On February 14th, the western church, that is the denominations descended from the Roman Catholic Church, began Lent, a season when we focus on Jesus' journey toward the cross and a season of extra discipline for the Christian.
Over the centuries, the Christian church has developed and has practiced several disciplines that help us to focus on Christ and turn from the secular world. Called spiritual disciplines, these are physical and mental methods that have helped Christians in the discipleship as they follow Jesus including such this as fasting, prayer, meditation on God’s Word, confession, sacrificial giving, and others
Fasting is one of the most common of spiritual disciplines through Biblical and Christian history. It is the purposeful abstinence from food or any other thing for a limited time. You are not fasting if you make a dietary change or give something up permanently. While most fasts refer to food, one can abstain from social media, entertainment, or anything else that takes up your time.
People, in both the Bible and history, have fasted for many different reasons. Many people fast regularly as part of their personal devotion, others fast during certain seasons, some fast when they are in deep repentance, and still others fast when they are about to make a major decision. Here are some examples of fasts in the Bible and in history:
Fasting often accompanies repentance over a serious sin. It can be both a communal action, such as a whole nation, or an individual. When the prophet Jonah went to the city of Nineveh, he proclaimed that God would destroy the city after forty days. When they heard the news, the king proclaimed,
“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands" (Jonah 3).
National fasting was not limited to the Bible. Three times during the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called on the whole country to confess their sins, humble themselves, and fast in the hopes that God would heal the divisions in the land. You can read his first , second , and third proclamations for more information.
When King David slept with Bathsheba and killed her husband, God struck the child with an illness. While the child was ill, David fasted and prayed in the hope that God would relent from the illness. He was so intent on his fasting that he refused to even speak with his advisors and would not get up off the floor ( 2 Samuel 12 ).
When Saul became a Christian , he realized how he had been killing God’s people and persecuting Christ himself. Upon entering Damascus, he would neither eat nor drink for three days, so great was his grief and repentance.
Fasting often accompanies prayer when someone prepares to make an important decision. When the first Christians in Antioch were preparing to send out missionaries, they were fasting and praying before the Holy Spirit set apart Saul and Barnabas to be there representatives.
Similarly, when Paul and Barnabas returned to the cities of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, they prayed and fasted when they appointed elders, or pastors, for the churches in the region. “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” ( Acts 13 ).
Similarly, a pastor friend of mine received a call to a church several months ago. When he announced to his current church that he had received call, he needed to make a decision. He prepared for the decision with prayer and fasting, intensifying his prayer for guidance with a physical manifestation of his prayer.
By far the most common fasting is for personal devotion. When Jesus teaches his disciples in the sermon on the mount, he describes how devotional practices should work, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites” (Matthew 6:16). Jesus’ words assume that people would have fasted regularly, offering them guidance in their devotional practice.
Today, Orthodox Christians fast regularly , on every Wednesday and Friday, abstaining from meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, wine, and oils. They also prescribe different fasts for different seasons. During Lent, the fast extends beyond just Wednesday and Friday through the whole season, with the exception of Saturdays and Sundays, when they can have wine and oil.
St. John Chrysostom, in his homily On Fasting , says this about fasting for personal devotion:
Sharpen thy sickle, which thou hast blunted through gluttony—sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven; rugged and narrow as it is, lay hold of it, and journey on.
And how mayest thou be able to do these things? By subduing thy body, and bringing it into subjection. For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. Keep down the waves of inordinate desires.
Repel the tempest of evil thoughts.
Preserve the boat; display much skill, and thou hast become a pilot.
But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor in all these things.
Chrysostom teaches that fasting helps to discipline the body from our “inordinate desires.” It keeps our own desires from taking control of us when we need to stay focused on Christ.
Unless you are following the tradition of your denomination or church, fasting can be a personal decision. Abstaining from certain kinds of food, or food altogether, is a common fast. The discipline you practice as you deny your bodily urges helps you to deny your desires when temptation comes. It turns you away from the world and toward Christ.
Don’t jump into a lengthy fast if you haven’t done it before. Begin with a simple 16-hour fast by abstaining from eating after dinner and skipping breakfast. It’s just one meal, but it makes a great introduction to fasting. You may extend the fast as you get better at it.
When entering a fast for a season of the year, such as Lent, abstaining from food altogether is too much. Examine your own life to see to what you might be overly attached, and consider taking a break from it. The pain you feel as you remove your desires will help discipline you. The joy you feel when you return to it after the fast is over can make the celebration afterward even more joyful.
In his sermon on fasting, Chrysostom continues with more advice, which should accompany any fast:
In other words, not only should the mouth fast, but the eyes and the legs and the arms and all the other parts of the body should fast as well. Let the hands fast, remaining clean from stealing and greediness. Let the legs fast, avoiding roads which lead to sinful sights. Let the eyes fast by not fixing themselves on beautiful faces and by not observing the beauty of others. You are not eating meat, are you? You should not eat debauchery with your eyes as well. Let your hearing also fast. The fast of hearing is not to accept bad talk against others and sly defamations.
Remember that fasting is a part of the discipline of the Christian faith. When we fast, we also focus on living a faithful life. In addition to giving up food, give up sin, and follow Christ.
Fasting is a historic tool for disciplining the body with the goal of focusing on Christ. Consider adding fasting to your devotional routine to help suppress your desires and focus on Christ. This discipline can help provide the will needed to turn from the world when temptation calls.
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