The Christian liturgical year is built around feast days, seasons of fasting, and the ordinary time in between. How do we faithfully structure our eating rhythms, and how might they lead us deeper into Scripture? In this three-part series, writer Annelise Jolley explores the connection between physical and spiritual disciplines and how God's Word can nourish, galvanize, and lead us into a hospitable life.
I used to give up something during Lent. In college this something was dessert. More recently I would curb my use of technology or social media. But this year I tried something new: I added a practice. I decided to fast once a week, replacing my regular routine with a day of fasting, prayer, and reading. From Thursday night to Friday night every week I drank only water and worked my way through a long list of prayers.
I was surfacing from an extended season of busyness during which I paddled frantically just to keep my head above water. I needed rest and renewal. I wanted to break down the resentments and worries that had expanded inside me. My friends and family needed prayer for physical healing and financial stability and comfort amid grief. Fasting, I decided, would help me pray expectantly and consistently.
The Practice of Fasting
I started off well. I woke up the first Friday with an expectation that I would hear from God. I traveled that day, which meant I sat for hours on an airplane with minimal physical exertion and therefore minimal hunger. I had plenty of time to read and pray. The next Friday was good, but not quite as easy. When I wished for food I consciously shifted my thoughts and prayed for the people on my prayer list. I told my husband and friends how I felt more attuned to God’s presence. It seemed like I normally prayed over static, and now the line was clearing.
The third Friday was harder. On week four I felt groggy and cranky all day. I was lethargic and couldn’t work well, much less pray with the crystalline vigor I felt entitled to. The same thing turned out to be true every remaining Friday during Lent.
I discovered that fasting does not always feel successful, or even spiritual. Sometimes it only reminds me of how weak I am in body, spirit, and mind. During Lent, as always when I fast, I had to acknowledge my tendency to overeat and use food for numbing or distraction. I was reminded of my dependence on God’s provision and the carelessness with which I often treat both prayer and eating. And this humbles me, more than anything, making fasting a valuable practice in my life. It drives me to God and his Word.
Why Fast in the First Place?
Christians fast in order to seek God through petition, discernment, or lament. Abstaining from food and drink is only half the equation; a spiritual fast is intimately linked to the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Scripture reading. Without combining these spiritual practices, fasting is just a diet.
The examples we see in the Bible show a range of reasons why Christians might give up food and drink. David fasted to beg for his child’s life (2 Samuel 12:16); the prophetic leader Nehemiah fasted in lament (Nehemiah 1:4); Jesus fasted to prepare for his ministry (Matthew 4:2). Sometimes fasting is appropriate because we enter valleys of grief or waiting. Foregoing food also drives us to God’s Word for nourishment and helps us concentrate on something beyond physical gratification. It redirects our attention from ourselves to God, growing our love for God and neighbor. It builds a pattern of temperance into our lives, curbing constant indulgence so that we can better see and savor God’s gifts.
Fasting Cultivates Humility
When I think of fasting, the Scripture passage that comes to mind first is Jesus’s instruction on the subject: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others…. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:16, 17-18). In other words, fasting is not about us. It’s not a point of pride or a reason for spiritual kudos. It is a private act to be undertaken quietly and humbly—one that should ultimately direct our attention beyond ourselves.
Fasting displaces us from the center of our own lives. This displacement means our attention to God and others grows. It’s uncomfortable to be reminded of our weakness when we fast, but this discomfort ultimately makes us humbler and hungrier for God’s Word. From this place of humility, I come to God’s Word softer, quieter, and more porous. I open the Bible sensing in my stomach and foggy mind how dependent I am on God’s physical and spiritual nourishment. Scripture becomes medicine and sustenance rather than, say, a side dish piled on my already overflowing plate. When I’m feeding myself three square meals a day—not to mention snacks and coffee in between—I can succumb to the belief that I control my life. But fasting imposes the spirit I need to surrender to God’s Word and plan for my life.
I studied literature and writing in school, and the question I asked again and again was, “What does the text say?” Our interpretations of text are colored by our own stories, histories, and traumas, as well as whatever knowledge we have about the author and his or her personal life and cultural context. But if we value the text, we have to look first to the text for meaning. The same is true for the Bible. The Word takes precedence over our ideas; we place ourselves under its authority, humbly submitting to what it says rather than contort it to fit our current whims; and we consider how it might instruct or galvanize us.
Fasting Makes us Hunger for Justice
Through the prophet Isaiah, God offered a guideline of what true fasting entails: “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives” (Isaiah 58:6-7).
Fasting invites us to hunger for more than just food; it instills a hunger for justice in us, a longing for the things God desires. This passage in Isaiah shows us what to pray for while we fast—release from our own sin, freedom for the oppressed, food and shelter for the poor—as well as how to tangibly care for our neighbors. Fasting reduces the time and energy we normally spend planning, preparing, and eating meals, and allows us to devote more of our attention to help meet the needs of others. It leads us naturally into prayer, and then action.
There are plenty of prayers for justice in Scripture and, when we pair them with fasting, we develop a longing for God’s kingdom and righteousness. We might pray with Jeremiah: “Lord, if I argued my case with you, you would prove to be right. Yet I must question you about matters of justice. Why are the wicked so prosperous? Why do dishonest people succeed? ... How long will our land be dry, and the grass in every field be withered? Animals and birds are dying because of the wickedness of our people, people who say, ‘God doesn't see what we are doing.’” (Jeremiah 12:1, 4). Or with the Psalms: “Why are you so far away, O Lord? Why do you hide yourself when we are in trouble? The wicked are proud and persecute the poor; catch them in the traps they have made” (Psalm 10:1-2). Or we might follow the words Jesus gave us: “Your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matthew 6:10).
Injustice and global suffering can produce a sense of helplessness, but we can beat back despair by asking God to intervene. When a natural disaster hits or news of the refugee crisis fills our screens, fasting and repeating ancient prayers for justice are ways to respond. These, in turn, lead to inward transformation and equip us for outward service.
I’ve found fasting to be an antidote not only to a culture of indulgence but also to my tendency to forget others’ needs. Fasting displaces my attention from myself and my physical desires, even briefly, so that I can attend to my spirit. From this place of emptiness, I can come to God’s Word in humility, with my hands open to receive strength and nourishment. As I spend time in Scripture, God directs my bodily hunger toward a longing for the justice and goodness of his kingdom.
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