Fasting — Tis the Season

Fasting — tis the season, but that raises the question: What is fasting?

FastingMT.jpg Try defining it, and I’ll make a suggestion. Go ahead — in your mind define it.

Here’s my suggestion: If, in defining fasting, we are tempted to define fasting as something we do “in order to” get something, I suggest we need to look again at the deepest wells of the Christian fasting tradition: the Bible. In Fasting: The Ancient Practices.  I suggest that in the Christian tradition we somehow got sidetracked.

We turned fasting into an instrument for personal spiritual formation, and in doing so lost one of its — if not its — key element. Fasting is not so instrumental in the Bible as it is responsive. So…

Instead of seeing fasting as a discipline we use, do, or practice “in order to” get answers to prayers, “in order to” become more attuned to God, or “in order to” become more spiritual, the Bible’s focus is on fasting as a response to life’s sacred, grievous moments. If in defining fasting you get quickly to the “in order” element… I suggest look again at the Bible.

The Bible urges us to move away from seeing fasting as something done in order to get something, and exhorts us to learn to see it as a response to some grievous or sacred moment/event. (I use a letter system.)

A (grievous moment, liked death) –> B (act of fasting) –> C (benefit)

I hear too many suggest we should fast (B) in order to get (C). I suggest in my book that the biblical pattern is much more A (grievous, sacred moment) triggering the natural response of fasting (B), whether we get C or not. Furthermore, fasting is an act whereby we enter into the pathos of God regarding that grievous moment. Anyway, I hope the book can be of use to you this Lent.

And one more element to think about as we enter Lent. To be sure, Lent is a time for fasting, but I suspect most of those who speak of “fasting” are talking about “abstinence” (not the same as what the Bible means by fasting). Fasting is suspension of all food (and sometimes drink) for a designated time — not the suspension of kinds of food (or internet, or social media). What happens when we use the word “fast” with “Twitter”? I suggest we are losing fundamental elements of fasting — the response to grievous, sacred moments.

The Church calendar is designed to embody the gospel itself on an annual basis: we begin the birth of the Messiah and then through a season called Epiphany and then we move into Lent and Holy Week with focus on Good Friday and Easter, and then we head for Pentecost and the rest of the year is called Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time is designed to focus on various elements of the Christian faith and mission. Lent prepares us for the gospel events — the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

How do you prepare for Lent? Or how will you prepare for Lent? Or, from another angle, why do you not prepare for Lent?

Well, some will say, the NT doesn’t teach a church calendar and so there’s no need for it. To which I (really not “I” but the Church) say, “Hold on, dear friend.” God so ordained Israel’s life so that it would re-live and embody the great saving events in God’s relationship with Israel. So, let’s begin right there: God evidently really does care to institutionalize saving events into a calendrical form. The Christians, from very, very early, wisely restructured the calendar to be shaped by the saving events in the life of Jesus. (And I don’t say this to snub my messianic friends who are Jewish. I see no reason why we can’t combine the Christian calendar with Israel’s calendar.)

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Paul W

    Although in our household we engage in the traditional practices of Lent we don’t do much to prepare for the season. Perhaps part of that stems from the understanding that Lent is itself a sort of preparatory season for Eastertide. For the most part, however, our preparation just includes mentions and acknowledgement of the upcoming season in our conversations as we anticipate our forty day Lenten journey.

    Well on second thought, we do have a couple of activities that start the season off for my family. First, we, like so many others, will have pancakes for dinner tonight (Pancake Tuesday) following a long tradition which I believe can be traced back to England. Also, tomorrow, we will begin the season by attending to our Church’s Ash Wednesday service and be marked with ash.

    For us, there’s something important about the imposition of ashes as a starting point for the season. It is both encouraging and sobering to be gathered together and identified as Christian people, marked with a sign of penitence, embracing our creaturely identity of being formed from dust, and engaged in life together with a view toward our own mortality.

  • Rob Henderson

    I have, in recent years, moved from preaching a Lenten series to preaching a Resurrection series focusing on the results of Christ’s death and resurrection. This has been, in no way, out of rebellion against the institution but simply a sense of how the Holy Spirit wants to minister to my particular congregation.

    We do practice Ash Wednesday though not with the actual ash on the forehead. (I’m not sure my folks are ready to be like the “Catholics.”)

    I do promote and emphasize the need of fasting during the Lenten season. I in particular practice no meat on Fridays (quite a challenge for one coming out of the conservative holiness movement). The fasting I do is more out of response to the Spirit’s wooing of my heart than out of a desire for an answer to a certain request.

    Great article that certainly gives me lots more to think about. Thanks, Scot.

  • Brian

    “How do you prepare for Lent? Or how will you prepare for Lent?”

