Our church doesn’t talk a lot about giving up things for Lent. Lent seasons means we have Sunday night services as well, where we bring in speakers who talk about a different theme each year—usually surrounding the idea of the suffering of Christ. It fits because Lent is the season in the liturgical church calendar when we reflect on the suffering of Christ. We have soup before these services. Sunday night soup suppers for Lent is something we look forward to every year. I really like soup.
This year is interesting for me because as many people talk about "giving up something for Lent" I happen to be up to my ears in research of Biblical fasting.
I hear people say that the modern church doesn't really talk about fasting. That's actually a very American thing to say. The global church still talks about fasting. Here in America, it's something we associate with Lent, if you are Catholic, or come from a more liturgical Protestant church. It is true, that here in America we don't have the traditional knowledge in our churches anymore about fasting. You don't hear much of people doing it. We don't know why you would do it.
I used to think that fasting looks like a spiritual temper tantrum. A hunger strike until God does what you want. Other times I thought of it as a supercharger that we attach to prayers to make them go farther.
In my research, there are many Biblical reasons to fast. You can fast when you are mourning, concerned, ministering to others, needing deliverance, seeking clarity. But even though I read in the Bible that not only is it ok to fast, but we are expected to fast like we are expected to pray, I still feel like fasting has a hint of manipulation to it. I don’t like the idea of trying to manipulate God. I didn’t see the point.
When God talks about fasting, we like to take his words and make a handbook out of them. We want to make a how-to guide. Juice fast, water fast, fasting from chocolate, fasting from meat, fasting from your social media, fasting during daylight hours, fasting one meal, fasting for a day or more. The fact is, there’s a whole lot of freedom there. There aren’t clear guidelines, because there is not a fasting standard that we need to check off. The lack of details is almost a blatant statement that it’s not about the legalism or perfection of it.
My first encounter with someone actually fasting was when I was on a short term missions trip in the Philippines when I was 14 years old. There was a local pastor at a church where we were staying. I was talking to the pastor one day in his office, with several other students, and I noticed on his schedule, he had written on every Thursday “Fasting and prayer.” I asked him, “Do you really fast every Thursday? Why would you do that?”
He looked at me and smiled. He said through his thick accent, "This neighborhood, where we live, there is much evil. The spiritual warfare is great. The forces against the gospel being spread are great. I have to fast every week so that I can remember in my suffering: the suffering of Christ. It helps me to remember that it is by Christ's suffering, not me being busy and following every need in the village, that there is victory. It takes my eyes off my works, and puts them on Christ's strength. That remembrance gives my ministry power."
David Mathis says in his book Habits of Grace “Fasting, like the gospel, isn’t for the self-sufficient and those who feel they have it all together. It’s for the poor in spirit. It’s for those who mourn. For the meek. For those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In other words, fasting is for Christians. It’s a desperate measure, for desperate times, among those who know themselves desperate for God.”
People don't really realize that spiritual fasting isn't a diet. You don't give up in a fast something that's bad for you, like cigarettes—you give up something that's good, (like food) for the purpose of awakening your soul to the desperate state we are in. Generally, the idols in our lives aren't something that appear evil. They are things that appear good, and because they are good, we wrongly worship them, instead of God. It's not performing, not losing a few pounds, not manipulating. It's allowing yourself to be uncomfortable because God can show us some amazing things when we are honest about our desperate need for him.
I used to fast with my roommate when I was in college, as we went on prayer walks around the city on our fasting days. 20 years and 6 children later, I find it’s not something I do ever. I pray. Prayer isn’t a manipulation of God either, but a communion with God. Why don’t I fast? What’s my prejudice against it? As I pondered this question, I was entering into a season with one of my kids that I wasn’t handling well. This child was being mouthy to me, rude to her siblings, and as she was working through her anger towards a hard situation, she was disrupting any peace in our home. Discipline wasn’t working. Time with her one on one wasn’t working. Every intervention wasn’t helping. Prayer didn’t even feel like it was working.
Since I started studying fasting just before this season, I decided to just do it. I should stop reading about it, and just fast. I decided to fast for a full day, using any discomfort I was in as a prompt to pray for this child. I was desperate to try anything. I didn’t have much expectation of what God was going to do—more of a curiosity.
It was difficult. I have broken fasts before by accident, and God never smote me for it. But this day I actually completed it. We don’t do that in America—we don’t make ourselves uncomfortable on purpose unless there’s some self-loathing going on. That day I had my personal weaknesses right in front of my face the entire time.
I did not feel proud of myself for completing the fast, I felt more aware of my frailty than ever. My need for God was evident the whole day. My resolve that my daughter was only going to get through this season by the grace of God was fixed. The whole exercise was God helping me to fix my eyes on his salvation. It helped me understand that it was ok to say I wasn't enough, ok to say I didn't know what to do, ok to say, Jesus, by your salvation alone will this be resolved.
My daughter was wonderful that day. Part of it, I think, is that the Holy Spirit kept my mouth shut a lot. My whole attitude towards her changed as compassion grew. It was a respite from our weeks of fighting.
The next morning, I sat down to a hearty breakfast. I took one bite and she walked into the kitchen and bitterness came out of her mouth towards me as I chewed. I felt more than defeated. I texted my aunt and mentor who first got me thinking about this "fasting experiment." I told her, "Yesterday was amazing. Hard, but good. This morning I'm eating breakfast, I haven't even said a word to her, and the awfulness is back. I cannot fast every day. I'm going to die."
She texted back, “I haven’t eaten yet today. I’ll fast for you today. You eat and be replenished.”
“I’ll fast for you.” Those words on the screen hit me. She would do that? For me and my daughter? She would fast for me? It’s one thing to say that you’ll pray for someone. That takes just a few seconds. But fasting in my place? That’s willingly suffering for someone. She wasn’t even in the situation. The Holy Spirit didn’t need to train her to shut my mouth and listen as he needed to with mine.
I ate that day, but I continued praying and meditating on the idea of willingly suffering for another. My mind kept thinking of my aunt, and the ministry of sharing in sufferings for each other. Her fasting, maybe even more than mine, pointed me to the ministry of Christ, suffering in our place. We can't fast every day. We would die.
That fast was not a work I completed to God. It was actually a rest God gave me. A rest of trying to be the perfect mom, of trying to say the right thing, from trying to address every issue in the best way. It was a day of me saying “God, when I am weak, you are strong. Help me.”
As we enter the Lent season, and people ask if you are giving up something for Lent, don’t twist it into some New Year’s Resolution 2.0. It’s so much more beautiful than that. It’s not a work we complete, but a means of grace God has given to us as our birthright to see his a glimpse of his salvation when we have lost hope. It’s us saying “I don’t have to be afraid of my weakness. In fact, I embrace it, because where I am weak, he is strong.” Maybe that’s why Jesus just assumed that’s something we would need to do—not for our justification, or to even please him. We just get forgetful of our need when we are in the habit of reaching for every comfort, every coping mechanism besides him.
Fasting isn’t something we have to do for God. It’s a gift God has given us, when we need to understand that our weakness isn’t something we need to fear, because of his strength on the cross.
Gretchen is a mom to 6 hilarious kids from toddler to teenager. She works as a homeschool mom, writer, and tutor to middle school kids in classical studies. She has published an e-course for mentors in intergenerational ministry called Gospel Mentoring and works to equip women’s ministries in churches from falling into legalistic patterns that compromise the message of the gospel.