The Joy of Fasting

“The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others.” (Catechism 1434)

‘Bread and Water’
‘Bread and Water’ (photo: Shutterstock)

I am a big foodie … and I hate to fast. So how can it be joyful?

Let me back up. I do not like any kind of restraints or commands. I don’t like to be told what to do. Yet, I have found that most rules have a purpose. If you eat too much, you might become heavy. If you drink too much, you might become an alcoholic. If you don’t go to Mass on Sunday, you might distance yourself from God forever.

Some restraints are not only necessary but helpful. You feel better when you are healthy, when you honor God or when you “do unto others.”

When you visit the sick or work at a homeless shelter, you are giving up spending time doing something else. You are “fasting” from friends or fun or other activities. When we do acts or service or give alms or pray for someone, we do it out of love of God. And we feel better when we do it.

And so it is with fasting from food, alcohol, computer games, phone time and so on. Fasting from food is especially challenging for me. I think about lunch when I am making breakfast and dinner while making lunch. Snacks abound at our house. I tell people that I exercise regularly not so much to be in shape but to allow me to eat what I want to. (There’s that rebellion against restraint again!) So, why should we fast from food and things we enjoy?

The main benefit of fasting is that you are sacrificing something for God. The deeper your faith and gratitude, the more you’ll desire to “do something for God.” Don’t be dismayed if this doesn’t strengthen your resolve yet. God gives us little motivations along our journey to proceed:

  • You did it! Fasting brings a feeling of accomplishment. (Unless it is “fasting” from that third Oreo.) You set out to do something and you were successful. You remember that good feeling when you think of fasting again.
  • You become aware when you are hungry throughout the day. When you think, “I am hungry and I am doing this for God,” it adds meaning to your suffering. An additional benefit is that it raises your mind to God and you can praise him, thank him or just think about God and deepen your relationship with him.
  • You have modeled the virtue of temperance which can be applied to other areas of your life. You’ve built a life skill. This might also help you become less impulsive, more patient and more present to others. The benefits of fasting can truly change your life.
  • Eventually, if not initially, there is real pleasure in doing something solely to please God. It gets you outside of yourself. When your stomach growls you might connect that with a thought about God. You then think of God in that present situation. These thoughts often conjure up a realization of God’s blessings that you have at that very moment. These prayer experiences draw you closer to God.

There are many examples in the Bible that mention fasting — before a big decision, as a means of repentance and simply as a way of life. Try using this Lenten season to introduce regular fasting into your life.

Especially meaningful are types of fasting that last throughout the day. When you fast, say, from dessert, you might think about it only at dinnertime. When you fast from using your phone or computer for a day you might frequently desire to get online. Realizing that you are fasting gives you multiple times each day to think of God. Start small, like fasting from all food for the rest of the day after lunch, one day a week. Maybe do that on Fridays in addition to abstaining from meat.

Rather than viewing these simply as Lenten obligations, try to view fasting as a gift to God. This change in perspective focuses one on the good. Fasting will bring you consolations. You will think about God more often, which will please him and bring you joy. This, in turn, can cause you to be thankful for what you have received. And this understanding will bring gratitude, humility and joy.

Try fasting this Lent to draw closer to God and experience his joy!