Contemplative Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting

Variety of bread

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.

In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus assumes his followers will fast. Twice in this teaching, Jesus tells us, “when you fast.” He says “when” not “if.” Jesus assumes that fasting will be a regular part of our live with Him. Fasting was then, and still is a regular part of Jewish life.  

Jesus himself fasted for 40 days in the wilderness, and there was tempted by the devil. The 40 day season of fasting known as Lent, a season that has been observed the the Christian Church since early Church times, honors Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness.

The word Lent comes from the Old English word lente, for lengthen, a word for spring or “lengthening of daylight”. Lent is season of springtime for the soul, beginning on Ash Wednesday, lasting six weeks into Holy Week.

During the 40 days of Lent, we remember the 40 days our Lord fasted in the desert wilderness before beginning his ministry. Jesus was tempted in every way we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15), so he is fully able to help us in all our temptations. In fasting, we give up things such as food in order to more fully dedicate ourselves to Christ. We especially seek to give up the habit of sin, asking for forgiveness and seeking to build new habits of godliness through such spiritual disciplines as fasting, giving and prayer.

Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-18) a three-fold spiritual disciplined life, including giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. Through the contemplative spiritual discipline of fasting, we ask God to remove from our life any sin or darkness, and we best do this by adding into our life the Light of Christ through prayer, worship, study of Scripture, meditation upon God’s Word, giving to the needy, and other Christ-honoring habits.

Early church leader, Irenaus of Lyons (c.130-c.200) wrote of such a season of fasting prior to Easter being practiced in the earliest days of the church. As early as the fourth century, references can be found to the 40 day period of fasting leading up to Holy Week. Gregory the Great (c.540-604) instituted beginning the season of Lent on a Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday, to honor 40 days of Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness.

The most common type of fast is fasting from food. As a beginning step into the ancient spiritual discipline of fasting, allow me a few practical ideas.

  • Try a 24 hour fast. Begin a 24 hour fast after dinner one evening. Fast for the next 24 hours, giving up all food during this time. Drink plenty of water or clear fruit juice, such as apple juice. At normal breakfast time and lunch time, sit in your normal place for those meals, and instead, open your Bible and read aloud from a chapter of Jonah, or a chapter from one of the Gospels. Break your fast the following evening, at dinner with a simple, non-spicy meal, offering a prayer of thanks for all God’s gifts, especially for God’s gift of compassion. If you are diabetic, pregnant, or have nutritional concerns, better to try other approaches to fasting besides abstaining from food.
  • Fasting not only purifies our lives and unites us closer to God, but also unites our lives with hungry people in the world and brings goodness back upon our homes and hearts. Other forms of fasting besides abstinence from food include abstinence from luxury activities for a week, fasting from watching television, stop playing electronic games for a week, giving up time on the computer and the internet each week, or writing letters instead of calling people by phone.
  • Contribute towards some world hunger fund by sending off a check or make an online donation to a hunger relief agency for world hunger relief. Connect your fasting to the needs of our hungry planet. As the Prophet Isaiah wrote, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter?”