    Hi Scot. I’m Orthodox, and in Orthodoxy we have 3 weeks that precede Great Lent that sort of “get us ready” for Lent. These are marked by the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, Sunday of the Last Judgment (also called Meatfare Sunday), and the Sunday of Forgiveness (also called Cheesefare Sunday).

    After Great Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday (the Saturday before, the liturgical day starting in the evening), we will celebrate the Rite of Forgiveness, thus “kicking off” formally Great Lent and continuing the penitential mood set by the preceding weeks.

    As for the fasting from food, the Orthodox Church kind of provides an “easing into”, if you will, the Great Fast. Meatfare Sunday is the last day for eating meat, Cheesefare Sunday the last day for dairy, and the the fast begins.

  • JustforQuix

    I lost an 18-year-long job last Thursday, and the outpouring of love from friends, family and colleagues has been tremendously buoying to our spirit. I find myself drawn to praying for others more than myself, especially when the inklings of despair about the unknown and uncertain creep in.

    I have been thinking about fasting (though the practice is not observed formally in my church tradition), and this post makes me think about deepening my communion with God, not to get problems solved faster, but to be more intentionally attuned to the humbling benefits of grief and buoyed up in God’s perspective (whose outpouring of grace in this trial we are already experiencing). Thank you for this Scot!

  • ChrisB

    I have to confess that I really don’t “get” Lent. I can’t see the point of it actually. I’m grateful for Jesus sacrifice and try to live “dying daily” and usually failing miserably. I’m not convinced that any form of “giving up ….? for Lent” will add anything to my journey other than more frustration. Sure it’s been around for a long time, but doesn’t it come from a church that re-instuted “law” because they missed the whole point about freedom in Christ? It seems to be an obligation imposed by an authoritarian church on longsuffering people who didn’t know any better and who thought they’d end up in hell if they didn’t comply.

  • http://www.desiremercy.wordpress.com Chad Holtz

    Scot,
    I just finished a post on my wife and I’s blog concluding a 4 part series on crucifying the self (in particular, the sin of lust) and how to “put on Christ.” One of the 5 things that changed my life was fasting. Not to get something, as you point out, but because I saw the plight of my own spiritual need and distance from God. I didn’t fast at first for any other reason than I felt I was being obedient. And in that obedience I learned how much fasting can do any number of things God might have ordained for the fast-er.
    For me, giving up food for 24 hours one day a week over a period of many months taught me that I can indeed say NO to the flesh! I can say no to lust. I didn’t know it at the time but I was growing spiritual muscles.

    For the person who feels weak-willed, living like a defeated Christian giving over to the same habitual sin again and again, I cannot recommend fasting enough.

    Here is the link to that post if interested: http://desiremercy.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/the-sin-of-self-gratification-putting-on-christ/

    Have a holy Lent!

  • Jean

    I am reading a book by Ruth Burrows, To Believe in Jesus, and she offers a valuable explanation of the purpose and value of self-denial (whether fasting or any other sensual pleasure):

    “[F]or the christian to maintain a hunger for God, a God who does not satisfy his senses, he must take care not so to encompass himself with the good things of this world that his need for God is not experienced.”

    “Christian austerity aims at freedom and reverence; it ensures that we receive God’s gift of pleasure in an ever more personal way.”

    “If we want to love our Lord and our neighbour, we must acquire the habit of disregarding our likes and dislikes.”

    Since this is an incomplete summary of Burrows’ book, it may raise more questions than it answers. However, if you see any points of light, I recommend the book. We don’t get points for observing lent or abstaining from anything, but we might just learn something about ourselves.

  • Steven

    I am wondering how you address Matthew 6 with your viewpoint. I mean I do agree that fasting should have elements of mourning at times but wonder how you see it as normative. It seems obvious from Jesus in Matthew 6 that fasting was expected in order to pursue righteousness and laying treasure in heaven. I am wondering, isn’t some of the motivation for fasting still to lay up treasure or good things for later? I do believe it would miss Jesus’ point if that were the sole or main aim of fasting. But still I see a partial motivation of what joy it will bring us later. I also wonder if fasting were only done in the sense of mourning or grieving, then how could they be listed with other practices that would be so common? Prayer, give to the poor. Prayer as we know is without ceasing a the care for the poor. Fasting would seem different and intermittent at best.

    I do want to clarify, not all fasting could surely lay this treasure in heaven because the focus is surely as important as the act. One of the new dieting fads for example is called intermittent-fasting or IF where an individual fast for 16-20 hrs and then breaks for single–even if extended meal. A popular book for this ideal is the “Warrior Diet” from Ori Horfmekler. It’s motivation is of course the loss of fat but also digestive health. But surely this is not the kind of fasting Jesus had in mind.

