One Sunday morning during Lent, I was amused to hear a homily advising parishioners to avoid giving anything up for Lent. Instead, the homilist encouraged looking in the mirror every day and telling yourself how fabulous you are! His point was valid: This Lent, see yourself the way God sees you. A friend says that her priest gives out candy during Lent to point out that it isn’t about giving up superficial things such as sweets.
The homily and the candy—and the growing trend away from fasting during Lent—encourage us to reprioritize our Lenten experiences, to realize that Lenten sacrifices aren’t simply something to check off a list or something to make ourselves miserable. No one wants to be around people who are making themselves unhappy in the name of Jesus.
But does an old-fashioned Lenten fast still have value? Are the small sacrifices we traditionally make (giving up sweets, alcohol, snacks, meat, television, or social media) stifling and distracting, or are they life-giving and transformative?
Fasting is an ancient practice of the Church; at its best, it is an authentic exercise in trust and a quiet form of deep devotion. It joins us to Christ and to one another. Fasting—in whatever form it takes—is nothing less than a participation in the transforming cross of Jesus Christ, which is the goal of every worthwhile Lenten journey.
So, in defense of an ancient practice with perennial benefits, here is my list of 10 good reasons to fast this Lent.
1. Jesus did it.
Fasting was a Jewish tradition that Jesus clearly expected would continue. His own 40-day fast endorsed the practice. Before beginning his ministry, he went into the wilderness, where he fasted from food and was tempted by Satan (Mt 4:1–11). Jesus emerged from the wilderness, having been tested, strengthened, and prepared for what lay ahead.
Jesus even told us how to do it. Always concerned about hypocrisy, he clearly taught that when we fast, we shouldn’t make a show of it to others. Instead, “your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you” (Mt 6:18).
2. Fasting is a traditional sign of sorrow.
Lent is a season of repentance, and fasting helps us express that. Instead of a self-inflicted punishment, it is a willing offering, a purposeful act of humility. Rather than merely acknowledging our sin in thoughts or words, fasting lets us put our whole selves into the experience of repentance.
The Old Testament is full of references to the people of God fasting as a sign of their sorrow for sin. Often this was accompanied by other physical signs—wailing, wearing sackcloth, sprinkling ashes or dirt on the head, even the tearing of clothing or lying flat on the ground (Neh 9:1; Est 4:3; 1 Mc 3:47). Though we no longer express our sorrow in such outward signs, the symbolism of fasting remains. We not only tell God we are sorry; we show him.
3. Fasting helps us empty ourselves and focus on God and others.
When we fast, we rid ourselves of things that distract or burden us. Whether we’re giving up entertainment, our favorite snack, or unnecessary shopping, the stripping away of distractions allows us to turn our focus away from ourselves and toward God and others.
Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters” (Mt 6:24). We should enjoy the good things in our lives, but it is sometimes wise to give them up for a time, to regain our focus on what is most valuable.
4. Fasting gives us that familiar ‘yearning’ feeling.
Fasting helps us get in touch with our inner voice that says, “I want.” As humans, we want good food, good drink, and other good things. But deep down we know these things can bring us only limited happiness. If we reflect on our inner voice, we may hear a deeper voice, a yearning for something greater—something perfect and eternal. Jesus called it the “living water” and the “food that endures” (Jn 4:10; 6:27).
Lent is a time to experience this deep yearning, identify it, and reorient our lives because of it. The living water and the food that lasts are there for the taking.
5. Fasting helps us develop self-discipline.
When I was in high school, I decided to give up the snooze button for Lent. I just loved hitting “snooze” (I still do). Could I really get out of bed when the alarm went off?
That was a tough Lent. But it was also liberating. Every morning, the alarm sounded and—wonder of wonders—I got out of bed. And by the end of Lent, getting up at the sound of the alarm was much easier. Knowing I could do this boosted my confidence about what else I could control.
This is a small example, but as Jesus said, “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones” (Lk 16:10). Once we master something small, we can conquer bigger, more important things like fasting from gossip or envy.
