Why Do We Fast?

19 February 2010. Friday after Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58, 1-9; Psalm 51; Matthew 9, 14-15

One of the practices that has become unpopular in the Season of Lent is fasting. But the greatest names in Scripture have practiced it: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna the prophetess, Paul and Jesus. Outside of the bible, the greatest leaders also fasted like Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Confucius, and Gandhi. What did these great people gain from fasting?

What do we mean by fasting? Fasting is about abstaining from food for spiritual reasons.
A hunger strike done by farmers and workers is not a fast even if it is for a good cause such as to gain people’s attention to their plight. Diet programs for weight-loss, detoxification and body contouring is not a fast because they are for vanity or physical well-being. Their purposes differ from the reasons why the people of the bible did it: fasting was for the spiritual life.

Why do we fast? We take it from the first reading.

First, we fast so that our hearts will focus on God alone. In fasting, it is important to know why we are doing it. If there is no purpose, the practice is meaningless. As we fast, the motivation, sincerity and determination intensifies. The concern of Jesus about fasting in Matthew 6, 16-18 (the Gospel for Ash Wednesday) is motivation. He said many practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting are done for show. We shouldn’t be like the hypocrites. We do not fast so that God will do what we want; so that He will give us the blessings we’ve been praying for. Fasting is about God. That is why fasting and prayer should be together. That is why we fast as a community of Christians within a liturgical season. Fasting and worshipping are always great partners.

Second, we fast so that what controls us is revealed to us. We discover that it is not food that sustains our lives; we “do not live by bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4,4). Many of us are controlled by what we eat. The food industry is growing, thanks to our unquenchable thirsts and hungers. We have stress eaters and comfort foodies. To try to break away from that which controls us, or to find what determines our decisions, we avoid them. Alcoholics discover their dependency by avoiding alcoholic beverages.

Finally, we fast to uncover what is not essential to us. Our desires are often reckless, and they take over our lives. We crave for many things that we actually don’t need. By fasting, we feel the degree of control they have on us and we gain the opportunity to overcome them. The harder it is to fast, the stronger our desires grip us. But the more we fast, the faster we become free from them.

With the growth of food chains, restaurants, street vendors and market stalls all around us, fasting becomes very challenging. So, think about it this way: the stronger your resistance (read: avoidance), the sharper your focus on whom you desire the most.

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