Lent and Learning to Fast Again

Thank you Bishop Rinehart for your thoughts about applying an ancient practice to our very modern challenges. Though appropriate any time, Lent seems a particularly good time to incorporate this practice into our lives. Lent begins next Wednesday with Ash Wednesday.

Lent and Learning to Fast Again

by Michael Rinehart

God cannot fill what is full. — Mother Teresa

The three disciplines of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Jesus instructs his followers on these three disciplines in Matthew 6:1-21, encouraging them to beware of showy self-righteousness. We tend to pray and give pretty well, but fasting is another matter. It is a blessing worth our attention.

Everybody fasts.

You have fasted many times. In fact, you fasted today. If you slept eight hours last night, you fasted or went without food for at least eight hours. If you finished dinner at 7:00 p.m. and ate breakfast at 7:00 a.m., you fasted for 12 hours. Your “breakfast” broke your nighttime fast. All of us fast, often without thinking about it. What would it look like to fast intentionally? What might be the benefits?

Partial Fasting

Fasting is not necessarily completely giving up all food. Much of the fasting in the Bible is partial fasting – giving up certain kinds of food or drink for a time. Additionally, fasting is more than abstaining from food. Fasting is abstaining from anything for a period of time: food, alcohol, sweets, smoking, speaking, sex, the internet, or television. If you’ve ever set aside or given up something for a time, you’ve fasted.

People fast for many reasons. A diet is a kind of fast. People fast as a way to protest or draw attention to injustice. Some fast for clarity. Others fast for health reasons, to reset their digestive system.

Fasting for Spiritual Growth

While all of these are good reasons, our focus in the 40 days of Lent is religious fasting for spiritual growth. In my own life, fasting has helped me become more attuned to the things of the Spirit, to listen for the voice of God, and to focus my prayer. Fasting has aided me in turning away from the god of the belly. We fast to empty ourselves, if only for a moment, so that there is room for God to fill us with love, joy, peace and so on. Fasting is powerful. A denied impulse focuses us. An empty stomach draws our attention away from the usual distractions of life, back to the reason for our fasting.

Christians have used the word “kenosis” (self-emptying) to describe the practices of humility, fasting and self-denial. Paul says in Philippians 2:7 that we are to have the mind of Christ, who did not exploit his divine status, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant. In Matthew 16:24 Jesus calls his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.

Many Biblical Examples

Jesus fasted at the beginning of his ministry. Consider the list of biblical characters that fasted: Moses, David, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Ezra, Jehoshaphat, Elijah, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Hannah, Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego, Anna, Jesus, his disciples, Paul and others. You can meet many of these people in the pages of Learning to Fast Again: A Full Life through Self-emptying.

Fasting is not limited to Christianity of course, or even the Abrahamic faiths. Zoroaster fasted, as did Confucius. Plato fasted, along with Aristotle, Socrates, and Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine. Gandhi was a famous 20thcentury leader because of his deliberate practice of fasting through difficult times.

It was common in antiquity to fast for multiple reasons. We tend to medicate our way through digestive and other maladies, but throughout the history of the world, especially among the poor, fasting was the way to feel better. Even today, many of us have heard from parents, “Starve a cold, feed a fever.” People would fast as an act of prayer or devotion. People would fast before battle.

Fast for Enlightenment

Learning to Fast Again is not about fasting to lose weight. It is about fasting for spiritual growth, awareness, and enlightenment. It is about making space in our lives for God to speak and act. We fast not to climb our way to God, through acts of self-righteousness, but rather to empty ourselves, so that we may be more open and aware to the movement of the Spirit.

Fasting is not universally commanded in the Bible. There is no legalistic case for fasting. We see fasting as an opportunity. We are under the freedom of the gospel.

A Word of Caution

A word of caution: Not all kinds of fasting are for everyone. Children, pregnant mothers, and the aged should not fast. Some medical conditions preclude skipping meals. If you are considering a complete fast, please consult your physician first to get clearance.

Learning to Fast Again is a 40-day devotional, study and workbook on fasting. It is the second in a series on the three disciplines of Lent: prayer, fasting and giving. Learning to Pray Again, Learning to Fast Again and Learning to Give Again cover the spiritual practices Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6.

Start Slow and Grow

Consider reading a chapter a day. Pick a few ideas that work for you and try them out. Start small. When one takes up running, one does not begin with a marathon. When one learns to play the piano, one doesn’t start with a Rachmaninov piano concerto. Start simply. Even if you’ve fasted before, begin again with the basics. Start with baby steps: a few hours of silence, or a meal. Find a group to fast with you and discuss the experience. Fasting in community is a powerful experience. It also provides support. Sometimes buddy power is stronger than will power.

When you fast, include prayer. Prayer and fasting appear together in the Bible constantly. Consider taking notes to record your experience. Start a prayer journal. Talk about it with a friend. In fact, if you or your congregation isn’t ready to jump into the topic of fasting Just yet, start with Learning to Pray Again: Peace and Joy through an Ancient Practice.

Fast with Joy

Above all, if you choose to fast, fast with joy. Fasting can be an act of contrition and humble repentance, but it can also be a powerful vehicle to invite a spiritual encounter. I pray these pages will spark your imagination into the joys of fasting.

Thank you Bishop Rinehart for sharing your insights into this ancient and beneficial practice. Michael Rinehart is the bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod with offices in Houston and New Orleans.

His new book is available now at Amazon

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AND, a companion story about the women who made the journey will be available soon.


  1. Kathy – What an inspiring and thought-provoking article. You presented a perspective that had not before rattled around in my head. What a gift – to offer a new idea for mental and spiritual consideration. I will cogitate on fasting as Ash Wednesday approaches.

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