Fasting: more than just skipping meals

The latest trend is intermittent fasting. Bookshops are full of books on the topic. But fasting is more than not eating or skipping meals. It has consequences you have to accept. A reflection on Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent.

Fasting is a training for more humanity, a German theologian and author says. And indeed, many people see a connection between theology and fasting. Religious or ritual fasting is ancient. Practically every religion recommends periods of fasting, and prescribes rules which the believers must comply with. There is no period of fasting without rules. However, fasting does not lend itself to a compulsory exercise, because it is much more than that.

Voluntarily and consciously

Fasting must be voluntary. This is what distinguishes it by definition from food deprivation. Being sober, for example, also means more than avoiding excesses in alcohol or food. It can also mean to be moderate in other ways and focus on what is important and distance oneself from things that are secondary. The same is true for fasting: it empties, and the space created can be filled with important and proper things. It’s a simple equation. Fasting liberates, fasting soothes, fasting heals, fasting regenerates.

Christians can find many examples in Scripture. They all have one thing in common: those who deliberately abstain become strong despite giving something up. Jesus fasted before He began His mission. Paul fasted before he was baptised. Fasting is the gate to something higher, a kind of training for phases when the crunch is on—the most important motivation. All the great founders of religions went through a period of abstaining. Muhammad fasted before the Quran descended. Moses went up Mount Sinai and fasted before God gave him the Ten Commandments. Whether during Ramadan or Yom Kippur, believers are called to refocus on their faith through fasting and thus come closer again to their God.

It is more than just not eating

This shows that there is more to fasting than just physical well-being, because it is more than skipping meals or giving up food. Often it is also a question of becoming more aware of what we usually consume: How well do I tolerate what I eat? Whom am I harming besides myself? Here moral aspects come into play: fasting is a way to save natural resources. We should not eat everything, and we should not eat everything at all times. Pausing and periods of rest are needed. This is what people around the world are doing: in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, everywhere.

Fasting means choosing to give things up

Back to the ritual fast: faith implies repentance. Christians have been aware of this from the very beginning. Faith is always also a struggle against sin and guilt. That is why periods of fasting are necessary. The liturgical calendar recommends the time from Ash Wednesday to Easter for this or during Advent. The ancient Church attached great importance to strict rules and punished those who ate at the wrong time. Today various denominations recommend abstaining from chocolate, alcohol, tobacco, or watching TV. Those who consume too much of all that is offered will soon get tired of it. Instead, voluntarily giving up things we have come to love benefits the few things that remain. Your inner balance is restored, even if the devil comes out of the bush at the beginning of a period of fasting, as he did at the time when Jesus was in the wilderness. After that, however, peace returns and the cleansing can begin. It is a spring cleaning of a special kind.

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Peter Johanning
Congregational life