The Most Neglected Spiritual Discipline
February 8, 2016
Thomas Christianson is a pastor, professor, writer and speaker living in the Baltimore area. You can find books, booking info, and blog posts at thomaschristianson.com.
In 325 A.D., the council at Nicea decided that the 40 days leading up to Easter would be a time for fasting (not including Sundays, which means Lent technically lasts 46 days).
Some Christian denominations have held onto this tradition, while others have chosen not to adhere to it.
I have lived in both worlds. In the liturgical faith in which I was raised, such observances were deemed of critical importance. But later, in my teenage years, I worshipped at churches that eschewed ancient traditions and paid no attention to the practice of fasting whatsoever.
Recently, I’ve been trying to find the balance between those traditions. While I am part of a church community that does not officially observe the lenten season, I have chosen to make it a part of my personal devotion. That is to say, I have made fasting during Lent a part of what I do as I seek to follow Jesus more closely.
The Point of Fasting
Fasting was a fairly common practice in Old Testament times and in the early church (1 Samuel 31:13, Exodus 34:28, Matthew 4:1-2, Acts 13:3), but it has become one of those practices many Christians today tend to ignore. Early Christians used fasting to mourn, to prepare to hear from God, to focus during times of intense prayer and to humble themselves in repentance.
In an ideal world, the practice of fasting would be unnecessary. We would maintain our focus on devotion and daily spiritual development without a need to periodically refocus and reorient our lives by denying ourselves the usual practice of eating.
Fasting gives us the opportunity to reorient our focus toward Jesus in a world that calls loudly for our attention in so many ways.
But this world is far from ideal, and we all have an assortment of flaws we deal with.
That is why Lent, and specifically the practice of fasting, is so valuable and rich. It gives us the opportunity to reorient our focus toward Jesus in a world that calls loudly for our attention in so many ways.
Lent gives us a chance to create specific plans so that through our actions, we may train our heart to grow in love for Christ.
If you’re new to the idea of fasting, allow me to share some thoughts with you about how this Lent season can be a helpful, beneficial opportunity for you rather than simply an unpleasant experience.
Fasting is a Reminder
Some faith traditions have specific recommendations for what to give up during Lent: no meat, lighter meals, full fasts on certain days during the season, etc.
Personally, what I have given up has been tailored to my own personal journey. I gave up electronic entertainment in each of the past two years. No games, no netflix, no TV. This year, I’m adding some days of fasting from food during the season.
Fasting is not about punishing ourselves. I didn’t give up electronics and sleeping late because I’m a terrible person who deserves punishment. This isn’t a modern version of flogging oneself to demonstrate religious devotion. It is about creating space for introspection and refocusing our faith in an age of consumer content that mercilessly seeks our attention.
If you give up chocolate or salt or driving or sarcasm, above all, you’re making a choice to say “God, you’re bigger than these things in my life”—not as a proof to Him, but rather as a reminder to yourself.
Fasting Should Make You Humble, Not Proud
When we undertake a spiritual discipline—especially the discipline of fasting—it’s easy to start feeling superior. Jesus actually takes this up Himself. In Matthew chapter 6, right after Jesus teaches us how to pray, He hits this issue. To paraphrase verses 16-18: “When you fast, don’t be a jerk about it, because that would totally miss the point.”
Instead of letting fasting create a version of yourself that is worse that normal, choose to be the best version of yourself. Let people ask “What has you in such a good mood?” as opposed to “What’s the matter with you?”
We’re not doing this to punish ourselves, or out of some misguided attempt to repay God for what He has done for us.
Fasting Should Encourage Good Habits
Jesus tells a pretty wild story in the Gospel of Matthew, essentially showing that when you’re getting rid of junk in your life, you can’t just leave an empty gap in your life. You have to put something in that space, otherwise you’re not going to see any benefit out of the process.
When I give up electronic entertainment during Lent, I take the time I normally use on apps and video games and Netflix and instead devote that time to reading.
If you’re giving up sarcasm or negativity, replace it with encouragement and compliments. When you give up meals, fill that time with prayer or quality family interaction.
Giving up something is a chance to do something better, healthier, “more abundant” in our lives. Not doing something is an opportunity, not necessarily an end unto itself.
Fasting Should Help You Focus on a Goal
We’ve already seen that “gaining bragging rights” should not be part of this effort. We’re also not doing this to punish ourselves, or out of some misguided attempt to repay God for what He has done for us.
So what is the point?
I assume it’s some variation of “getting closer to Jesus,” but drill down on that. Figure out what your expectations are, and whether they are the right expectations. Do you want to create an ongoing habit, like praying or journaling or reading more? Do you want to hear what God is saying to you about a specific question you have? Are you going to engage in some project you want to complete?
Fasting is a chance to be very intentional about how God’s truth is incorporated and affecting our lives. God, for some reason, has entrusted us with His kingdom (see Luke 12:32). We should make sure we’re not totally missing that amazing opportunity.