If you’re reading this, you are probably thinking about fasting during Lent, so here is everything you really need to know.
What It Means to Fast
Fasting is not just starving yourself. Fasting is an intentional act of giving up something to increase your awareness of your reliance on God.
How you characterize God will determine what fasting means to you. If God is a celestial potentate who demands sacrifice, fasting might be a form of reflecting the sacrificial suffering of Christ. If God is a benevolent creator who has given the earth as a garden to her beloved children, fasting could be a way of clearing your spiritual senses to smell the heavenly flowers sprouting unseen all around us. And if God is the eternal order of the universe, fasting might become a means of disrupting your rhythms to discover within yourself the traces of that divine ordering. There are endless images you might use to describe your experience of God.
For this practice to be fruitful you would do well to spend time reflecting on what characterization of God is truest for you.
Giving up meals is the most ubiquitous type of fast, but you could choose to only abstain from certain types of food or from food only at certain hours of the day. You could also choose another material altogether to refrain from.
While weight loss may occur with significant food fasting, you will quickly lose motivation to continue if that is your primary goal. Instead, you might consult with your physician and a personal trainer to determine a nutrition and exercise program to better meet that goal. And weight loss is certainly a valid discipline in the season of Lent, if caring for your body resonates with your relationship to God.
Food fasting comes from an ancient tradition of asceticism, intentionally depriving oneself of needs and comforts to increase one’s awareness of dependence on God.
Traditionally, a food fast through the full season of Lent looks like this:
- The 40 days of Lent do not include Sundays. Sundays are still feast days celebrating the resurrection (every Friday a Good Friday, every Sunday a Resurrection Day). It’s okay to eat normally on Sundays.
- During the other days during Lent, people traditionally ate one modest meal and had two collations (snacks) that together added up to less than the full meal. I might have a typical dinner (minus dessert) and have a couple apples or vegetables throughout the day. The collations are there to maintain health but not to satisfy hunger.
- Hunger is a tool, and however much you choose to eat during your fast, the hunger is there to remind you of your mortality and absolute dependence on God. When your hunger is strong, let it call you into prayer.
Activity or Time
Maybe there’s an activity you’ve found to be unhealthy, and you’ve wondered what it would be like to give it up during Lent. Fasting from an activity can be immensely helpful as you enter the discomfort of managing your time and energy in a different way.
I’ve personally struggled with social media addiction, which comes from a mixture of boredom and fear of missing out. Neither is healthy, and at times I have unplugged myself to better focus on the way I spend my time, the way I think about spending my time, and the way I approach relationships. You could also refrain from shopping (except absolute necessities) or from watching TV/Netflix.
If you need help getting started, you could spend a day or two trying to write down how you spend each hour and see what your notes tell you what you’ve made a priority in your life, whether by design or by accident. Then you are free to make spiritually meaningful changes.
Adding a Practice
As described above, pushing yourself into an intentional program of health management can be a useful practice to add during the season of Lent if your body image or the way you have cared for your body are resonating with your experience of God.
When it comes to fasting, the discomfort of giving up time to bring a spiritually fruitful practice into your life has endless possibilities.
You might choose to engage in an intentional practice of generosity by preparing care kits to give our when you meet homeless people (socks are always appreciated!), or by keeping extra cash on hand specifically to give to beggars. You might choose to leave for work ten minutes earlier so you can spend time in prayer before you leave the parking lot. It doesn’t have to be huge, it just needs to be meaningful to you.
Maybe all this talk about food, Facebook, and being charitable sounds great but just doesn’t resonate with your heart right now. I’ve had seasons when I was too occupied with feelings of anxiety or depression to be able to give up any part of my daily routine. I’ve been so burdened by stress that I didn’t have the emotional strength to give up food. That’s okay. And it points to something else I could give my attention to.
God wants us to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled. God has given each of us a calling, and it is up to us to live into our potential. It pleases God to see each of us pursue our potential. When we’re feeling anxious, depressed, and discouraged it makes God sad too, and the most important thing to know is that in all of the darkness that surrounds you, God is sitting by you. Perhaps your Lenten practice can simply be reminding yourself that God is with you–Emmanuel, God With Us.
You could make it your fasting discipline to give therapy a chance: find a therapist and begin seeking help, perhaps even medication. You are not alone. Let your fast be a pursuit through the desert wastelands of depression to seek out the promised land of God’s joy and delight.