Why Fast? Ten Contentious Reasons

FEBRUARY 2012: ESSAY

by Adam Brooks Webber

People eat the darnedest things. Escargot. Haggis. Lutefisk. Cheez Whiz. Our eating shows great diversity—and so does our fasting. As a global and interfaith practice, fasting can take on a variety of forms. Within the Christian context in particular, fasting is motivated by a host of reasons. In the Institutes, John Calvin contends that “a holy and lawful fast has three ends in view. We use it either to mortify and subdue the flesh, that it may not wanton; or to prepare the better for prayer and holy meditation; or to give evidence of humbling ourselves before God, when we would confess our guilt before him” (IV.12.15). Within the broader history of the Christian tradition, and within current practice, the reasons for fasting are even more diverse.

Interest in fasting has surged of late. Recent books—including Fasting by Scot McKnight, The Daniel Fast by Susan Gregory, The Ultimate Guide to the Daniel Fast by Kristen Feola, and The Miracle of Fastingby Patricia Bragg and Paul C. Bragg—explore the practice from numerous vantage points. In what follows, I draw on both historical and contemporary examples in offering ten possible reasons for fasting. Just as one person’s meat is another’s poison, so not all of these reasons will appeal to all readers. But each has its place and is worth our consideration.

Reason 1: To Show My Body Who’s Boss

Fasting can be a way of developing self-discipline, a way of practicing your ability not to do something your body is telling you to do. As Rose Sayer says to Charlie Allnut in the 1951 movie The African Queen, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” Abba Zosimas, a desert father who lived in Palestine in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, observed, “It was well said once by a wise person that the soul has as many masters as it has passions.” And the apostle Paul says that people are slaves to whatever masters them. This is still a reason for fasting today. People fast, in part, to rise above their hunger, to show that they can master it.

The importance of self-discipline almost goes without saying. On the other hand, the human body is home to a significant store of natural wisdom. There’s a time to eat, a time to drink, a time to play, a time to rest—and we know these things in our bodies. It can be a dangerous thing to practice ignoring what our bodies want.

Reason 2: To Submit

My own denomination, the United Church of Christ, and mainline American Christianity in general, has tended to downplay the obedience angle of Christianity. Elsewhere in the Christian household, however, many people consciously choose obedience to a church as a spiritual practice. Consider the Rule of Saint Benedict, a design for monastic communities that was written in the sixth century by Benedict of Nursia and is still followed, more or less, by many monastic communities today. Obedience to the Rule requires many things: times of labor, times of prayer, times of silence—and times of fasting. The Rule doesn’t give elaborate explanations for this fasting. Fasting is the rule, and that’s that. Benedict wasn’t merely trying to establish a system for successful monastic communities; he believed that obedience schooled the monks in humility, and that humility was a virtue pleasing to God.

Like many other progressive Christians, I admit that I am sometimes skeptical of this sort of submission to church authority and of my obedient brothers and sisters in other branches of the church who practice it. But obedience to the church can be a path to God.

Reason 3: Because Everybody’s Doing It

The Rule of Saint Benedict also calls attention to an allied reason for fasting: it can be an expression of community identity. When people submit together to the same authority, and when together they undergo the same hardship, they are bound together in a visceral way. To fast during Lent, as part of an observant community, gives some Christians the affirmation of a communal religious identity.

The sixteenth-century Reformers insisted on the primacy of scriptural teachings about fasting, holding these to have greater authority than the traditions of the church. The Reformers valued fasting as an act of personal piety but emphasized that it should be a matter of individual conscience. They cited this teaching of Jesus: “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:17–18).

For those who are children of the Reformation, Jesus’s teaching was not directed against all collective practices of fasting; rather, it was pointedly directed against showy displays of fasting. Yet this is an all-but-moot point for most Protestants, since fasting can serve as a vehicle for the formation of communal identity only when it is a common, shared practice—that is, when it is a practice that is actually practiced with some degree of regularity. For most of us, whatever the reason, that is simply not the case.

Reason 4: To Harmonize Body and Soul

In the stories of the Old Testament, people often respond to some kind of solemn and momentous event by fasting. When bad news comes, people fast while mourning; when someone is sick, people fast while petitioning God for the sick person’s recovery; when people realize they’ve made grievous errors, they fast while repenting. This is the understanding Scot McKnight emphasizes in Fasting: “Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life.”

Fasting can also be the body’s part of a profound, whole-self preparation for a momentous event. Even as Bible stories demonstrate the practice of fasting in response to these sorts of events, they likewise describe it as happening before great undertakings and in preparation for encounters with God. TheDidache, a church manual from the late first or early second century, specifies fasting before every baptism, not only for the (adult) person being baptized, but also for the person administering the baptism, along with any others who are able.

There’s no telling, of course, what God may choose to do, and fasting doesn’t force God’s hand. But fasting can be a way of preparing one’s whole self to pay attention to the extraordinary. When I have guests, I clean the house; when I have a Guest, likewise. And often, God fills as much space as we have prepared.

Reason 5: Because My Body Is Bad, Bad, Bad

The Christian tradition sometimes shows an extreme dualism: the sense that we are spirits imprisoned in corrupt and corrupting bodies. In Francis of Assisi, for example, an exuberant love for all creation was coupled with an extreme asceticism. Bonaventure wrote, “Francis scarcely ever allowed himself cooked food, and on the rare occasions when he did so, he either mixed it with ashes or made its flavor tasteless, usually by adding water: the bare ground was a bed for his weary body, and he often used to sleep sitting up, with a piece of wood or a stone for a pillow.” In his own writings, Francis explained why: to punish the sinful body. Francis wrote that we should “hate our body with its vices and sins, because by living carnally it wishes to deprive us of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ and eternal life, and to lose itself with all else in hell.” This is fasting as a kind of mortification of the flesh.

