Fasting seems to be the one Means of Grace that most of us are unsure about. We are uncomfortable with the idea of not eating because we think it is unhealthy, impractical, outdated, or just too hard. Yet during Lent many of us do participate in a type of fasting - giving up something we like or depend on too much. Or maybe just something we needed to give up anyway.
In the passage from Matthew, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he had to fast for forty days and forty nights. During that fast he came face to face with temptation and in each case had to decide if God was the source of his being or if he was the source.
Why We Fast? - We fast to come face to face with the temptation to proclaim ourselves as our own source, power and salvation, and to give that inclination to God so that we can with all boldness and conviction proclaim that God alone is our strength, our rock, and our redeemer.
How do we Fast? - John Wesley gave three classifications of fasting. (Henry H. Knight III. Eight Life Enriching Practices of United Methodists. Nashville: Abingdon Press 2001, pg. 97)
The lowest form of fasting is to give something up which we like or depend on too much.
The middle form of fasting is to abstain from eating for one meal during the course of the day.
And the highest form of fasting is to go a whole day with out eating - fridays if possible so that your fast corresponds to the day of the week on which Jesus was crucified. (Kenneth L. Carder. Living Our Beliefs. Nashville: Discipleship Resources 2009, pg. 112)
So what do we fast? - I want to be real clear here - fasting is not always about not eating or about giving something up. One of the best testimonies I ever heard was from someone who struggled with their body image and with dieting and trying to achieve some standard for how they should look, so they decided that their Lenten fast would be to eat chocolate chip cookies everyday during Lent.
For most of us giving something up, skipping a meal, or going a day without eating is exactly the type of fast we need, because that growling stomach, that gnawing hunger is exactly what we need to feel to remind ourselves to pray that we might have the true strength to rely on God in all things. But for some of us we need to take something on in order to actually give something up. A spiritual practice, physical activity, indulging.
We have to fast because there are so many things that we put before God, so many things we rely on more than we rely on God, so many ways that we try to make ourselves into gods, providing for our own needs, and being ,and salvation. If we don’t fast, we never come face to face with the illusions that we have set up in our own lives. We never see all the ways we deceive ourselves and are deceived. And we never see the true source and perfecter of our faith.
But fasting is hard and it is impractical and we have to have support in it. We need to practice it and to be held accountable for it. We have to have people who can help us see when our fasts are, or become, easy and we need to push forward, or when our fast is too much and we need give ourselves a break. We have to have support because we can’t afford not to fast.