Lent and the Discipline of Fasting, a Commentary

February 12, 2016

“Cry with full throat, without restraint;

Raise your voice like a ram’s horn!

Declare to My people their transgression,

To the House of Jacob their sin.”

Isaiah 58: 1

Today is the first Friday of Lent in 2016. It is appropriate that we spend some time discussing a time honored discipline of Lent, i.e. fasting.  If truth be known most every faith tradition – past and present – has privileged fasting as an essential spiritual practice together with prayer and repentance.

Yes, it is true that fasting is the voluntary refraining or abstaining from food or drink over a given period of time.  But it is more.  It is also a powerful spiritual discipline. Unfortunately it is  one of the most neglected of spiritual disciplines. In the context of Lent it is the cry of a hurting individual to God for strength and healing.  It is a humble plea for mercy and help because we either lost our way or can no longer face up to our problems.

Unfortunately many of us fast in the hope that God will give us something or change our circumstances to our advantage.  The deal is, if we fast God will answer even if what we ask for is not right with him or according to his purposes.  If he does not give us the answer we are looking for or responds in a way that is not to our advantage, he is patently unfair.  Others of us make a show of fasting hoping to draw attention to our holiness and godliness.  We seek to appear pious.  Jesus commented upon this way of fasting in Matthew “When you are fasting, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they go about looking unsightly to let people know they are fasting.  In truth I tell you, they have had their reward.”  (6: 16)

In a later passage he condemns those who display their piety while at the same time exploiting or taking advantage of their employees or brothers and sisters by laying a heavy burden on them, “they tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they!  Everything they do is done to attract attention …” (Matthew 23: 4-5) God does not help those who oppress others.  Instead, seeing that they are motivated by sin and by wickedness and by deceit, he judges them as masters of manipulation, false humility, self-importance and adulation, and lies.  They speak the right words, but their souls are darkened by sin in its many manifestations.   How many of us are in this camp?  How many of us put up an elaborate front, a show with no substance, no change of heart, and no sense of reality.  Is it any wonder that Isaiah in his day and the honest preacher in our day would deny that this is not the fasting of which God would find acceptable?

“…this is the fast I desire:

To unlock the fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free,

To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry,

And to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him,

And not to ignore your own kin.

Then shall your light burst through like the dawn

And your healing spring up quickly;

Your Vindicator shall march before you,

The Presence of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then, when you call, the Lord will answer;

When you cry, He will say: Here I am.”

Isaiah 58: 6-8

And so, what does God desire? For him fasting is more than abstaining from food or one’s favorite delicacy such as chocolate.  It is loosening the chains of injustice, freeing the oppressed, feeding the hungry, providing for the poor, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned and the sick, and comforting the afflicted … in a word focusing on others rather than myself.

Fasting is sharing in and entering more deeply into the central mysteries of our Christian faith, Jesus’ Passion, death and resurrection.  It is a way to clear away the detriment that clouds our judgment and to show us how much we really need God and how much our brothers and sisters need us. It is about a radical shift in our lifestyle, a move away from the excesses of modern life, anything that comes between us and God.  It involves action and risk.  As a young college student put it: “It is an invitation to bring healing to our world.  It is about fasting from our personal habits and patterns which may be keeping us from God such as anger, resentment, criticism, selfishness, not loving ourselves or conversely, self-aggrandizement, indifference, or apathy.  It is about reaching out to others thusly setting them free of their oppressions, and being set free by them.”




Milton Lopes is a Spiritual Director and Dream Group Leader.  He is also the author of Lenten Reflections From the Desert to the Resurrection, published by Westbow Press, www.westbowpress.com.  This title is also available through www.amazon.com. your local bookseller or preferred on-line retailer. Dr. Lopes can be reached mlopes@thyspirit.com or www.thyspirt.com

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