In the family that is spiritual disciplines, fasting plays the role of quirky second cousin. Unlike its more consistent counterparts—prayer, worship, Scripture reading, church participation and so forth—fasting has a way of showing up sporadically, and then often it arrives obnoxiously, dressed like a fad diet. The other disciplines have their obvious functions and significance: they focus our attention on God, they help us commune with Him, they imprint His story in our hearts, they unite us with other believers. But what does fasting do, anyway?
Fasting belongs—if we’ve missed seeing this, it’s because we’ve seen only half of what the discipline is. There’s the obvious part, which is the denying of self and the giving-up of things. This is fasting from, as in, “What are you fasting from for Lent this year?” But the second half of fasting is where the meaning happens. This is fasting to—it’s a purpose, an opportunity. "To" is a space reserved so God can use and fill it, and the miracle of fasting is that He does. In the process, He transforms our simple discipline into something not only spiritual but deeply desirable too.
How can you experience this? Try these simple tips for fasting to something this Lenten season:
To Meet Your Weakness: A basic principle of the Gospel is that we are made righteous only by Christ’s righteousness and strong only in Christ’s strength. Fasting provides a tangible picture of this reality. Abstain from a regular part of your life for a while, and you’ll likely feel meager and inept in no time. Let this be a reminder of your need for God and a celebration of His total availability to you.
To Give Away: Some friends of mine once spent a month cleaning out their cupboards by giving up food purchases. Wherever possible, they cooked meals using pantry items they had on hand. At the end of the month, they calculated the difference in their grocery budget and donated that amount, a couple hundred dollars, to a local food kitchen. The process kept them aware of how self-focused they could be, and it converted that focus into something selfless—a great thing to fast to.
To Strain Culture from Faith: The big problem with our culture is that it’s ours: the one so pervasive and subtle and obvious around us that we often participate in it without noticing the ramifications. For instance, have you settled for cyber church in place of belonging to an actual, local body of believing people? Do you give too much weight to what fans and followers might think of you? Are your most meaningful conversations limited to 140 characters or less? You’d probably find out if you spent a few weeks away from mindless Internet surfing, Facebook or Twitter.
To Connect with Community: You’re just one part of the body of Christ, reliant on the rest of the members to accomplish or become anything meaningful. But do you believe that? If you have a habit of emphasizing independence or tend to go rogue, it’s a valuable practice to tie yourself to others by participating in something shared. Fasting gives this opportunity especially during Lent, when Christians the world over practice fasting together. It’s a valuable thing, being linked with them.
To Let God Surprise You: A few years ago, during a time of spiritual bitterness, I was allured by Bible references that say God is sweet like honey (Psalm 119:103, among others). I didn’t know how to believe them, but since honey is food, I figured fasting might give me a decent shot. So for six months I cut out sweets, with zero ideas about what if anything might result. Half a year later, God had begun showing me the depth of my sinfulness—not at all what I would’ve expected, but it made His love and grace newly captivating—sweet like honey. Could God have taught me that without the fast? Absolutely. Would I have been paying attention enough to taste the sweetness so distinctly? Likely not.
To Better Focus Time: Most fasts involve an elimination of sorts: pausing an activity, changing a habit, temporarily getting rid of something in your life. So most fasts also free up a few spare hours in the week, and there are plenty of ways to reallocate the time: a little more solitude, a little more prayer, a little more sleep. Read a novel. Organize your closet. Host a dinner. Make some art. Go outside and stay there for a while. Study a less-familiar book of the Bible. Call your folks.
To Learn Liturgy: There are ebbs and flows in every walk of faith, and we learn different ways of relating to God in different seasons. The traditional Church calendar highlights particular rhythms of faith each year on a regular schedule. Lent, for instance, is set aside as a time for being mindful of Christ’s death and remembering the deadness of our sin. Fasting during Lent is a physical expression of this: We carry in our bodies a palpable reminder of our need for redemption.
To Break the Fast: A family I know kicks off Easter by eating all the foods they’ve been fasting from over Lent. For the kids, the promise of that decadence is a primary motivator for going 40 days without candy, for instance, or soda or pizza. They know their parents will encourage them, one day out of the year, to have a plate full of junk food when they wake up. This underlines a central part of fasting: the break-fast. Difficulties to be found in the discipline are lit always by a celebration that is to come. Denying ourselves something helps us better appreciate that in Christ we have already been given everything.
Lisa Velthouse wrote about fasting in her 2011 memoir, Craving Grace: A Story of Faith, Failure, and My Search for Sweetness. Back in the day, she had terrible bangs and was a columnist for Brio magazine. More recently, she worked on staff at Mars Hill Bible Church (Grandville, MI) and became a military wife. She and her Marine Corps officer husband are expecting a baby girl and a deployment this year. Catch Lisa’s blog at LisaVelthouse.com.