A Case for Lenten Fasting

Giving Up Something for Lent?

I’ve heard it more than a couple times this Lenten season: “What’s more important is what you take up, not would you give up.” In other words, it is more important to take up a spiritual discipline during Lent than to give something up. But is this really true?

A Case for Lenten Fasting

 

A few weeks back, I tried and tried and tried to convince my youth to participate in the 30 Hour Famine, which is World Vision’s program inviting youth groups across the country to fast in order to raise awareness around global hunger and to help raise funds to support efforts to feed the hungry. When no one bit after my many attempts to convince my youth that fasting is worthwhile! And important! And did I mention super cool? I even said—okay, forget a 30 Hour Famine, let’s do a 10 Hour Famine and just try it for the day.

Still no.

Lent and Fasting

I grew up in a charismatic, non-denominational church—fasting was a pretty common practice. I remember attending church camp one summer and went to my youth minister with a spiritual crisis. Her answer? “Fast for the day tomorrow, pray, and see what God reveals.”

Guess what—the fasting worked. I had clarity and fulfillment and it was an important part of my spiritual journey. I remember my parents fasting when they had a big decision to make, or when they needed to do some intense praying. Fasting was all around me.

However, people didn’t really fast for Lent in my childhood church. In fact, I don’t remember anyone doing anything for Lent. We pretty much just went from Christmas to Palm Sunday—no real holy days in between.

Amid this I watched my Catholic friends, and some of my mainline friends, giving up something during the six weeks of Lent. I found this appealing. I’m not sure why—the public display of faith? Or was it the discipline—the reminder each time you said no to the thing you gave up of what and why you were doing it? Either way, I was intrigued.

When I attended seminary, I was introduced to the richness of observing the liturgical calendar. My first year experiencing Lent, I received ashes on my head for the first time on Ash Wednesday, and I fasted from Facebook and coffee (a big deal for this three-cups-a-day drinker). I was hooked and I’ve found observance of Lent to be an important part of my yearly rhythm. Now, as a youth minister, I’m trying to find ways to share the rich experience of Lent with my youth.

Practicing Disciplines Regularly

While fasting during Lent seemed to be the norm in days past, it seems now that fasting during Lent has the perception of being some kind of novel or kitschy thing. Something done for fun. Giving up chocolate is cute, and giving up alcohol is ambitious. More and more I’m hearing from people that they’re not so concerned with fasting during Lent. “I always give up,” I heard someone say recently, “just like a New Year’s Resolution.”

And I wonder if that gets at the problem. We’ve de-spiritualized fasting—treating it as some kind of inconvenient thing that comes up once a year. We’ve forgotten that the spiritual discipline of fasting is actually something to be incorporated into our spiritual practice throughout the year. I certainly know that I have forgotten.

We’ve de-spiritualized fasting—treating it as some kind of inconvenient thing that comes up once a year. We’ve forgotten that the spiritual discipline of fasting is actually something to be incorporated into our spiritual practice throughout the year.

Fasting as Revelation

I wonder if distancing ourselves from fasting is related to our aversion to discomfort. Man, do we like to feel comfortable! Denying the self is so medieval and for the birds. But isn’t it in our discomfort that we learn the most about ourselves and the world around us?

Richard J. Foster writes in his Celebration of Discipline,

“More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting, these things surface. If pride controls us it will be revealed almost immediately.”

That sounds terrifying and unpleasant… but also liberating.

Not Just a “Lent Thing”

I’m arguing that fasting during Lent is indeed important, but more than that, we might consider incorporating fasting into our regular lives outside of Lent. Lent, however, provides a good starting point; a great way to slowly reorient ourselves (or just orient ourselves) toward a more disciplined spiritual life which incorporates fasting.

As far as getting youth on board, that’s the real challenge, but use this as an opportunity to explore and experience a new spiritual discipline together. This Lent I decided to give up sugar—it’s a real addiction of mine. I mentioned to some of the high school girls in my youth group that I’d be doing this for Lent and they decided they wanted to try it too, so we created a group text in order to encourage one another and keep each other accountable. It’s been a meaningful way to check in with some of the youth in the youth group, and a good reminder for me why fasting is so important.

Lent is a time of emptying the self and seeking fullness in the life of Christ. What would be better than doing that in a physical way through a fast?

We may be several weeks into Lent already, but I challenge you to fast from something during Lent. Even if it’s something small. Lent is a time of emptying the self and seeking fullness in the life of Christ. What would be better than doing that in a physical way through a fast? Then, even after Lent is over, considering finding ways to incorporating fasting into the regular rhythm of your life and being to ask how you might encourage your youth do to same.


About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.

Comments

comments