Fasting: Ancient practice, modern relevance

When we hear the word “fasting”—an historic Lenten emphasis—the initial image is associated with dieting. For most of us in North America, fasting is a foreign and somewhat threatening notion , conjuring notions of self-depreciation and ascetic mortification.

In Scripture, fasting is among the most common acts of religious piety. Yet it also comes in for severe judgment.

“Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not?” whined the people of Isaiah’s day. To which Yahweh thundered in response, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. . . ?” (58:6) Similarly, in his only explicit listing of behavioral qualifications for entrance to heaven—when sheep will be sorted from goats—Jesus’ short list includes care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. That’s all. No mention of fasting or any other form of  “pious” behavior or doctrinal orthodoxy.

So why consider fasting? If spiritual disciplines are not a means of bargaining with God—for a better deal here or a bigger mansion later—why bother? Not because we are bad, although “unrighteousness” is a symptom of our predicament. But because we are blind, because we have become “conformed” to the world’s way of doing business, have lost sight of God’s intention. Such loss of sight will not give way to moral vigor or heroic willfulness. If we are to regain our sight we need to develop personal and communal practices (another way of saying “spiritual disciplines”) which clarify vision, which remind us to Whom we belong and to Whose purposes we are called.

Fasting can be an effective tool for affecting appetites which are forever getting out of control.

The Struggle With Appetites

The struggle to control appetites is a pertinent issue for those of us who live within a wealthy, gluttonous culture. When tens of thousands of children die daily from starvation and nutrition-related diseases, the fact that our media is crowded with advertising for diet plans is proof enough that something is wrong.

In 1960 the “self-storage” business was unheard of. Now there are more than 50,000 such facilities in the U.S., offering nearly 1.8 billion square feet of space. It’s estimated that if every human produced produced as much trash as the average U.S. citizen, we would need four additional planets the size of the earth to hold it all.

On a larger public scale, the issue of uncontrolled appetites is identified by Book of James as the root of war. “What causes wars?” he asks. “Is it not your passions”—your cravings, your appetites—“which are at war within you? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war” (4:1-2).

Seen in this light, our personal and corporate cravings are interconnected afflictions. Fasting encourages us to acknowledge our own personal inclination to gluttony and gives us a remedial step toward restored health. It also helps us identify with the gluttony in which we participate on a larger scale.

By fasting we come to sense the deeply spiritual roots of our own personal and corporate consumptive tendencies. We begin to understand the intimate connection between spiritual dysfunction and material distress.

Some Practical Hints

If you want to experiment with fasting during Lent, here are a few suggestions.

•As with advice for physical exercise, begin modestly. A week of fasting, or even a full day, may be too big a step. Try missing lunch, at least one day each week.

•Use that time to pray, to read Scripture or other devotional material. Clip newspaper accounts of violence and offer intercessory prayer. Begin your evening meal by mentioning these stories and offering prayer. If you have children, involve them.

•If physical health prevents you from missing a meal, substitute appropriately: a small bowl of rice, a handful of raw vegetables or a piece of fruit.

•Another way to fast is to forgo certain kinds of food or beverages during Lent: meat, sugar, caffeine, or chocolate. Or snacks between meals.

•Fast from certain other behaviors (or forge new ones). Put the television in the closet for Lent. Swear off the mall. If you work too many hours, reduce that schedule to free time for your family, for your own rest and renewal. Consider rising before dawn each morning to write in a journal or walk around your neighborhood, pausing to offer appropriate prayers: at the houses of your neighbors; at your local school; in front of local businesses; at the local health clinic.

Whether adhering to ancient traditions or creating new ones, let your imagination ride alongside your resolve.


At whatever point you begin, make it a point of challenge, not fearfulness. The point of fasting from food is not calories. Rather, it is to gain control over our appetites.

Bringing personal habits under control, adjusting them so that they nudge us toward health rather than heart attack, toward life rather than death—these are reasons for fasting. And as we do this, we become aware of the need to bring public, corporate habits (policies) under control; we face the need for policies that nudge our nations toward health and life.

©Ken Sehested @