doesn’t need us to fast in order to forgive us, but we may need to fast in order to do the work to turn our lives around. Our prayers of repentance will be strengthened by fasting as we pray for healing and wholeness for those we have harmed and to implore God to lead us not into temptation so that we do not fall again. At the same time, saying “no” to ourselves in fasting should strengthen us in saying “no” to future sin. Additionally, just the discomfort of fasting can provide an additional barrier to relapsing. If the last time we robbed a bank, we felt a need to fast for two days, the next time bank robbery presents itself, even if we don’t decline based on a renewed moral compass, we might pass so we don’t have to give up food for two more days.
Fasting will almost always accompany serious repentance, but repentance is not the only reason to fast. Any prayer will be boosted by fasting. Significant prayer efforts, like those for an increase in evangelism, church planting, and church revitalization, will almost certainly require a fasting component. I hope you will consider exploring fasting more deeply during this Lenten season.
The Rev. Adam Trambley is rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sharon.
View part II of this series here.