This reason for fasting will strike some as especially difficult to embrace—and rightly so. Certainly we each have our faults, but the suggestion that these faults are particularly concentrated in our bodies deserves careful balancing against more wholistic perspectives on the human person.

Reason 6: To Remember My Hunger for God

Fasting can also be done for the sake of sublimation: transforming an impulse or emotion you don’t want into one you do want. This term has various technical uses in psychology, going back to Freud and to Nietzsche. In the psychology of religious experience, sublimation means taking a commonplace impulse or emotion and reforming it into a sublime, spiritual one.

Though the term is a modern one, the idea is ancient. For example, consider Clare, St. Francis’s friend and disciple. In a letter to her friend and disciple, Agnes of Prague, she characterized Jesus as a “sacred banquet”—this, from a woman whose fasting practices were, if anything, even more extreme than those of Francis. In place of physical food, Clare imagined a very different sort of banquet. She attached her physical hunger to this spiritual food instead.

Sublimation isn’t just a cheat. It isn’t that we fool ourselves into believing that we hunger for God. When I fast, my body constantly complains: I’m hungry! I’m hungry! And I use each complaint as a reminder that an ever-present part of my hunger is actually a hunger for God. (Well, says my fasting body, can’t we at least have some fries with that?)

Reason 7: To Be Like Jesus

From the early centuries of Christianity, Christians have fasted in imitation of Jesus, or at least in sympathy with Jesus’s fasting and suffering. It was a common observation among the early sermonizers of the church that, in the story of the Garden of Eden, the crime of Adam and Eve was essentially one of refusing to fast. Having been told that there was just one thing they must not eat, they ate it anyway and so (the logic went) brought evil into the world. Symmetrically, Jesus was observed to be a champion faster, one who had begun his ministry and overcome evil by fasting in the wilderness for forty days and nights. Maximus of Turin, writing in the early fifth century, expressed it like this: “I think that this is the reason for fasting—that since the first Adam, when he was in paradise, had forfeited the glory of immortality through his gluttonous intemperance, Christ, the second Adam, might restore the same immortality through His abstinence.”

It is not just Jesus’s fasting in the wilderness that some Christians want to share in and imitate. Jesus denied himself, emptied himself, and suffered for others. Through fasting, some Christians experience a sympathetic self-denial, emptying, and suffering.

Reason 8: Because It’s That Time Again

The season of Lent rolls around every spring. For Jews and Muslims, too, seasons of repentance arrive every year in their seasons. The seasons are not responses to individual experiences of contrition; they give us an opportunity to align ourselves with the calendar of our religious tradition, taking time to remember our sins and atone for them, whether we feel like it or not.

This reason for fasting is related to several others on the list. It is partly a matter of submission—obediently aligning yourself with a church calendar that dictates seasons and times for religious observance. It is partly a matter of self-discipline— disciplining your body to feel what the church calendar calls for you to feel. But what I want to emphasize here is the calendar itself. In the Christian calendar, fasting realigns people with the season of Lent. Even if we prefer not to think about our own shortcomings, and even if we would rather not reflect on the suffering of Jesus, tradition says that it is good to do these things every year. For many Christians, fasting is a way of realigning both body and spirit with the season.

Reason 9: Sympathetic Thanksgiving In the early church, fasts were often d

eclared after harvest time, as a sort of Thanksgiving feast in reverse. This was a way of both giving thanks for the harvest and saving something to be given to the poor. Today, too, people sometimes include charitable giving as part of their fasting practice and motivation. They fast in part to cultivate a near-sympathy for those around the world who suffer from hunger. Part of their fasting practice is to give the food they didn’t eat (or the money they didn’t spend buying the food they didn’t eat) to someone who needs it.

Former congressman Tony Hall provided a recent example of fasting in sympathy with those who hunger when, in April of 2011, he fasted for 28 days in response to congressional budget proposals that would hurt the poor and hungry. Hall was eventually supported by over 36,000 people, including 28 members of Congress and the leaders of over 40 diverse organizations, such as Bread for the World, Sojourners, Women Thrive Worldwide, World Vision, American Jewish World Service, and Islamic Relief USA.

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While this list doesn’t exhaust the reasons for fasting, it does suggest the rich variety of motivating forces underlying Christian fasting, historically as well as in present practice. Often these reasons are in tension with each other: both to dominate (their animal impulses) and to submit (to religious authority), both to humble themselves (emphasizing their obedience and physical frailty) and to exalt themselves (emphasizing the strength of their religious identity and willpower), both as an expression of whole-person unity (with the body and the spirit acting in accord) and as an expression of body-spirit duality (with the spirit overcoming the body’s desires)—and sometimes for several of these reasons at once.

Reason 10: Post-Fasting Enjoyment

I promised ten reasons for fasting, so here’s one final reason to wrap up the list. This one was identified by Basil the Great in his first sermon on fasting, in the fourth century: “As thirst makes the water sweet, and coming to the table hungry makes what’s on it seem pleasant, so also fasting heightens the enjoyment of foods.” In other words, fast because it feels so good when you stop.

Adam Brooks Webber is a founding member of Open Prairie United Church of Christ in Princeton, Illinois, where he serves as organist, composer, and retreat leader.