By Chip MacGregor
We are beginning to realize that we hunger for God and that for far too long we have settled for far too little. —John Kirvan
For centuries in many cultures around the world, an important spiritual practice was that of fasting—giving up food (or other things we enjoy) for a certain amount of time, in order to focus on God and pray. It is still common in many parts of the world, and part of the Lenten tradition.
But let’s face it… in our culture, fasting is not popular, though it is perhaps necessary for spiritual growth. Fasting can take many forms. For some, their appetite for things is far greater than their appetite for food. Fasting from the Internet for a day might be harder (and more spiritually healthy) than simply abstaining from eating. So don’t think of fasting as merely skipping a meal, but as putting off a desire in order to focus on God.
When Jesus taught on fasting, he began by saying, “When you fast . . .” He didn’t say, “If you fast . . .” Fasting was a normal part of religious life for Jews in his culture.
Why would we even want to deny ourselves in this way? Obviously we can pray without fasting, so why bother?
Marjorie Thompson, in her book Soul Feast, writes: “In the ancient Jewish tradition, fasting had two primary purposes. The first was to express personal or national repentance for sin. The second purpose was to prepare oneself inwardly for receiving the necessary strength and grace to complete a mission of faithful service in God’s name.”
Perhaps the reason we don’t fast is that we really don’t do much repenting. We take grace for granted and label our sins as “youthful indiscretion” or simply “mistakes.” We’re also a bit weak on the concept of mission—we grind through life and do not see the challenges in our way as a God-given mission. We substitute watching others engage in battle (in sports) or adventure (action movies or video games) and never consider the possibility that perhaps God has a real adventure he wants us to embark upon.
Fasting can take us deeper into our spiritual lives and provide clarity about what really matters, what really feeds our souls. As Thompson observes, “Are we aware of how much sustains our life apart from physical food? Do we have an inner conviction that Christ is our life? 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.”
Does that describe you? “Content to live at life’s surface”? Or perhaps you are anything but content—you want to live a life that is deeper and richer. You are hungry for God.
Ironically, the practice of fasting can begin to satisfy that hunger. It is not an easy practice, but it is one you can slowly get better at. If you’ve ever tried to change your lifestyle, for example by exercising, you know you cannot just jump off the couch to run a marathon. Fasting, similarly, is a practice best begun in small steps.
The Bible is very clear that fasting is a practice that is to be combined with prayer. The idea is to voluntarily abstain from food or from something else in order to focus on God and be “fed” by his word and by prayer.
The Practice of Lent
Today, one challenge is to try a very simple form of fasting. Instead of eating lunch during your lunch break, spend your time reading a couple psalms, then take a bit of time for prayer. Perhaps you want to focus your prayers on a specific situation that you are facing, where you feel you need God’s help. Perhaps you want to intercede on the behalf of a friend or family member who is sick or facing some struggle. (Note: loading up with a huge breakfast will backfire, trust me, so eat normally at breakfast and dinner).
Jesus said when we fast not to make a big deal of it (see Matthew 6:16–18). So during your normal lunch break, get alone. (If someone asks you to lunch, tell them you have an appointment. You don’t have to tell them it’s with God.) Spend your time praying instead of eating.
In the afternoon, you may feel a bit hungry. Resist the urge to snack—wait until dinner. Drink water. Let hunger pangs remind you of God’s presence with you, and remind you to pray, even in the midst of your daily activities. Allow his love to sustain you.
I can tell you that fasting has been one of the most significant practices that have enhanced my spiritual life. I’ve fasted from food (as well as from TV, news, alcohol, Facebook, the web, and sports at various times) in order to focus on God, and I have always found that it helps me grow in my spiritual walk. Give it a try, even in a small way, this Lenten season.
 John Kirvan, God Hunger (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 1999), 12.
 Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995) 69-71.
 Ibid, p. 71.