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The Good of Fasting, Part II

A three-part series in preparation for Lent...

“when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16–18 RSV)

The sixth chapter of Matthew (the middle of the Sermon on the Mount) provides us with the biblical basis for the three Lenten disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. These disciplines are at the heart of the spiritual life, and these we return in the Lenten season. Sadly, many Christians today believe that these disciplines are optional, or merely a matter of personal preference. No! The Christian will fast, unless prevented from doing so by age or illness. Jesus doesn’t say “if you pray or fast.” He says “when you pray… and … when you fast.”  The truth is that most of Jesus’ hearers also assumed that these disciplines were necessary to living a life of obedience to God. Nothing about this was a new command. What Jesus reframes, however, is the aim of these disciplines. The aim Jesus’ hearers would have assumed was this: divine favor, that one should fast or give alms, or pray so that God will be pleased. While not ignoring the potential reward, Jesus is clear: the discipline must be done in secret. The reason is simple: it is done in the interior life for God alone, without selfish motive, without even the desire for reward.

The health benefits of fasting have been well established. During intermittent fasting, our cells regenerate faster, we burn fat, and we develop lean muscle tissue much more quickly. Fasting can also help with avoiding or, in many cases healing, Type II diabetes. It can even improve your neurological function. All these are great! But, the reason Jesus gives for fasting is simple: it is an act done for God, seen by the Father. For this reason, we must be careful not to announce our plans for fasting to the world, or even to those closest to us, but must undertake them without even giving a thought to our image or our wellbeing. 

At the heart of this, we come to understand the very thing that Our Lord says in response to the temptations of Satan, that Man does not live by bread alone. The Christian lives life nourished by the living Word of God, which sustains all of life. We are a people easily overcome by our appetites, by desire for created things, especially food, but other things as well, comforts, possessions, even constant communication and connectivity through mobile technology. For this reason, many are now fasting from more than food. I have known people through the years who fast from hot showers, taking only cold ones. I have known people who have fasted from social media, or who have only sat down on hard surfaces during the weeks of Lent. The simple reason is this: fasting provides us with an opportunity for victory over bodily appetites, allowing us to focus our desires on God alone and His fatherly love. 

It’s the oldest dad joke in the world:

“Daddy, I’m hungry,” says the child.

“Nice to meet you! I’m your dad.” says the dad.

We have a tendency to childishly define ourselves by our desires, don’t we?

Christopher West has written: “One of the things God wants to show us is that behind all our misdirected desires and lusts there is a legitimate desire God put there and wants to satisfy. Uncovering that legitimate desire and entrusting its satisfaction entirely to God is critical to our healing and wholeness.”

What we can say is that even though our hungers point us to the need to feed our bodies, to fuel our physical natures, these desires are not terminal. Christians are to see with the eyes of faith that all our desires terminate in God alone. Fasting allows us to trust God to satisfy our deepest longings, not the longing for food or security or even satisfaction itself. As the Psalmist says: “As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with beholding thy form.” (Psalm 17:15)

In the season of Lent, we look forward not only to the Cross, but to the consummation of all our hopes in the Risen Christ, by whom we see our end as human beings: the resurrection of our flesh, the glorification of our mortal bodies, which will not need to eat, but will be satisfied by the blessed vision of God, and that alone. Fasting trains our bodies, in the here and now, for the very thing we long for!

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