With my focus less centered on my belly, I started wondering why Christians ever fasted in the first place. In the famous Bible story of Jesus' temptation in the desert, Jesus fasted 40 days and nights to prepare himself for his public ministry. (Mt 4:2). But Jesus was not the first person in the Bible to do a forty-day fast. Moses did it before Jesus -- when God revealed to Moses the Ten Commandments. In Exodus, it says that when Moses went up to Mt. Sinai, "he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights: he neither ate bread nor drank water, and he wrote upon the tables the ten words of the covenant." (Ex 35:28). In the case of Jesus and Moses, fasting prepared them for the work of God. But how exactly does depriving yourself of food (and water) prepare you for any work, much less the work of God?
For me, the first realization gained through fasting has been greater self-awareness. Fasting has freed up more time in my day, time I now realize was spent on thinking how to please my own appetite. As a wife and mother, part of my job is to plan healthy, tasty meals for the family. But I have been using a surprising amount of mental energy to plan lunch only for myself in the middle of a weekday, or a late-night dessert after the kids go to bed.... Don't get me wrong, fasting hasn't made me opposed to the occasional bowl of ice cream at midnight. But does quite so much mental space need to be occupied with yearnings for yumminess?
Fasting has also brought me face to face with the weakness of my own body. Like most middle-class Americans, I am well-fed and well-nourished. But on the second Friday of fasting, I couldn't wait to eat at the moment I woke up. Many people here in our country and across the world don't have a choice of whether to fast or not to fast. They are not taking a voluntary day off in the midst of plenty. How do they have the strength to handle it?
On the flip side, fasting has taught me that even though my body complains, I don't need to give in to its clamors for attention. One of my fears, before beginning the fast, was that I would snap at the children all day out of grouchiness. My children frequently behave badly when they've missed a meal or a snack. I always tell them, "It's hard to be nice when you're hungry." There's a difference between children and adults, after all, it seems. Self-control comes easier to adults. I haven't snapped at the children more than usual during these Friday fasts. If anything, I've snapped less. Awareness of my own weakness has paradoxically given me strength to resist its effects.
I am by no means the first person to discover this. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that self-knowledge gives us the means to resist temptation (CCC, sec. 2340). Self-knowledge, in fact, gives us even more. "Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge..... And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead" (CCC, sec. 357). Knowing ourselves is an important step on our way to knowing God. And that, in part, is how fasting prepares us to do the work of God.
Art from Cloudeight