Thursday, February 7, 2008


Now that Lent has arrived, I figured I'd address the issue of fasting since it is an important practice in both Christianity and Islam but is carried out differently in the two. I'm pretty sure the reason behind fasting in both religions is the same. It is a personal sacrifice given to God. Additionally, it has some health benefits and it makes one sympathize with the poor and unfortunate who are involuntarily going without food. Although fasting is an external deed, it is supposed to accompany and promote an internal devotion, drawing one toward God and godly things and away from sinful thoughts and deeds.

In Islam, as everybody knows, Ramadan is the major time of fasting, although I know there are a few other holidays that are observed with optional, I think, fasting. Additionally, fasting is something that one is always welcome to do and the hadith mention Mohammad fasting for long periods regardless of holidays just to draw closer to God. The Muslim definition of fasting is complete abstinence from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Outside of that time, normal dietary rules apply. In any case, fasting, particularly for Ramadan, is one of the five pillars of Islam and, thus, is a very important part of the religion.

In Christianity there are at least as many fasting practices as there are denominations. In the Gospels, Jesus fasts a number of times and fasting was a regular practice in the early church. Today, Orthodox churches are still very strict about fasting practices, which forbids meat or animal products and even cooking with oil. This is followed for the entirety of Lent as well as other prescribed times. In the Catholic church, fasting means only eating one full meal and two smaller snacks throughout the day. The Catholic fasting rules have changed throughout the years and even vary depending on the country. Currently in the United States, Catholics are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as well as abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. Historically, Catholics had to abstain from mean on Fridays throughout the year but that no long applies to the US, for some reason. Protestant churches, in my experience, don't stress fasting and most people don't practice it. Probably the closest to fasting many people get is giving up something like chocolate or swearing for Lent.

I like how Islam and the Orthodox church have very definite rules about how and when to fast. If fasting is truly important, then its practice shouldn't be ambiguous and confusing. I can't think of any reason that the residents of one country should have different fasting rules than the residents of another country, like the Catholic rules. Additionally, if fasting is important, it should actually be addressed and, at the very least, encouraged, if not required. The nice thing about giving up something for Lent is that it's more personal, you can choose something that's meaningful to you. However, there's no reason you can't personalize your fast even while adhering to the prescribed rules.

I think the point of my post was supposed to be that I don't think Western Christianity places enough emphasis on fasting. It was obviously important to Jesus and it was practiced by the early church but it has since fallen from favor or at least lost popularity. If there's a reason for that, I'd like to know, but I feel like people just got lazy. I guess if we're saved by faith alone then fasting isn't necessary but in that case, nothing is necessary but faith; not giving offerings, not fellowship, not prayer, just faith. Although I do believe God to be gracious and merciful and care only about what's in your heart, all of those external acts are ways that you live your faith and ways to strengthen your faith. Thus, fasting isn't a necessary act but it is just another tool in your spiritual toolbox and one should pull it out and use it sometimes.


Anonymous said...

To understand fasting, study Jewish holiday of TIsha B'Av

Anonymous said...

I'm a Christian, and although fasting (and other spiritual disciplines) has been talked about at my church, I don't feel like I've ever been driven to practice it. I really believe that with such a fast-paced, technology-driven society, it's hard to find time to simply be simple and make time for reflection. my being on your blog right now may be the perfect example. it's all too easy to fill out time with blogs, Facebook, text messaging, etc., that our minds almost have no time to reflect. I'm guilty of that myself. Sometimes, I have to make myself get off the computer and read or relax. I've been wanting to take a silent retreat in order to spend time praying and just enjoying some peace and uninterrupted time with God.

I think it's a shame that many spiritual disciplines seem to be "a thing of the past." Have you read Richard Foster's _Celebration of Discipline_? If not, I commend it to you. Another good one is Crenshaw & Snapp's _A Hidden Life_.

Don't give up...there are still some Christian churches that teach the value of spiritual disciplines...

If you don't mind saying, what denomination is your church?