For centuries, fasting has often been associated with the Lenten season in various church traditions. I am often asked if one should fast during Lent. Therefore, I wanted to briefly explore this question today.
Fasting has been part of the biblical spirituality from time immemorial. Jesus himself fasted several times and spoke about genuine spiritual fasting as opposed to fasting as a show off of one’s religiosity. Jesus had no qualms about calling out people who showed off their fasting to others as hypocrites (Matthew 6: 16-18). However, historically speaking, there is no unanimity about fasting and the number of days one should fast during Lent. There is no divine or apostolic institution of Lenten fasting. The forty days Lent fast did not appear in the Church earlier than the 7th or even 8th century which was introduced by either Gregory the Great or Gregory II in the Western Church. So, Lenten fasting is a church tradition which evolved over the centuries. Even when early Church Fathers speak of fast, they clearly refer to different ways in which fast was observed. The time or days of fasting varied from forty hours to three weeks to six weeks or even seven weeks before Easter. However, most people in different church traditions did not fast for more than thirty-six days in total.
This is not to say that fasting has no significance during Lent. Even though the scriptures do not lay any demands on us to fast during Lent and God does not credit those who fast with extra righteousness or punish those who do not, fasting has its own spiritual benefits. God does not keep a record of how many hours, days, or weeks you fast nor does fasting in itself has any merit. It is not the duration that matters but it is the motive for and manner of fasting that is significant. The purpose of fasting is not to please God or to get any extra credit in our heavenly account; rather, the purpose is to use the act of fasting for our own sake; to devote ourselves to look within, to do penitence, to kneel in prayer, to meditate on God’s word, and to draw closer to God through this exercise. Though not mandatory, fasting could help us confess our sins, to ask God’s pardon and cleansing of our soul and body to be ultimately at peace with ourselves and with God, our Creator. Fasting has nourished the saints of old and it has the potential to nourish and edify us, too, in our life marred with tight schedules and stresses of all kinds. It is a true saying that “what can be done anytime is usually done at no time”; therefore, let us take advantage of this Lenten opportunity to do a sincere inner self-examination and deep cleansing with the powerful blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us use this provision of Lenten fast to grow in God’s grace and to be clothed anew in His holiness and righteousness without which no one will see God. Amen!