6. Fasting reminds us that our bodies are part of our prayer.
We may think that what really matters in the spiritual life is our souls, and that our bodies are separate and secondary. But the Jewish understanding—which we Christians have inherited—is that we don’t only have bodies; rather, we are our bodies. Our bodies and souls belong together.
Everything we do rightfully involves our bodies, including prayer and worship. Sitting, standing, kneeling, eating, drinking, singing, crossing ourselves, genuflecting, touching holy water—all are part of our worship. Using our bodies in these ways changes us inside.
Fasting is like this too. It is a way to get our bodies involved in prayer and worship. When King David wanted to pray for the healing of his deathly ill son, he fasted as he prayed (2 Sm 12:16). It was his way of showing God with his body what he was feeling inside—emptiness, desire, loss, and uncertainty. He gave it all over to God.
7. Fasting helps us be more mindful of others.
Fasting is not an inward-turning exercise. A fast, when freely offered, turns us outward—toward God and others. Our own time of “going without” can make us more mindful of those who “go without” on a regular basis, those experiencing the poverty of hunger, oppression, loneliness, or pain.
A true fast turns us away from a focus on ourselves and creates a space for serving others. We can fast from free time and use that time to serve those in need. We can fast from unnecessary shopping and give that money to charity. We can fast from cynicism and work against the injustices that plague our world.
8. Fasting builds our sense of community as Church.
Fasting during Lent is something we do together. Like wearing ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, fasting is a beautiful bond we share as Catholic Christians.
Just as the leaders and prophets of Israel used to “proclaim a fast” among the people to unify them in prayer (2 Chr 20:3; Jl 1:14), so we “proclaim a fast” during this season of repentance and transformation. Fasting binds us together in one spirit, one mission. It gives us an identity and a communal purpose. And it can change us not only as individuals, but also as a community.
9. Fasting makes Easter more joyful.
Just as the warmth of spring feels so good after a long winter, a celebration feels even more joyful after a time of “holding back.” I remember giving up sweets for Lent one year and then attending a potluck brunch on Easter. Every dessert on the table looked amazing! I remember how good mine tasted.
Jesus told a story about a young man who squandered his inheritance and ended up so hungry he wanted to eat slop from a pigs’ trough (Lk 15:16). When he finally returned home, his father prepared a great feast. Ample food would have been a regular part of this young man’s life had he stayed at home and lived obediently. But it was his time of wandering and loss that led to such joy. The loss we experience—some small deprivation as we approach the cross—can prepare us for the joy of Easter.
10. Fasting helps us imitate Jesus.
Years ago when I was working in a parish, I gathered a group of children to talk about Lent. I asked them why they thought we give something up for Lent, and an earnest little boy responded. He didn’t say that we give something up because our parents tell us to, but “because Jesus gave up everything for us.”
I don’t think anyone had ever told that little boy this deep, simple truth. My hunch is that he knew it from looking at a crucifix—the cross that we cling to—an image of someone giving their all, giving it all up.
This is why we fast. We give something up because he gave it all up for us. This is why St. Paul considered every pain, every loss, and every failure to be a great blessing—because it gave him some share in the cross of Jesus: “to know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming conformed to his death” (Phil 3:10).
We, too, want to know the power of the Resurrection. In fasting, we can have some small share in the cross of Jesus.
A Heartfelt Offering
Keep in mind that God does not judge us on the “success” of our Lenten fast. We don’t fast to make God happy; our fast is an authentic sign of our love for God. It cannot merely be an external act; it must go deep—to stretch us spiritually, to open our eyes to the needs of our brothers and sisters, to prepare us for what lies ahead. It must be an offering from the heart, like that of Jesus on the cross.
Then our fast becomes not an obligation but a gift, not a dead custom but a fruitful offering, not a cause for self-congratulation but an occasion of self-giving. May our Lenten fast strengthen us for what lies ahead, which is nothing less than death and resurrection.