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To Fast or Not to Fast? 

Lent is just around the corner, and this is the time of year many people start to ask the question: ‘what shall I give up for lent?’. Maybe you’ve heard some of those conversations already, or felt that slight groan of recognition that soon you will need to decide what, if anything, you are doing for lent.

However, the most important question often doesn’t get asked (or answered) and it is this: what is the PURPOSE of a lent fast, and can our motives for it sometimes do more harm than good? How do we make good decisions about lent fasting - and still make space for what God may be calling us to? 

These questions are particularly important for some people. Those with a history of physical illness that may make food fasting risky or those with personal experience of an eating disorder. This may make the debate around giving up foods particularly complex and triggering, and those with other mental or emotional health struggles - or personal situations - which may mean the idea of having to give something up just feels like another exhausting demand that life, faith and maybe even God are asking of us. 

Fasting in the Bible - the WHY

So before you start to ponder your own lent fast - let’s look at the biblical background to fasting, and three main reasons the Bible describes people fasting.

  • The first significant example of fasting is found in Exodus 34 when Moses receives the ten commandments from the Lord on Mount Sinai. Marking the significance of the moment, he does not eat bread or drink water for 40 days (confirmed in his own recollection in Deut 9:9). This use of fasting before a significant moment or decision is also described in the history of the early church (Eg. Acts 14:23) - and of course is a practice evidenced in the life of Jesus (Matthew 4:2). 
  • Fasting is also a part of the rituals of worship for the community of Israel, described in Leviticus as part of the marking of the day of atonement. The description in Hebrew is interesting - literally the people are called to afflict, restrain or deny their soul/inner desires. Later in the New Testament we see fasting again as an act of worship (e.g. Anna in Luke 2:37 and the early church in Acts 13:2). Fasting then clearly marks the significance of a moment, a festival, a ritual that reminds us of something God has done for us. 
  • Thirdly, fasting is frequently recorded as an act of return to God in an act of mourning, lament or repentance - for example in Judges 20:26. Fasting marks a decision to change, and an intentional act to return our focus to the Lord (Joel 2:12). And there’s a hint that sometimes that focus and fervency of our re-turning to God has a spiritual impact in the effect of our prayers (Matthew 17:21/Mark 9:29, although not all manuscripts retain this reference to fasting).

Why NOT fast?

Finally the Bible is clear on one more thing: fasting for fasting's sake is NOT a good thing. This is not an impressive way to show off your self-restraint or do something clever. If you are fasting to impress yourself or others you need to be careful of your motives!  

We need to be SO careful of this one in our culture where superhuman restraint and endeavors are so glorified and boasted on social media. Remember, Jesus said that fasting should be in secret and not boasted about or thrown around in public (Matt 6:16-18). But perhaps what is even harder is not doing it as an act of willpower that boosts your own ego. Examine your motives carefully and think about sharing with a good and trusted friend who will call you out if they think they might be a bit mixed.

Fasting needs to be in keeping with a life of serving God and His people - Isaiah 58 calls out people who love to fast but whose behaviour doesn’t match. They cry out to God asking why their fasting has no effect and he responds by challenging their actions which should “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke... set the oppressed free .. share your food with the hungry and .. provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them.. not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (v6-7).

And of course, the Bible DOESN’T teach fasting as a good way to lose weight, or improve your health or diet. So if you hear messages about fasting that try to use a guilt trip to push you into it remember - Jesus was clear that people being hungry for hungry's sake was not a good thing - that’s why he fed thousands of people who had followed him to hear him speak and didn’t have food with them! If you know your eating habits need a reboot - great, think about how you can improve your diet or balance. But don’t think of it as a spiritual fast. 

This last point is particularly important for those who might have health reasons NOT to do certain kinds of fasts - generally food and/or drink fasts. No fast should risk your physical or mental health. So if you know you need to be careful, discuss it with a GP, priest, pastor or good friend. And if in doubt, stick to something you know will be safe for you.

So, bearing all this in mind, here’s THREE reasons to fast … 

  • As a spiritual reset -  Fasting refocuses your mind, and is a really powerful expression of a decision that God is more important than the thing you are giving up. This of course means you need to give up something you find hard. For some this will be food - but other forms of fast are just as spiritually powerful. Fasting also creates more time in your schedule - which you can then intentionally give to prayer and focusing on God instead. So in choosing what to fast it’s worth thinking about the time it will release. Maybe giving up a favourite program or social media habit will actually have a greater effect than just the act of willpower involved in denying yourself chocolate for the whole of lent… 
  • To benefit others. This is something we SO often forget. But Isaiah reminds us this isn’t all about us! Ask yourself - how can your fast affect others? Can you give some time to a project supporting those in need? Can you devote yourself to intercessory prayer for those in need? Can you save up the money you save and give it to a charity or project that supports those struggling? Or perhaps alongside your fast you need to think about a way you can give.
  • To rediscover and celebrate something good. This is really important. Biblical patterns of fasting are about rhythms of fasting - and feasting. They are about celebrating something good of God - denying yourself of it for a short time and then celebrating it afterwards. Sometimes in our world full of choice and easy availability we forget how amazing something is & become dulled to the blessing of it. Is there something you need to remind yourself is special? Maybe that is something you might want to fast. And … don’t forget part of your fast is the feast that follows! So think about how you will celebrate God’s goodness at the end of lent - and be careful - this means we shouldn't fast something if we don't not feel able to feast on it when the fasting season is over. 

That might be the harder bit for some people - who find it hard to allow themselves to enjoy things - including food. Maybe that’s that bit you’ll need to work on this year. In fact, for some people (e.g. those with eating disorders or struggling with other mental health conditions) a positive fast can be as powerful an act of worship as giving something up. Can you choose to spend this period adding into your practice or diet something good God has given you - and celebrating it instead of your more habitual denial of it? Sometimes it is hard to allow ourselves good things - maybe this year God is calling you to rediscover something he longs to bless you with.

Fasting is MUCH more than just giving up biscuits, or booze.

It is a spiritual act of reverence, symbolic of what really matters the most to you and to God, designed to bring good things to God’s people and the wider community. And there is a promise for us, that all the hard work will be worth it - Matthew 6:18 promises that God will reward you for your fast - literally that God will give back in return for what you have given up. But remember: fasting isn’t compulsory. If you’ve had a(nother) tough year, you don’t need to make yourself even more miserable throughout lent. Think instead about things that will help you rediscover joy in worship and try to build things IN to your lent season instead of cutting sources of pleasure out. The most important thing, as in all our lives, is the heart that underlies what you decide to do. So don’t feel drawn into the competitive conversations about how much you’ve cut out - keep it between you and God and know that whatever you decide his love for you is certain, unconditional and unwavering.


Kate Middleton, 20/02/2023
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