That’s probably because it sucks.
Harsh? Perhaps. But the practice of fasting is not a particular pleasant discipline.
Please understand, fasting is an excellent spiritual discipline when practiced, but the actual practice of fasting is difficult and unpleasant. Of course, that is kind of the point; they are spiritual disciplines after all.
This oft ignored spiritual discipline is given new life in the anticipation of Christ death. Though the institution of Lent is absent from the Bible, fasting is prevalent. The Lenten season finds it origins in early church history–perhaps as early as 200 AD. Since it’s origination, Lent has been a season of fasting (from certain foods, luxuries, or vices) and repentance.
I haven’t participated in Lent for several years. The practice seemed altogether arbitrary and pointless, as though giving up chocolate or ice cream or soda would somehow enrich my spiritual life. While I now recognize that some objects may be more pertinent to abstain from than others, the practice thrives in intentionality. Fasting from something for the sake of fasting is meaningless, but done intentionally to rethink life is a fruitful endeavor.
Shane Claiborne has written “In a world filled with clutter, noise and hustle, Lent is a good excuse to step back and rethink how we think and live. In a world of instant gratification, it’s a chance to practice delayed gratification — to fast — so that we can truly appreciate the blessings we have….It’s an opportunity to give up something that is sucking the life out of us so that we can be filled with God, with life, with love again.”
In January of 2013 I began fasting routinely. Of course “routinely” is a subjective word eligible for interpretation though, right? To be short, I fasted on three occasions before finding an excuse to skip a week and ultimately stop altogether.
Since abandoning the discipline I have though profusely about returning to the endeavor, though have failed to commit. As the Lenten season begins I’m again returning to the considerations to fast routinely.
Though I largely shirked the discipline, I began it with an intentionally mindset and goal, those being:
1. To learn self-control.
Fasting is an exercise in delayed-gratification. One of the most gratifying things we do as creatures is eat, and so why give it up for a period of time. The process of delayed gratification teaches self-control–a fruit of the spirit that is oft ignored in a society that cultivates self-indulgence.
2. To empathize with the less-privileged.
Care for the poor is a Biblical mandate, but it is hard to care for them when you cannot empathize with them. Their is redemptive element in entering into suffering for the sake of your brothers and sisters, even if it just to understand their stories. Going hungry for a period of time helps me to understand and cultivates compassion for those who are without.
3. To save money.
I’m not one to spend money unfruitfully, but I only moderately keep track of any budget. Consequently, I’ve had trouble committing to tithing or donating to charity with any regularity. Intentionally refraining from eat for a period of time reallocates funds that can be purposely given to a church or charity.
4. Because the Bible says to do so.
The Bible never speaks of the discipline as “if you fast…” but “when you fast…” It has been an important discipline in church history and to continue the act is to honor the work and suffering of the historical Church.
I’d invite you this Lenten season to not only consider if and what you should abstain from over the next many week, but to consider–“Why fast?” Consider what their is to gain in the endeavor and seek it passionately. It may be difficult, but being intentional in the process shrouds the difficulty in meaning and purpose.