During Lent we prepare ourselves to share in and celebrate the real reason for our faith; namely, Christ’s death and resurrection. Lent is a spiritual desert similar to Christ’s 40 days in the desert, or the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert in the Book of Exodus, or Christ’s journey to Jerusalem. We live this experience in our lives during the annual observation of Lent.
One of the ways people of faith mark this period of time is by fasting, just like Christ fasted for 40 days in the desert. People can give up more than just food for Lent. They can give up things such as bad habits, text messaging or social networks such as Facebook, but for centuries the main thing that was given up for Lent was food. For example, we can give up things such as:
- Anger and hatred
- Judging others
- Resentment or bitterness
- Spending too much money
Anything that controls us or that we can’t say no to lords over us. If it takes God’s place in our lives, it is an idol and we are living in something similar to idolatry. When we come to a fork in the road of life, we may be tempted to give in to our physical needs and ignore our spiritual needs. Unless we have disciplined ourselves and attended to our spiritual needs in an ongoing way, we may give in to the tempter. In other words, we might be tempted to used one of comedian Flip Wilson’s famous lines—“The devil made me do it!”
Fasting helps us to gain enough control to surrender our lives to God by making us more aware of our great need for God. It makes us more aware of our sinful desires and allows us to honour Jesus’ fasting not only in the desert, but in the weeks leading up to his crucifixion. It allows us to face temptations just like Christ faced temptations in the desert, but by facing these temptations and overcoming them, we will grow stronger in faith. Fasting is a weapon we can use against the enemy’s strongholds and bondage in our lives, just like Christ used the results of his fasting in the desert to fight Satan’s temptations.
Fasting is a metaphor for our desire for God. It makes some people feel cleaner, purer and more in control. It allows us to have a simpler life, even if only for a short period of time. It teaches us something about God as Jesus shows God to us. It allows us to call on Christ’s power to shove out sin so that we can live spiritually. Fasting forces us to remember our spiritual poverty, which in turn allows us to recognize God’s loving action to make things right between him and us through Jesus Christ. The result is a spiritual death that shows our sorrow for our sins. It makes the path to the cross inexpressibly and unbelievably rewarding. True fasting is good for our health (spiritually and physically), self-discipline, helping us break bad habits, appreciating what we love, and preserving the ability to do without.
Fasting and Lent provide us with a time to focus on what is always true. God is always reaching out to enable us to change, be renewed and deepen our commitment to him and his chosen community. We do this through repentance. Fasting is just one way of showing our desire to repent. Our repentance is a gift of grace. Repentance by itself does not cause6 forgiveness or make us worthy to receive it. It is based on grace-specifically, the knowledge that God is kind and ready to forgive. Fasting counteracts our daily habits of excessive consumption and makes us aware of God’s promptings and the needs of others. Leo, Bishop of Rome, once wrote:
“The sum total of our fasting does not consist in merely abstaining from food. In vain do we deny our body food if we do not withhold our heart from wickedness and restrain our lips so that they speak no evil. We must so moderate our rightful use of food that our other desires may be subject to the same rule. They therefore who desire to do good works, let them not fear that they shall be without the means, since even for two given pennies, the generosity of the poor widow of the Gospel was glorified!”
Fasting in repentance means we realize that what we did was wrong, and that whatever replaced God in our lives was wrong. Fasting forces us to change our way of living for awhile. It allows God to step in and change the course of our lives. It allows us to put our basic needs into a lower priority so that we can concentrate on the task at hand. In this case, the task at hand is the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Fasting does not mean totally abstaining from food. In the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, fasting should be introduced in order to “bridle the desires of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex”. We need to eat to live, and not the other way around. Those who are fasting are asked to eat only what is necessary, usually only one or two meals a day. Snacking, sweets or indulgences are not allowed.
There is a time and a place for fasting. It must not be done during a time of celebration such as a wedding anniversary. In fact, the 40 days of Lent DO NOT include Sundays because they are a celebration of Christ’s victory over death and sin. Fasting is not to be used as a substitute for dieting. It must also not be used as a form of self-punishment or as an excuse to harm yourself in a way that would make you a burden to others. It is not an excuse for being grouchy, stingy or rude. Fasting must be done in such a way that it shows our dependence on God, brings us closer to God, and gives energy to our prayers.
Fasting does not serve to change God’s mind, speed up his answer, or manipulate his will. Instead, it prepares us to hear from him by temporarily laying aside anything that competes for our attention. It allows us to focus on Christ and hear him clearly
Jesus began his ministry by fasting for 40 days in the desert. He suspended his earthly appetite in order to focus not only on preparing for his earthly ministry, but also to satisfy his spiritual hunger. Fasting puts us in touch with the fact that we ARE created with an appetite for God, just like Jesus had an appetite for God. It really does not matter what one abstains from in fasting. The important thing is to suspend the usual earthly appetites in life that seek immediate gratification so that we can recover our deeper spiritual hunger and thirst for God and his ready grace.
In our faith journey, there will be times when we have to hold out in the midst of spiritual battles. Fasting can give us the strength we need to achieve victory. It gives us the strength to hold on. God has promised us that we will not be placed in situations where we will have more put on us than we can bear. Fasting serves as a whet stone that we can use to sharpen our discernment, expose our wrong thinking and wrong attitudes, and bring about a single-minded focus on the things of God. Jesus used his fast to prepare him not only for Satan’s temptations, but to focus on his earthly mission and his father’s will. Contrary to what most people might think, Jesus was not weak from his fast. In fact, just the opposite—he gained spiritual strength for his journey to the cross and the ultimate success of his mission.
In Deuteronomy 8:3, we read “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the Lord”. There is a connection between the manna that the Israelites received in the wilderness and the bread with which the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Israel’s need for bread was secondary to Israel’s need to understand that God gives bread. Because he understands that fact, Jesus can resist the temptation to take matters into his own hands.
We are in the same situation. Our earthly needs are secondary to our need to understand that God will supply our earthly needs. I emphasize the word needs. God will not supply us with a Mercedes-Benz car when a Volkswagen Beetle will be sufficient. God will not supply us with a huge mansion when a two-room bungalow will be sufficient. God will not provide us with a banquet that is fit for a king when a sandwich will be sufficient. He will supply our needs, and not our wants or desires. Fasting from anything that is not necessary for our earthly life will allow us to focus on the preparations we have to make for our spiritual life. Fasting is a spiritual discipline. It reminds us of our human weakness and encourages us to acknowledge our dependence on God.
Life is not just about the material things. It is also about a Word coming from the very mouth of God. In response to the temptation to throw himself into the rat race called material satisfaction, Jesus finds a calm centre, an anchor in the word of God. That centered faith will enable him to deal with all the other temptations to come. As it was with Jesus, so it is with us.
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