5 Reasons to Fast According to the Bible

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Why do we fast — or give something up — during Lent? Is fasting a punishment? Does God want us to make ourselves miserable? Or is fasting just an old-fashioned thing we do that really has no meaning? Reflecting on what Scripture has to say about fasting may help us understand the rich roots of this spiritual tradition — one that Jesus himself practiced and clearly expected would continue (see Matthew 6:16-18; Luke 4:1-2; 5:34-35).

1. Fasting is a sign of sorrow and repentance.

Although no one is asking us to wallow in contrition to the point of self-loathing, Lent is a time when we examine our hearts and lives, recognizing the times we have failed to be faithful to God. When we recognize our sin, it can actually be liberating. Suddenly we understand why we need God. Suddenly we understand what has been missing. Our Lenten fast is a recognition of our sin in a healthy way. It is something we do and feel. It is a sign of our repentance.

As God says to us in one of our Ash Wednesday readings: “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning” (Joel 2:12). And the psalmist, the master of prayer, writes, “I humbled my spirit with fasting” (Psalm 69:11).

2. Fasting helps us to empty ourselves.

When we give something up — whether it is food or drink or something else — we are willingly emptying ourselves. Whatever “place” in our lives that used to be filled by that thing is now empty. What will fill that space? What do we yearn for? St. Paul had a brilliant answer to these questions based on his own experiences of emptiness. He wrote: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). What was the source of this strength? It was “the power of Christ” that filled the emptiness in his life (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Mindfully shedding distractions or burdens during Lent (or at any time in our lives) can keep our focus on God and create a space where he can dwell with us. This is what we want more than anything this world can give us: “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God” (Psalm 42:2).

3. Fasting helps us to be mindful of those who have little.

The small deprivations we may experience during Lent can open our minds and hearts to those who do not have the things they need. Our voluntary deprivations should help us grow in awareness of those who are involuntarily deprived, whether physically or emotionally. There is no better commentary here than the impassioned words of the prophet Isaiah, who tells us of the kind of fast God truly desires:

Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose:

releasing those bound unjustly,

untying the thongs of the yoke;

Setting free the oppressed,

breaking off every yoke?

Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,

bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;

Clothing the naked when you see them,

and not turning your back on your own flesh?

(Isaiah 58:6-7)

Our fast means nothing if it is for ourselves only. Our fast should always turn us outward to look upon our neighbor with love and compassion, to “share our bread,” to “break every yoke,” and to love our kin.

4. Fasting is something we do together.

The Bible is full of stories of human failure, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. We only have to look around us — at our Church, our homes, our workplaces, and our communities — to see that this cycle continues. But one prominent theme of Scripture reassures us: We are in this together. The people of Israel repented together “while fasting and wearing sackcloth” (Nehemiah 9:1), and together they were embraced by God. It is the same for us in the Church. We are in this together. We fast together. We are forgiven — we are loved — together.

5. We make a small sacrifice because Jesus Christ made the big one.

The penitential practices of Lent prepare us for Easter as they help us appreciate the cross of Christ. “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And Jesus did this willingly, because he loves us: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). When we fast, we join Jesus on the cross. Like St. Paul, we glory in the cross, this instrument of our salvation: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

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