  • Steven

    I reread your article and see you mentioned missing a “key element” to fasting. I thought you were reducing fasting only to response in mourning. In light of that, then I wholly agree with what you’ve stated in your article. I certainly the great example of this in Job, the man who lost it all. Grieved, mourned, fasted. Amen.

  • http://www.desiremercy.wordpress.com Chad Holtz

    Jean,
    thank you for that resource. It sounds wonderful.

  • Mike M

    Did early Christians observe Lent? I’m sure they fasted at times since Jesus did and it was a part of their religious miieu (e.g. the Pharisees fasted for religious purposes). I think true fasting, as opposed to abstinence from something, has rewards far beyond the expected. But we don’t fast in order to get those unexpected rewards, either. And since when did sexual abstinence become something virtuous? Did this appear amongst early Christians or was it tacked on later? And I’m not referring to Paul’s advice to the unmarried either.

  • Doug H

    Fasting is something I do as an expression of my belief that “man does not live by bread alone.” Though I do not fast to get something, my experience is that it softens my heart toward others, exposes my materialism and lack of self-control toward food, and renews my soul. As an added benefit, I have observed a more powerful ministry as a result. However, I would imagine that might be due to spending more time in prayer rather than ordering my day around meals!

  • Daniel Groot

    Something worth thinking about as I observe the Lenten fast this year. One thing I’ve been considering, how does the fasting and praying before the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas fit into this “responsive” fasting?

    I do agree that fasting as a response to mourning is a key way we are called to fast. However I do see an understanding of fasting as an ‘instrument’ to draw us into deeper intimacy with Christ. Thoughts?

  • http://www.chezman86.blogspot.com Kevin

    Random thoughts:

    I guess I have always thought of fasting as a spiritual discipline since I read that in “Celebration of the Disciplines” and have been a reader of Dallas Willard. I’m not convinced that is wrong. In my own practice I feel it is “all or nothing”. I have to totally stop eating.

    Is it appropriate to tag fasting, i.e., “Lenten fasts”, “Daniel fasts”, etc…? Sun up to sundown or sun up to sun up? Week, 40 day, etc…

    Esther fasted for a favorable reply.

    In response to grieving how does sackcloth and ashes, tearing ones clothes, and pulling out ones beard translate today? :)

    It is a fascinating discussion and thinking exercise!

    I guess that’s why it says not many of you should be teachers!!! Lots of bad info out there. :)

  • T

    ChrisB (and others who honestly don’t see the point of Lent),

    I grew up SBC, so up until law school, “Lent” in my mind was one of those weird things that Catholics and similar high-Prots did that was an add-on to the real gospel.

    Here’s how I would describe it now: it’s an annual opportunity to remember, and even repent, but not in a one-and-done way. Lent is a slow, momentum-building, life-recalibrating remembrance that Christ lived the God-neighbor-&-enemy-love that he taught, even to the point of death. Lent is like the slow-con, but in reverse. It’s the slow-truth.

    Christ’s death is, for me, THE grievous moment. It reminds me how much it cost God to save this world and open his kingdom to us. It sobers me and helps me to remember and renew efforts, not to earn anything, but to detach from the world that constantly pulls to be my source, and I frequently use to dull pangs of fear and pain, instead of the great love and even blood of my God. It reminds me of my own death to this world that Christ’s death made happen. It invites me to welcome the reality and appropriateness of my death in light of his—and in the hope of his resurrection! And I embrace the fact that all who die with him are raised with him. I remember and re-experience his story as my own. I don’t need what this world is selling, not in the way they say. Lent is an annual, long sermon of Christ’s death (and ours), inviting us to let go of our lives and their attachments and set our hopes fully on the resurrection of the dead! Then, we too can love as he loved us, even to the point of death.

    Mumford & Sons has a song that is going to be a regular for me during Lent, called “I Will Wait”:

    Well I came home like a stone
    And I fell heavy into your arms
    These days of dust, which we’ve known
    Will blow away with this new sun

    And I’ll kneel down, wait for now
    And I’ll kneel down know my ground

    And I will wait, I will wait for you
    And I will wait, I will wait for you

    So break my step, and relent
    Well you forgave, and I won’t forget
    Know what we’ve seen and him with less
    Now in some way shake the excess

    But I will wait, I will wait for you
    And I will wait, I will wait for you
    And I will wait, I will wait for you
    And I will wait, I will wait for you

    Now I’ll be bold as well as strong
    And use my head alongside my heart
    So tame my flesh and fix my eyes
    A tethered mind freed from the lies

    But I’ll kneel down, wait for now
    I’ll kneel down know my ground

    Raise my hands, paint my spirit gold
    Bow my head, keep my heart slow

    ‘Cause I will wait, I will wait for you
    And I will wait, I will wait for you
    And I will wait, I will wait for you
    And I will wait, I will wait for you


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