Lent is the time in the Christian calendar when we are encouraged to adopt spiritual disciplines—physical behaviors designed to reshape and reform negative habits of the heart. For thousands of years, Christians have chosen to fast during Lent as an intensely physical reminder of our total dependence on God.
Fasting can be good for a particular kind of spiritual diagnosis. Just as doctors ask patients to fast before a thoracic MRI so the scan can reveal a tumor (and not last night’s Big Mac), fasting empties us and reveals the cancer of spiritual self-reliance. Fasting is a physical way to acknowledge that, too often, we seek first our own comfort, and not God’s kingdom.
Fasting also, as John Piper wrote, “[puts] a physical exclamation point at the end of our prayers of longing for Christ’s return.” Just as we might hold off on eating a big meal right before a wedding banquet, this type of fasting-as-waiting teaches our spirits to long for the Bridegroom. This is one of the reasons that fasting in Lent has a particular rhythm: we fast during the week, but feast on Sunday, the day we remember that the Bridegroom has come. At the wedding banquet of the Eucharist, we experience Jesus feed us physically and spiritually.
But just as every discipline method is not appropriate for every child, fasting is not meant for every Christian. Before you decide to fast this season, do the following diagnostic test:
Am I tempted to use fasting to justify myself before God? Does fasting make me feel proud of my self-discipline? Do I get a warped satisfaction from my ability to control what I eat?
If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the above, you probably should not fast.
As for me, fasting may just be the spiritual discipline I need because I hate self-denial. And I hate waiting. And I do whatever I can to avoid even the smallest amount of discomfort.
But more than the discomfort, I don’t like what fasting reveals about me spiritually. When I fast, I discover that I am riddled with tumors of discontentment. And I become acutely aware of how I use food, good wine, internet shopping, temperature controls, Sephora, and Instagram to satiate what God alone can fill.
And so, my prayer for me, and for you as you choose a Lenten discipline, is that Christ will use our efforts to reveal our desperate need for Him. In this season of waiting for the Bridegroom, may our longing for the feast reflect our love for Him. And each Sunday at the Eucharist, may we get a taste of the new life that comes through Him.
Jane Olson is the Director of Children's Ministries at Advent. Though her list of hobbies makes her sound a little too much like Martha Stewart for her own comfort, Jane genuinely enjoys flower arranging, baking, cooking, and wine tasting. She lives in Brookland with her husband Lars, and children Claire and Teddy.