What Exactly Is Christian Fasting All About?

"The Blind Man's Meal" by Pablo Picasso
“The Blind Man’s Meal” by Pablo Picasso

I was recently asked about fasting: What exactly is it? Why do religious people do it? What purpose does it serve? I do not claim to be an expert; but I do practice the discipline once a week. So I might be able to give a few ideas but claim no authority; thus I’m opening this up in a blog post to allow an open format discussion on the topic.

As I see it, we typically fast for several reasons:

  1. to get something
  2. to do penance for something
  3. to discipline ourselves for something

And I don’t think these bad things.

In fact I think these are the starting points for all fasting. I know when I started to fast it was for my church to grow. But as I did it more and more I began to find my motives getting purified; I found I had to make my demands less petulant and demand-y (reminding myself fasting is not a hunger-strike) and more and more of my submitting to His will; in fact the further along I got in the practice I found I prayed less for what I wanted and more “yet Thy will not mine be done.” I began to say “yet give us what we need, not what we want” – and I’ve strangely found this to be precisely granted. Miraculously even. So I am committed to fasting – because it works – yet often not in the way I expect it to. But it definitely has the (side) effects of:

  1. subduing my appetites for lesser things
  2. making me more content with lesser things
  3. raising my appetite for spiritual things
  4. making me more submissive / receiving / open to God’s plans

On a theological note I see fasting as learning to be content with all of the fruits of the Garden (of Eden). And yet why is it that we are so often drawn to that one forbidden fruit? It’s nuts-o! We have all the fruits of the garden! It’s all ours! Yet because we are discontent, restless, and irritable, we pursue that which is not ours. Fasting subdues this inordinate hunger and makes us content with the lavish generosity God has already given us. In that sense one of the best ways to conclude a period of fasting is to close with the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread…” and I am also reminded of a line from the Serenity Prayer: “that we may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy forever in the next.” Fasting puts hungers into perspective. We want life to be euphoric, delicious, decadent, succulent, rich, deliriously happy. That is seeking supreme happiness in this life. But that’s not supreme happiness. It’s cavities, cancers, and cravings. True happiness is satisfaction. Contentment. Fasting raises reasonable happiness in this life. Makes us satisfied with our humble, daily bread.

I still ask for what I want / need in fasting, however.

But in the end I find myself – to preserve my own integrity – having to say, “Yet not my will but thine be done.” I know too well that I don’t know too well what I need.

God does. And the more I fast, the more I get that.


Published by Wayne Park

Asian-American clergyman thinking about issues of faith, place, race and culture-making in the vast city of Houston, TX

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