Across many centuries Christians have fasted during Lent, although latterly the practice of actually going without meals has largely fallen into disuse. Lots of people will “give something up” for Lent - biscuits, chocolates, alcohol - and many others will take something on - a little extra prayer time, helping out at the charity shop, collecting some money for a charity, going to a Lent study group, reading a spiritual book or taking on some extra bible reading. Now all these things are very good and not to be dismissed as unworthy at all, but they seem to me to fall short of the mark of fasting.
I think that many of us consider fasting to be a rather old fashioned or primitive activity with little value in itself. We tend to be a little dismissive generally of things that we think are done “for their own sake.” Everything has to have a measurable benefit or it’s not worth doing. I think that’s a shame.
Fasting can achieve a good deal in the Christian life, and here area a few things it can achieve. First, going without food is a very timely reminder for us that we need food to survive. It seems a very obvious thing to say but food today, in the affluent part of the world in which we live is easily come by. To be sure, we may work very hard to earn the money we need to buy food (and other essentials) that we need for life but almost all of us have more than enough money to provide the essentials. Indeed, we spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than at any time in our history. Most of us don’t labour directly for food. Relatively few of grow our own food in our gardens, and even few of us provide our own meat for the table. It may not be the most pleasant chore but it is very easy to buy all we need in the local supermarket, and, with the convenience foods many of us use, preparing meals is easier than it’s ever been - and don’t forget how often we eat out or get a take away (much more often than past generations). This ease with which we feed ourselves can lead to us taking food for granted (the fact that in Britain we throw away about a third of our food suggests that this is the case). So, just going a little hungry reminds us that we need food. When it’s not there we miss it, we’re made more aware of it and we appreciate it more when we break our fast.
Fasting can also help us to get a clearer perspective on our needs. Going without a meal, or even a day’s food, will remind us that we can mange with a lot less than we normally eat. In our affluent society most of us eat much more than we need to survive. So much more that some of us are actually eating unhealthy amounts of food. Obesity is a real problem facing our society, but whether we are overweight or not we could almost all get by with considerably less. Fasting can help us to recognize what is enough and give us a glimpse of the difference between our needs and our wants. That is a difficult concept for us today, I think, bombarded as we are with advertisement which tell us that we need this or that product, and that our life will be enhanced by owning it. Our needs are basic indeed, and food is one of them. And just as with food so with other things. We have many more possessions than we need. That’s not a terrible thing in itself but it is good to be reminded of the fact from time to time.
A consequence of being reminded of the difference between what we need and what we want should be to make us more aware of the needs of others. While we have more than we need we should be aware that there are many in our world who have much less than they need. Insufficient food, a lack of clean drinking water, poor quality housing, not enough education, lack of opportunity for work. If fasting can make us aware of our needs it should also make us more aware of the needs of those who genuinely have less than enough to live on. One might even hope that it would make us more ready to share what we have with those who have nothing. That might mean giving up time to work for a charity, giving money for the relief of hunger or poverty, or getting involved in campaigning for justice for the world’s poor. In this way fasting can make more socially aware.
Fasting may also mean that we spend less on food and therefore have more to spend on other things and perhaps one of those other things could be the relief of poverty or sickness or the reduction of illiteracy in the world.
These are only a few of things that fasting can achieve if undertaken in a spirit of seriousness and self-examination. It really can make a difference to the world - and to you.
And I’ve not even mentioned how our relationship with God can be deepened. I’ll leave that to you to think about now.