The spiritual practice of fasting
by Sarah Scherschligt
The ancient practice of fasting illuminates human connectedness and our reliance on others, especially on God. We mere creatures are in much more need than we can ever perceive, let alone admit; but God can change us even when we think we need not change.
Fasting–including the very moderate form of fasting taken on by most Christians who practice it today (see sidebar)–means deliberately putting ourselves in a state of need, a state of dependence. That’s part of the deep wisdom of fasting. Without a regular spiritual practice to remind us of our dependence, we can too easily place ourselves at the center of our world. And when we think we are the center of the world, it is nearly impossible for us to truly find connection with others–even with God.
Do we need to take on a spiritual practice like fasting? No. Spiritual practices aren’t taken on to propitiate an angry God or to lay claim to God’s grace. They are lenses through which we can see God’s grace more clearly. Fasting – from choosing to eat one full meal and two smaller meals a day to abstaining from treats like fancy coffee or a favorite candy — reminds us of the spiritual lives of God’s people throughout scripture. Fasts may be taken on alongside prayers of repentance, prayers for insight, prayers in honor of Christ’s sacrifice.
|A moderate fast for modern people
We are set free by the grace of God, but we mere human beings often benefit from guidelines so that we don’t go too far in one direction or the other.
Several communities of our brothers and sisters in faith offer fasting guidelines like these:
One full meatless meal daily, plus two lighter meals (which add up to no more than one full meal). Liquids are allowed at any time, but no solid food may be eaten between meals.
Fish, eggs or dairy foods may be eaten in place of meat or poultry.
People under the age of 18 or over the age of 59 are not encouraged to fast. People whose lives or work requires that they keep up their strength (pregnant women, parents, medical care providers, teachers, firefighters, active military personnel, etc.) are likewise encouraged to choose a different spiritual practice.
Throughout scripture, fasting is often taken on as a community practice, not an individual effort. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, fasts to mark observances such as Yom Kippur and Lent developed as shared experiences for a whole community, incorporating people from all walks of life.
If we reclaim fasting as a communal practice, we might also find connections with people whom we would not ordinarily associate. We might also find resonance with and respect for people of other faiths for whom fasting is a regular practice. Fasting together can build common purpose and spiritual power between disparate groups of people, something our world needs right now.
It would be powerful to fast with our entire congregation or class, but even if we can find only two or three others to fast with, with the intention of praying together as well, we will discover new things about privilege, independence and connectedness.
Fasting also invites us to develop a certain tolerance for discomfort. Food is omnipresent in our culture: fast-food restaurants on every corner, beef jerky and candy bars at the gas station, pastries passed around the office. Resisting temptations to break our fast, resisting invitations to bend our commitment to our spiritual practice, calls for constant awareness and determination.
Fasting is a time-honored practice that helps reframe the true priorities of a Christian life: not consumption but generosity; not satisfaction but hunger for justice; not greed but gratitude.
1. If you have never fasted before, what would it take for you to take on a fast?
2. If you were to fast, what justice issue would you most like to pray for guidance about?
3. When you think about privilege, do you consider yourself more or less privileged than most of the people in your neighborhood, church or community?
4. Which two or three people could you invite to fast with you?
Loving God, you provide enough for all to be satisfied and yet we know many people go hungry and live in fear. It is not easy to confront our own privilege. It is not easy to know how to heal this world. Help inspire us to fast with humility and purpose, so we grow closer to you and lead lives that reflect your will for all people. Thank you for Jesus, who emptied himself so we can have life abundant. Amen.
The Rev. Sarah S. Scherschligt is the senior pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Virginia, and the mother of two young daughters.