Updated: Mar 10, 2022
This post corresponds with our Lenten Study Session series, On the Trail to Skull Hill. For this session, we discuss the Lenten practice of fasting.
The season of Lent is often observed by fasting. The practice of fasting (essentially going without something) is encouraged as a spiritual discipline that seeks to sharpen our spiritual awareness.
Jesus fasted. His lasted 40 days! Anyone else a little intimidated?! Personally, even if I thought I could go for a 40-day fast (which I don’t), Richard Foster’s description of that kind of prolonged fast is a necessary reminder of our human limitations.
“Anywhere between twenty-one and forty days or longer, depending on the individual, the hunger pains will return. This is the first stage of starvation and the pains signal that body has used up its reserves and is beginning to draw on the living tissue. The fast should be broken at this time.”
- Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline
Yikes. That is not exactly the kind of fast I’m thinking of for the 40 days of Lent. There can be a fine line between sheer asceticism (unhealthy neglect of the body for spiritual gain) and spiritual practices such as fasting. I encourage some communal discernment on what kind of fast and how long to do one (especially when considering eating).
So, why not employ a little creativity here? Alicia Britt Chole recommends fasting resentment, avoidance, and other spiritual maladies in a way that moves us toward the heart of the practice - seeking God (her Lenten book is called 40 Days of Decrease). Fast whatever is a barrier to seeking God. Fasting food, as simple (and difficult) as it is, helps us become aware of just how much our mood, outlook, and devotion is upheld by comfort. But if that is unapproachable, what if we consider some other kinds of fasts such as the ones Chole suggests?
Here are some ideas I’ve seen on a few lists from people, young and old, who have practiced fasting through the 40-days of Lent:
- social media
Simple enough? Hard enough? It really is worth trying a fast of some sort. But I do want to narrow in on what you may find when fast. Fasting makes us aware of more than just our cravings for sweets or entertainment; fasting makes us aware of our needs. Let’s return to Jesus’ fast. You can find it in Matthew 4:1-11.
In our first On the Trail to Skull Hill blogpost, Jerome points to three temptations that happen in Jesus’ 40-day wilderness fast:
“Turning a stone into bread – the need for security.
Leaping safely from the temple – the need for approval.
Winning the kingdoms of the world – the need for control.”
To secure these needs in any other source is precisely the temptation Jesus himself is presented. Ostensibly, he fasted from food. But the greater fast was his final one: fasting from self-sufficiency. He could have procured security on his own. He could have garnered widespread approval. He could have exercised his control. But instead, he fasted from self-sufficiency.
Paul captures Jesus’ life so well as he quotes from what seems to be an early Christian hymn:
Philippians 2:5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus lived a life of fasting self-sufficiency. He modeled utter dependence on God for even the three vital needs. Imagine what church history would look like if the Church fasted from its need to be secure. Or its need for approval. Or, perhaps most painfully, from its need for control. If the trajectory of fasting, a Philippians 2 kind of life, had been central to Christendom, how could the Church have participated in so many projects of power and ego? The tyrannical legacy of Western Christianity’s conquests, crusades, and colonization is incompatible with the cross of Christ. It is incoherent to those who value the divestment of self-interest, those shaped by the discipline of fasting, shaped by Jesus. Fasting reminds us in whom we find security, approval, and control. God is our guarding Shepherd, our loving Creator, and our sovereign Lord.
So whatever you fast and however you do it, keep this central. Your needs will become apparent. You will be tempted to find their fulfillment elsewhere. And you will find it requires a Philippians 2 kind of self-emptying to follow Jesus into that desert place. May we become more like Christ through the discipline of fasting, on the trail to Skull Hill.