As Lent nears we encounter a number of people taking on a fast- from giving up chocolate to not eating meat on Friday. This short reflection first appeared in the Congregational Life Ministries publication Basin and Towel. To subscribe download this form.
“‘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 NRSv
It is interesting to encounter fasting in the Sermon on the Mount. Right after Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for “our daily bread” in the Lord ’s Prayer (6:11) he shifts to talking about not eating it. Yet, the connection is clear- Fasting, like prayer, is an assumed spiritual discipline that demands a particular mode of practice. In more clear words, it’s what people of faith do and Jesus wants to make sure they do it right and for the right reasons.
So what is fasting? In its most simple form, fasting is the act of going some time without food. Earlier in the book of Matthew we read of Jesus taking 40 days to go without food (4:2). Now that is one long fast! Fortunately for us, the expectation is not for such grand heroics on our part. In fact, there are many types of fasts, all of which can be done in any length of time. Some drink only juice for a few days, some may not eat during the daylight hours, and still others might fast from a particular thing like chocolate during lent.
But why fast? There are two ways to approach the question, one by saying what it is and the other by describing what it’s not. In the reading from Matthew 6 above, it’s clear what fasting is not: It is not about a show for others. It’s not meant to be manipulative or political in nature but rather assumes it is a spiritual matter between God and the faithful one. In other words, fasting is not about drawing attention to yourself. Actually, as we see in the temptations of Jesus in chapter 4 we see that fasting is not about us at all- not our hunger, not our pride, and not our vanity. In today’s terms, this means that fasting is not about out weight, not about our desire for great political outcomes, and not about drawing the attention of others to our beliefs or our bodies.
Yet, as a spiritual practice it is in some ways about you- you and the creator to be more specific. Religious and non-religious persons alike speak of fasting as a way of getting our minds and bodies out a rut. For the non-religious the time of intentional hunger allows the body to clean itself and gain a clearer mind. But for the person of faith the reframing of the mind is about shifting ones attention to God. Just like the temptations of Jesus following his time of fasting in Matthew 4, we start to ask questions of how we are and are not connected to God. How am I distracted from listening to God by everyday life? How do I look for the extraordinary as a way to test God rather than see God’s care in the food that I eat? Those questions asked in the place of eating a meal help us gain perspective on the state of our faith and our relationship to God and the world.
The short answer to this question though goes something like this: We fast from food or drink in order to reorient ourselves to God, and by looking first to God we change our relationship to the things of this world. What we do after the fast is the fruit of our spiritual discipline and our renewed relationship to God.