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For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me. When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach (Ps 69:9-10).
In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia a word was revealed to Daniel, who was named Belteshazzar. And the word was true, and it was a great conflict. And he understood the word and had understanding of the vision. In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks (Dan 10:1-3).
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deut 8:3).
Welcome to Lent, where the reasons are made up and the fast doesn’t matter. This seems to be the attitude toward Lent—and other fasts—among us Evangelicals.
And I think it’s something that’s impoverished us spiritually. To us, fasts are usually something taken on only when you personally feel called to, for a specific need in your life.
This has actually been the main opposition to our semesterly community fasts in our ministry. We say, “The ministry will be fasting for three days on these dates! Join us!” And the number one thing I hear from people who don’t participate is, “I just don’t feel called to a fast right now,” or, the funniest one, “I just feel like I need to do a personal fast more than a community fast.”
We see fasts, not as a regular discipline, but as something that God calls us to individually at specific times.
And God does that from time to time. But God also calls us to a habit of fasting as well, for the benefit of our spiritual growth! Because fasting is a medicine to be used to aid in healing in specific situations, but it’s also an exercise to be practiced regularly for continued health!
John Chrysostom spoke a lot about fasting: about its physical and spiritual dimensions, and their interactions. I really can’t say it better than he did. There’s a reason he’s called Chrysostom, which means, “Golden-Mouthed”:
I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honor fasting; for the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it.
Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works!
Is it said by what kind of works?
If you see a poor man, take pity on him!
If you see an enemy, be reconciled to him!
If you see a friend gaining honor, envy him not!
If you see a handsome woman, pass her by!
For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being pure from rapine [plunder] and avarice.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles.
Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties.
For looking is the food of the eyes, but if this be such as is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting. For it would be among things the most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to touch even what is forbidden. Do you not eat flesh? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of the eyes.
Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies [slanders]. “Thou shalt not receive a false report,” it says.
Let the mouth too fast from disgraceful speeches and railing. For what does it profit if we abstain from birds and fishes; and yet bite and devour our brethren? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother, and bites the body of his neighbor.
Fasting is much more than abstaining from food. So often, food is the sole focus. You say, “It’s fasting time, so I’m not going to eat.” But you still ogle attractive men or women, or listen to gossip (including celebrity gossip on TV and such), and you even slander people!
If that is a fast to you, you are better off being a glutton. At least then you aren’t deluding yourself.
So it’s Lent. It’s a time of fasting for most of the Christian community.
Take part in it, at least in some way! Lent is a community fast where Christians refrain from eating meat for forty days. But more than that, it’s a time of celebration (because, as Jesus said, when you fast do not look gloomy), and of spiritual refinement. It is a time of focus and discipline.
During this time, take extra care to discipline your tongue from speaking behind people’s backs. Discipline your ears from listening to slander. Discipline your eyes from looking lustfully at attractive people. Discipline your compassion by giving to the needy without restraint. Discipline your ambition by refusing to envy those who receive praise.
And fast something food-wise, too. If you can refrain from eating meat for forty days, do it! If you don’t think you can, maybe eat meat only on Sundays, or two days each week, or something. Whatever you do, make it something that challenges you! Would you rather mess up in your fasting a few times as you find out what’s stretching but doable, or would you rather waste 40 days with a “fast” that doesn’t challenge you at all?
Use this as a time to discover the greatness of fasting! Not just as a band-aid during times of need, but as a habit that will enrich your life!
Fast to live life more fully and richly!