With Lent upon us, it is prudent to ask: why do we fast?
First, a better question might be, what is fasting?
From a spiritual perspective, fasting is an abstaining from a material good for the sake of turning away from “worldly” and sinful ways and back to God. Christ himself said that His disciples would fast once He had departed (Lk 5:35). Typically, fasting involves the restriction of diet in some way. The Church has classically recommended fasting every Friday during Lent, asking the faithful to abstain from meat. Interestingly, the largely secular health and fitness industry has caught on to fasting, particularly in diets such as Intermittent Fasting and eating in a caloric deficit.
So, why should we fast? Simply put, spiritual progress is difficult in today’s world without moderating or limiting consumption of things. Moreover, with our ever-increasing consumer oriented and materialistic world, fasting does not have to be limited to food.
I recently watched a documentary on Netflix on Minimalism. While it was secular in nature, I found myself inspired by the story. The concept of the film was simple: these men and women had adopted a lifestyle of not living in excess. They sold many of their possessions, lived in smaller homes, and just had less stuff. This, many testified, led to their ultimate happiness. And I believe them. Further, this is a glimpse into the popular culture’s mind. While wealth and consumerism are at an all-time high, anxiety and depression are on the rise, and our individual peace and contentment have been compromised.
Remember the story of the rich man? After telling Jesus he had observed the law perfectly, Jesus went one step further. “Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.” (Mat 19: 21-22)
Now, am I suggesting that we sell everything we own for Lent? Certainly not. That is between you and God. More on that in a moment. But, look at the emotion from the man after Jesus asked him to give up his things. He was sad. This would suggest that in order to be happy, and in Jesus’ words “perfect”, we cannot cling to these external things. In fact, He asks that we give these things up before we follow Him.
It is important to note: spiritual progress and happiness are two different things. You can be living the spiritual life and not feel happiness. However, I would suggest that the pursuit of authentic spiritual progress will lead to your ultimate happiness.
With that said, from what should we fast? I suggest taking a hard look at what vice might be gripping you right now, today. Perhaps it’s overeating, or maybe over-consumption of material goods. Maybe it’s another bad habit. For myself, it is clearly the overuse of modern technology, specifically that of my phone. Constant scrolling on social media, consuming the latest sports and news, checking emails and snap-chatting keeps me away from the very thing I am trying to gain while staying “plugged in”: connection. So, my hope is, that in disconnecting in some way, I will re-connect. Re-connect with my family, more play time with my son, more downtime with my wife and our expectant new child, more time to pray, reflect and write.
The minimalism concept was compelling, but it fell short of the most important point of all. The minimalists claimed that in order to find complete happiness, you simply had to stop collecting material goods. So close, but not enough in my opinion. After this initial “giving up”, there is more God asks of us. This thought kept bringing me back to scripture, and this, I believe, is at the heart of a real, strong Lenten practice:
“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mat 16:25)
My next few blog posts will be my reflections this Lent on my small attempt to “lose” some of my life for God’s sake. Stay tuned.