Fasting doesn't come easily for me, and I doubt I'm alone in this. Perhaps that's why it seems to be an under-practised spiritual discipline. Put simply, it's hard. And without a firm grasp of its true purpose, it can be easy to see fasting as pharisaic legalism. Understanding both the why and the how is key.
Today, Christians choose to fast from a variety of things—from certain types of food such as meat, or activities such as watching movies. The most important thing to remember about fasting is that it's not really about what you're abstaining from. This needs to be kept in mind because it's incredibly easy to get hung up on what you're not doing and lose sight of what you are doing.
Fasting, then, is not really about food, but it is about hunger. Every time I say no to a burger or a slice of cake, my physical deprivation points to a spiritual one. I am reminded that, as Christ said in the desert, I do not live by bread alone, but by the Word of God (see Matthew 4:1-4). I am reminded to set my mind on things above, rather than on earthly things (see Colossians 3:2). I need moments such as these to re-centre me, to bring me back to God. Life in the 21st century is endlessly distracting. At any given moment, my mind is flitting between a hundred different things—the work e-mail I forgot to send, the baby shower gift I need to buy. Fasting breaks my routine. It puts me in the right frame of mind to approach God.
Fasting is not about “pleasing” God
Fasting is not just about what we give up, but what we pick up. It is always accompanied by prayer, as Jesus modelled in the desert, and it's usually coupled with repentance. Calling the Israelites to repent through the prophet Joel, God implores them, “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning” (Joel 2:12). Our hearts returned to God, we move from “giving up” to “picking up.” Our focus shifts outward and fasting periods become opportunities to serve others—whether it's inviting a newcomer over for coffee, or using the time we would have spent watching movies to volunteer.
Regardless of what we give up and pick up, it's important to remember that fasting is not about “pleasing” God. God doesn't need us to fast. We don't earn brownie points by fasting. The practice of fasting exists for our spiritual benefit.
And even though it teaches us discipline through self-denial, fasting is not about self-flagellation or “proving” something. In fact, fasting should be entirely doable. God doesn't want us to fail. Choose a fast that you can do and build from there. This is especially important if you are new to fasting. Don't give up all food for 40 days because that is what Jesus did; start by giving up meat for one day each week, for example. Be mindful of your physical, as well as your spiritual, limitations.
And don't forget that it's OK to fail; there's more to fasting than keeping the fast. In fasting, and life generally, I am comforted by the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (see Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee uses prayer as a “humble brag,” thanking God that he's not like all the terrible sinners in the world. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get,” he boasts. And meanwhile, the tax collector beats his breast and prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We can do fasting right, while completely missing the point. As David reminds us in Psalm 51, God is not so concerned with the outward sacrifices we make. A sacrifice that is acceptable to God is “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
What you give up—whether it's cheese, chocolate or Facebook—does not really matter. When it comes to fasting, a broken and contrite heart is both the why and the how.