When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.-Matthew 6: 16, 17
Fasting is all the rage. In many corners of our culture, we’ve come to realize that this ancient practice, part of many faith traditions, is a good idea. In the Christian tradition, fasting is often associated with giving something up for Lent. It may simply suggest deprivation. Truth be told, at least in my own experience, the practice of fasting in Lent can be a bit like beating your head against a wall. It feels so good when you stop. It can also become a matter of spiritual pride, a competitive sport. Being holier than thou easily slides into being more miserable than thou.
Jesus recognized that fasting was part of the spiritual practices of his culture. He saw its value. He began his ministry in the desert, going without food for forty days. I can barely skip a meal. He also recognized that like all kinds of spiritual practices, it can go off the rails as ego creeps in. (Remember: ego is an acronym for edging God out.)
We’re well past Lent. Right now may be a great time to consider what fasting is all about, free of seasonal obligation. It’s not about earning a spiritual merit badge. It’s about taking a look at our lives, at what we value, and what we might do without for a period of time in order to get clarity about what matters. Looking at it that way, assume that no one has any idea of the contours of your fast. Look inside yourself and think about what you might want to give up, maybe for an evening, or a day, or a month, or a season.
Maybe you want to go one day a week without checking social media, or take a break from screen time. That’s not to denigrate these ways of connecting with others or getting work done. It’s simply a way to say that it shouldn’t take over our lives. And it allows us to notice things we may have missed.
Maybe you want to have a day free of news, however you get the news. That’s not to say it’s unimportant to be informed. It’s a Christian duty. But a break from the news might just do some good for the soul, and offer some perspective.
Maybe you want a day of fasting from cussing. That may help you see how powerful speech can be, for good or ill.
Maybe you want a day free of complaining. We all have something to complain about, but how would the rest of the week be changed if we decided to accentuate only the positive for one 24 hour period.
Maybe you want a day free of comforting things like chocolate or Merlot or potato chips, a way to remember that billions of people in our world never get those small pleasures.
Maybe you want to skip a meal, or two, or three. That’s not a diet plan, though it does have health benefits. But it can help us pray for those who have no choice in skipping meals. There are people like that in all of our neighborhoods, not to mention our global village.
Maybe you choose a day without coffee…wait a minute…let’s not get carried away….
Here’s the deal: Nobody else needs to know when you fast. Jesus seems to indicate that if we sense that others need to know, we’ve missed the point. This is not about sitting in the city square in sackcloth and ashes. It’s about a regular check-in assessing the things we value, and focusing on the following:
- Gratitude: Fasting gives us a chance to count our blessings.
- Compassion: Fasting gives us a window into millions around us who face deprivation.
- Clarity: Fasting gives us a chance to see what is really important, really essential.
- Worship: Fasting gives us a chance to deepen our relationship with God, to trust that all that we need will be provided.
I invite you to. consider some non-Lenten way to put this spiritual discipline to work in your life. Let the practice be just between you and God.