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 Part 1 of this series, I looked at why fasting is important. In this post, I want to focus on the practical aspects of fasting. The Bible commends fasting, but does not present a clear set of instructions on the best ways to incorporate fasting into a regular spiritual discipline. On top of that, certain churches may commend or require a particular fasting discipline for certain days or seasons without providing more general instructions.
Fasting is voluntarily giving up some kinds of food and/or drink for a certain period of time for a particular purpose. Depending on the fast, someone might give up everything but water, or someone might give up all solid food but drink whatever they want, or someone might give up anything with calories in it, but still drink coffee, tea and water.
Partial fasts are also possible. Instead of not eating at all, people may eat much smaller meals for a particular period of time. A partial fast may also involve not eating certain foods, like in the first chapter of Daniel, when Daniel and his companions refused the king’s rations and ate only vegetables and water. Some Christian traditions refer to times of not eating meat as days of abstinence.
The duration of a fast can also vary. An initial fast might be giving up a meal for a particular intention. A day-long fast is a common duration, and can last from midnight to midnight. John Wesley, and others, recommended fasts beginning at sundown, which was the beginning of the Hebrew day, and going until the next day at 3:00pm. Generally fasting from after dinner one day until dinner the next day makes for an effective 24-hour fast that is a bit less taxing than going all day without food and then going to bed hungry. Once people are accustomed to a day-long fast, the Holy Spirit could lead them to a longer fast.
Of course, any kind of fast should only be undertaken if a person’s health can handle it. Diabetics, people taking medications that must accompany food, or people with certain medical issues should probably not do a total fast. Everyone can, however, do some kind of partial fast. For people without a discipline of fasting, the important first step is to start with a small or partial fast and let the Holy Spirit lead them more deeply as time goes on.
One particular instruction that Jesus does give is to wash our faces and not be dismal while fasting. These directives are important guards against hypocrisy and pride. At the same time, Jesus knows that a particular danger of going without food is that people tend to get grumpy. The point of fasting, however, is not to make everyone around us miserable, or to let them know just how much we are sacrificing. A good rule of thumb is that we are not undertaking any spiritual discipline properly if others want to avoid us while we are doing it. Instead, we should do our best to look good and act with extra love, care and generosity while fasting. Then our heavenly Father, who see in secret, will reward us, and our intentions can move forward.
I hope that you will take an opportunity during Lent this year to explore the spiritual discipline of fasting more deeply, and that you will find ways to continue it throughout the year. In addition to your other intentions, please include our diocese and congregations in your intentions as you fast.
The Rev. Adam Trambley is rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sharon.