Ash Wednesday is the day marking the beginning of Lent – 40 days (not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter. This year, that happens to be March 5th. Traditionally, Christians have taken time during the season of Lent for repentance and prayer – often accompanied by fasting. While I grew up in a Christian tradition where I was never exposed to Lent, I was introduced to the concept of fasting for spiritual reasons. During my university studies I first encountered Lent, and since then I have embraced it as an important part of my yearly rhythm.
Fasting has long been an important spiritual practice for those desiring to draw nearer to God. Even Jesus fasted for 40 days immediately after his baptism. I’m not going to take time in this post to give a full explanation of fasting, other than to say that it is a way to focus more attention on God while denying some of your physical desires. If you have never done it, you should give it a shot and Lent is a great time to test the waters.
How to Fast for Lent
Those who fast for Lent typically choose to “give something up” during the season in order to make more room to pray, meditate, and have space for God to speak. For many people this involves the traditional idea of fasting from food (think “break-fast” as the time when you break your nightly fast). Sometimes this is a food or drink that you don’t really “need” (like chocolate, pop, sweets, etc.) but one that you crave. In this way you have a reminder throughout your day to pray whenever you crave that particular food – a constant reminder of your need for God. Personally, I prefer fasting from a type of food for this reason. But if you struggle with food in general (dieting , eating disorders, overeating, etc.) then a food fast is probably not the best idea. In fact, there are many other things that you can “fast” from in order to create some space during Lent. Here are some ideas that I have heard of:
- If you drive a lot (commute): give up the radio/music in your car (a great time to pray)
- Fast from certain types of media: music, TV, movies, Facebook, Twitter, video games, etc.
- Give up sleeping in late so that you can get up earlier to read your Bible & pray
There are lots of great ideas of things that you can fast from – you are only limited by your imagination.
If you are dealing with an addiction (smoking/alcohol/etc), then fasting from those things is also probably not a good idea. Addictions require serious professional help and a “season” of fasting is not going to be enough. Also, don’t use this as your next diet plan. Fasting is meant to draw one closer to God, not as a self-improvement project (this could apply to other “bad habits” like swearing, criticizing others, etc. being used as a fast). The reality is that there are many bad things that we could “fast” from, and they are something we should address. But the kind of fasting we are talking about with Lent is more about giving up something that is quite possibly “good” in your life – in order to deny yourself and turn to God.
Why Not Just “Add” Something Instead?
I’ve heard a lot of talk in recent years about adding something good for Lent instead of fasting (like volunteering, reading a devotional, etc.) While I understand the motive, I would caution people who might want to use this approach. Most of us probably have busy lives already and “adding” one more thing is just another way to stay in control (and even perhaps to justify yourself) without having to do what is really hard – slowing down! Fasting is about denying oneself – a very different thing. So while Lent may be a good time to develop some positive habits in your life, don’t confuse that with the concept of fasting.
If you are going to give fasting during Lent a try, set a realistic goal. Give up something that will be difficult, but not so hard that you are bound to be miserable. Also, remember that this is not about proving yourself somehow. Some people start off fasting strong, then as soon as they partake in what they were fasting from they give up because they “failed.” Just pick it up again and keep going. Remember: the goal here is to draw nearer to God through repentance and prayer and to create space for that to happen. Finally, pay attention to Jesus’ warning about fasting:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).