No Sad Faces

Let’s talk about fasting. Fasting as a spiritual discipline so often connotes not eating some or all food for an extended period of time. While fasting certainly can, and often does, involve reduced food intake that is not always the case, nor is that the reason for fasting. So, let’s talk about fasting: why we do it, not what it often involves.

Fasting, as a spiritual discipline, is about self-denial. It is about humbly acknowledging our dependence on our loving God. What we do is never as important as why we do it. Fasting is a humble act that says not only “God, I want you;” but “God, I need you.” To fast is to reorient our priorities by acknowledging that all that we have and are is a gift from God in whom we depend for our life. Marjorie Thompson wrote in her wonderful book, Soul Feast:

Fasting brings us face to face with how we put the material world ahead of its spiritual Source…We will comprehend little of how we are nourished by Christ until we have emptied ourselves of the kinds of sustenance that keep us content to live at life’s surface. (p. 77)

The only way to a deeper relationship with God is a transformation of heart and mind that recognizes that we can do and be nothing apart from God’s mercy, grace, and creative power. The self-denial of fasting can portray that message in powerful and tangible ways.

Fasting was common in Jesus’ day. Jesus was concerned that fasting was being used to shine the spotlight on the one fasting rather on God. So he included this little, pointed instruction in the Sermon on the Mount:

And when you fast, don't put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward. (Matthew 6:16, CEB)

Too often the people of Jesus’ day would walk around with sad faces, looking as gaunt as they could, while they were fasting. Their purpose was to show those around them how deep their spirituality and sacrifice were. Jesus knew that this was an act of pride, not humility; and thus missed the spirit of fasting altogether. “No sad faces when you fast,” Jesus said. “Go about your normal routine in the normal way. Don’t make a show of yourself. Instead spend your time thinking about how much you receive from God’s loving hands.” God, not us, is the focus.

“So how do we fast?” you may wonder. Ask yourself what sorts of things are so important to you that they distract you from giving wholehearted allegiance to God, depending on God for all that you have and are? Then deny yourself of that for a period of time. That is fasting. Perhaps you will find yourselves abstaining from food … drink … constant media stimulation … eating overpackaged, over processed food … judging others and ourselves … overpacked schedules … or some other. What we choose as our means of self-denial may be different for all of us. What is important is that, whatever we choose, the abstinence reminds us of God’s glory, power, and love, and transforms us with reoriented priorities that focus first, last, and always on God.

I really don’t know if St. Augustine was referring to fasting specifically when he wrote this, but the words are appropriate anyway:

"Let the flame of thy love...set on fire my whole heart...may I wholly burn towards thee, wholly be on fire toward thee, wholly love thee, as though set on fire by thee." (St. Augustine)

May that be the goal of our fasting: not sad faces that the world might be impressed with the depths of our spirituality … but hearts aflame with a renewed passion for the God who made us, sustains us, and will never let us go.

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