Fasting—It's About Time!

October 14th, 2013

Food takes time. We spend time growing food, harvesting food, selling food, shopping for food, preparing food, and consuming food. We store leftover food, clean up after we’ve eaten food, and take medication when we’ve had too much food. We read books, peruse magazines, and eagerly watch television cooking shows to learn new ways of preparing food. Children (and sometimes church youth groups) play with food, while millions in this world do not have enough food. Fasting is a vital spiritual discipline that is vastly overlooked and misunderstood. As Christ’s disciples, we have much to learn and to teach to restore the need for fasting. When I was newly married, my wife decided that she would fast for Lent. It was not a diet or a fad, but an opportunity that she described as a spiritual and physical cleansing. For several weeks into the forty days of Lent, she consumed only liquids and vitamins. At her doctor’s insistence, she added soup and then some fish. Friends did not understand. They asked her where she got the diet. They wanted to know how much weight she had lost. They asked if she was working out with her fast and if she was monitoring her measurements.

Some church members asked if she had come from a Roman Catholic family. Others wondered if she was Lutheran. I suspected that these folks listened to Public Radio’s “Prairie Home Companion” for their understanding of what it meant to be Lutheran. Still others, unable to comprehend or relate to her spiritual perspective, merely considered her strange or perhaps a bit fanatical about her religion.

The experience led me to devote a sermon addressing the spiritual nature of fasting. I explained that fasting is distinctly not dieting but a spiritual discipline to allow someone to draw closer to God. I reported that there is medical research that has determined how fasting brings about physiological changes to one’s body. Fasting can increase blood flow to the brain, the organ that is the center of cognition, emotion, and our sense of well-being.

The spiritual discipline of fasting is a means of stepping off the path of consumption and chaos. Fasting is a means of making time for God by focusing our life on something besides activity, entertainment, and self-satisfaction. Fasting is not only about what we don’t consume but also about what we do not do. Fasting is essentially about time—intentionally setting aside time for listening and growing in the spirit of Christ by giving up time for physical pleasure.

Because fasting is a choice, a path that we choose, the Gospel tells us that fasting is not meant to be a public display of punishment and agony. Once again, spiritual discipline is not punishment but a path that leads to grace. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching on fasting is a declaration. Jesus declares: “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.”

Jesus then goes further in that same verse, pointing to the true value of fasting versus the self-serving attitude of those who see it as a means of appearing pious. “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” For those who treat fasting as an opportunity for self-importance, they have gotten out of it what they expected to get out of it. Spiritual opportunists want others to look at them and see what they believe to be piety and spiritual greatness. Jesus is saying that what they really desire is to feed their own ego, so that is all that they shall gain.

The true value of fasting comes from what we are willing to put into such a discipline. It is a path that can lead us closer to God, to better knowing God’s presence, and God’s call upon our life. True fasting is a path of spiritual discipline that leads us nearer to the blessing of God’s grace. Like prayer, fasting is a means of growing a deeper and clearer comprehension of the holy mystery of Christ’s love.

Fasting and prayer go together, for they are complimentary spiritual disciplines that move us from the secular world without to the holy kingdom within. Prayer and fasting are a means of changing our focus, of clearing our bias, and setting aside our prejudice. Together, prayer and fasting help us reorder our thinking, reassess our concerns, embrace our challenges, establish our priorities, banish our fear, cease our worry, and liberate our soul. Life can tarnish our spirit, and our soul becomes toxic.

Culture teaches us to be consumers. Our most precious commodities are not our possessions and professions but our love and laughter. Christ made it clear that the purpose of the incarnation is to offer abundant life. We find true abundance in the richness of our relationships and the serenity of our soul.

Fasting is most commonly considered as refraining from feeding our body, but it can also be a matter of stewardship of life. Fasting can include refraining from consumption or reexamining our need for entertainment. Fasting might mean decreasing time spent with objects (computer, television, electronic games, and audio gadgets), and increasing time spent with God, family, and friends. Love is something from which we need never fast.

Matthew’s sixth chapter is a great beginning for anyone desiring to grow in spiritual discipline. The path of grace is a disciplined path, but such discipline is not a stranger to joy and peace. Fasting is a matter of time, both what we do with it and how we consume it. Fasting is a vital spiritual discipline that engages the mystery of faith and unlocks doors of grace that we have failed to explore for far too long.

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