21 February 2010

On Fasting

Here's a little something I wrote up for our congregation. Rev. David Petersen's recent church newsletter article on the same topic helped me think through some of this (especially under point #1):

The Christian is invited to and expected to fast. Although Christians typically fast on certain days throughout the year--except during the Easter season--Lent is an especially appropriate season to practice fasting. Fasting is a bodily exercise of self-control and repentance, both themes of the Lenten season.

Christians do not fast just to “give something up.” Fasting is not a punishment or a kind of religious masochism. Instead, we fast for two general reasons: 1) to increase the joy of the festive seasons, such as Easter, and 2) to train our souls to be self-controlled.

Firstly, fasting enhances the rhythms of life. When you fast during solemn times, the joy of festivity is enhanced. Small servings of potatoes and vegetables during Lent makes the lamb and pies of Easter taste richer and sweeter. By engaging the body in the mood of the season, the experiences of restraint and of plenty are heightened. Fasting joins your body to what is happening with your spirit.

Secondly, fasting trains your soul. That isn’t a typo. It should not seem odd that bodily exercise ends up training your soul, for your soul is the center and source of your desires. When you intentionally deprive your soul of what it wants, it has to get by without. When you want supper but don’t eat it, not only your belly, but your soul also learns temperance and resiliency. Fasting trains not only your body, but also your self-control.

Why is that important? Your desires, uncontrolled, give in to temptation. They lead you into sin. Uncontrolled desires make idols of what your soul wants: desiring excess food is gluttony; desiring extravagant clothing or cars or décor is greed; desiring a man or woman outside of marriage is adultery. Desiring anything outside of God’s order makes you an idolater.

Fasting is like working out. It is spiritual exercise. As jogging or lifting weights conditions your body, fasting conditions your soul.

So how should you fast? Like exercise, start with a routine you can handle. If you have never fasted before, don’t try to give up food for a whole day. But, on the other hand, make it noticeable. Everyone should be able to give up dessert and second helpings. For moderate fasting, eat smaller portions at each meal. To step it up a bit, replace two meals each with a small snack, and, for the third meal, eat only about half of what you normally would.

Can’t do it every day? Fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, the days Christians traditionally fasted throughout the year.

Want to fast in a specific way to address your particular weaknesses and temptations? Think about what tempts you, and limit your exposure. If shopping is your weakness, no shopping sprees or comfort purchases during Lent. Too much time wasted on the internet, or visiting sites you shouldn’t be? Only use it at work or when someone else is with you. If you need encouragement, counsel, or more ideas talk with your pastor.

Fasting makes you more conscious of your desires. Even as you try to control them, they will seem enhanced, simply because you’re thinking about them. As you become more aware of temptations and sinful desires, confess them. Confess them in your prayers, confess them in preparation for the Divine Service, and confess them to your pastor. Then receive the absolution of Christ, and His life and Spirit to encourage and refresh you on your spiritual journey.

Note: Sundays are never fast days, so go ahead and enjoy the good gifts of creation to their fullest on these days! Also, expectant or nursing mothers, children, and the ill are never expected to fast from food, but to provide the nourishment their bodies need.


organistsandra said...

My children and I were discussing fasting last week, and your article gives us much to think about. Self-denial or self-discipline is about recognizing I let myself and my desires be my god.

Sometimes it's even harder to deny my children than myself. I quietly fast and then offer them excuses or exceptions. Woe is me.

This also brings to mind a sentence in Matt Harrison's new book,"A Little Book on Joy": We rarely get enough of what we don't need to make us happy.

Bikermom said...

The part about pregnant and nursing mothers is true but I do think that even they can fast in a way......eating things that are healthy for them and their baby and not indulging in the extreme with the excuse that they are pregnant. That is a matter of self-discipline which can certainly be practiced even while pregnant or nursing and most of the pregnant women I know use their 'condition' as an excuse to go crazy. There are guidelines on how much should be eaten and many of us pregnant folks overeat with the excuse that we are expecting so we can. Of course we shouldn't starve ourselves but still can practice moderation and health. Make sense???

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

Dear Bikermom,

You're absolutely right. I want to reassure mothers and the ill that they are not less pious when they don't fast--they are doing what is pious and good in their situation. They are fulfilling the Fifth Commandment, and mothers are fulfilling their vocation.

Yet you are right to point out that no one should ever be a glutton. Not fasting for health reasons is very different from using health as an excuse to overindulge.

Pastor Foy said...

Excellent post, thank you. Very helpful in thinking about fasting. Great words of encouragement and wisdom as well.

Nice to know that fasting is not about starving oneself throughout the season. I think the areas other than food that you touched on were fantastic as well.

Pastor Peasant said...

I think it is also important not to single out fasting, but to include it in the three traditional disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Those three are mentioned together in the Ash Wednesday Gospel and all are assumed (when you . . .). I think if we see these three things as intertwined it is easier to see the rationale. The denied cravings of fasting can drive us to prayer. Prayer directs us away from ourselves. Money saved on food can be given to the poor. Man does not live by bread alone, and man does not live alone. A unified approach I think helps to keep the focus on God and my neighbor, rather than what I am doing.

kge said...

Wonderful post. Thank you.