Fasting–what’s the point?

Lent and Easter

We’re in the fifth week of Lent, and I’ll admit—I’m ready to be done with giving up stuff. Whether we’ve given up chocolate, desserts, meat, caffeine, TV, or even exceeding the speed limit, it can be tough to maintain our self-discipline for the whole 40 days of this liturgical season.

But I recently ran across two articles on fasting that I found helpful. Here are some thoughts from a former professor of mine, Dr. Gary Jenkins:

“Every tree of the garden you may eat, but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” So fasting is one of the first commands, not because the tree of the knowledge of good and evil wasn’t good, but because it wasn’t meant for Adam at that moment. In other words, he had to realize that he could not live by what he wanted to do, but instead by God’s instruction. In this regard, when we fast during Lent, we are trying to, as it were, get back to Paradise…

What does it mean to live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4)? Essentially, it means that I should not order my life around my stomach or around my passions…

Too often we think that our bodies are evil, but this is not what the practice of fasting teaches us. Instead, fasting means reorienting how I think so that my body can be ready for immortality. We realize in fasting that this world is incomplete because it is insufficient for union with God…

What is fasting telling us? It’s telling us “I can never hope—or more aptly I should never expect—justice and fairness, and probably not even happiness, real happiness in this world.” Now, I’m not telling you to go around being glum. We cannot be! Christ commands us: “When you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, . . . but anoint your head and wash your face” (Matthew 6:16-17). Why? Because you’re not doing this to torture yourself. You’re doing this in order to orient yourself towards eternity, to orient yourself towards God. This is what the life of repentance is, this is what fasting is about—that we don’t live by bread alone, but by the word of the Father.”

Here’s a beautiful article from Portland magazine, in which Pico Iyer looks at fasting from more of a multi-faith perspective. He speaks of fasting as “a Sabbath of the senses,” like “the pause in a piece of music that gives the melody that follows extra breadth and resonance.” Fasting is about learning to be content with less, and giving the excess away to someone who needs more, he says.

Lent is a time of emptying ourselves and giving things up, but only to be filled more deeply with Christ.  It is a time of making space for God, clearing out the clutter, and renewing our relationship with Him. Lent is not an end in itself, not about self-denial for the sake of self-denial.  It is a means to the end, which is the celebration of Easter, the culmination of the church year, the cornerstone of our faith.

As we travel through this penitential season, we look ahead to the glories of Easter.  Though Lent is difficult and somber, it points beyond itself to the ultimate triumph of Christ, to the supremely good and joyful news of our salvation in Him.

How are you observing Lent this year? What has been difficult, and what has been helpful?

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