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.