“Fasting” from one thing at a time.

When it comes to fasting, many Christians wanna know what’s the very least we can fast for it to “count.”

Two thoughts.

First of all I gotta make sure they’re not fasting for the wrong reasons. We’re not obligated to fast: God never commanded it, and we’re not disobeying him when we skip a fast, break a fast, “cheat” on a fast, or diet instead of fasting. True, our churches might want us to fast, and legalistic churches will even require it. But unless you swore to God you’d fast along with ’em, you’re not sinning if you don’t fast. (And of course lying about it, or pretending you’re fasting when you’re not, is always wrong.)

Likewise I don’t want people to think we fast so we can earn karmic points with God. Again, he never obligates us to fast. It’s a practice we do. It helps us focus on him in prayer, and helps us develop self-control. (And even if God did order us to fast, he doesn’t “owe us” when we obey; that’s our duty. Lk 17.10 What, did you not receive enough trophies for participation in youth soccer?)

Second I don’t assume Christians want a bare-minimum “fast” because they’re being lazy. Yeah, sometimes it’s totally that; we just wanna claim we’re fasting, even though our “fast” makes a minimal interruption in our lives. But more often it’s because fasting is hardcore. And we are, admittedly, weak. Going without food for a whole day? We’ll crack by 10AM! We’ll walk into the break room, someone will have brought doughnuts, and we’ll hold out maybe an hour. But knowing ourselves, less—a warm Krispy Kreme doughnut is a powerful thing.

I don’t say this to condemn weak Christians. Every last one of us was a weak Christian at one point. (Me, many points. Probably you too.) So if you’re still weak, I’m here to help, not judge or mock. You gotta build self-control. Fasting is the best way to do it, but it’s wise to start small and work your way up. Y’don’t just tackle the very hardest practices, and presume you’ll be a natural ’cause now you have Holy Spirit power. Fast small before you fast big.

So, the very least we can fast is one thing.

And this is a very common Christian practice. Some Christians do it every year, for Lent. Traditional Lenten custom is to give up meat and alcohol—at least on Friday and Saturday—plus one extra thing, which they do without every day till Easter. But the usual American custom is to skip the dietary restrictions, and just focus on giving up that one thing.

I’m not saying you have to observe Lent. Start even smaller. Abstain for a week. See how you do. If you fail—and you may—try again.

Abstaining from the wrong thing.

Every time Lent comes round, Christians like to ask one another what we’re giving up this year. And if I’ve not yet chosen anything—or if I don’t feel like sharing—I tend to joke about it. Fr’instance I’ll say, “I’m giving up cocaine and meth.” (And if they don’t know me very well, and notice I’m kinda hyperactive, they’ll assume that’s why, and respond, “Um… well that’s good!” Um… yes it is. That’s not why. But whatever.)

But when I talked about Lent with my students, some of ’em would pick things they really shouldn’t give up, or kinda couldn’t give up. One kid declared, “I’m gonna give up bathing!” And the rest of the class immediately objected: He already smelled much too much like foot cheese. In fact this is the one example Jesus used when he taught us to not be obvious we’re fasting: Clean your hair and wash your face. Mt 6.16-18 For the love of God, bathe!

Likewise sleep. Many people really don’t get enough sleep as it is. Yet I’ve heard of Christians deciding they’re gonna limit themselves to six or four hours of sleep a night, with no naps to make up for it. And that’s nuts. People go crazy, or die, from sleep deprivation. I’ve seen it happen firsthand. Don’t do that. If you’re sleeping too much, check with a doctor to see whether you’re suffering from sleep disorders or clinical depression, but otherwise get proper sleep. You need it.

Certain Christians get the warped idea fasting is a form of suffering—that our times of fasting are best used in punishing ourselves for sin, or to get God’s sympathy, or so we can better relate to other people who are suffering. So they pick things that’ll make ’em suffer: They give up warmth, and sleep outside in the cold. They give up water, so they can experience true thirst. They add discomforts, and deliberately hurt themselves. Christian history is full of such examples, and none of this is God’s idea: Yes, suffering is part of the world we live in, Jn 16.33 but Jesus came to end suffering, not inspire people to make ourselves suffer all the more. Don’t hurt yourself!

Lastly, people who pick something they should’ve given up anyway. I already mentioned cocaine and methamphetamine: If you’re doing that, stop! Don’t just fast from cigarettes for a week; quit altogether. If you’re alcoholic or an addict of any sort, join a recovery group. If it’s a habitual sin, repent and resist the temptation to ever go back to it. Don’t just give it up for a week, then fall right back in: Give it up forever.

Working on the one thing.

Okay. When we pick the one thing we’re gonna give up, whether for a day, a week, or for Lent, I usually advise people to look for the one habit we’re pretty sure we can’t give up. Something we really don’t wanna give up. Something that’s a real challenge. Like coffee, beer, watching sports (especially during playoffs!), bread, meat, social media, television, betting, video games… anything you habitually do, but can do without.

Instead of that thing you’ve given up, pray. Any time you’re tempted to slip up on your fast, pray. Yep, it means you’re gonna pray more often. That’s the point.

Start abstaining for a day. Get to a point when a day isn’t really a challenge anymore; then escalate things to three days. Then a week. Then tackle a month, or 40 days, or Lent.

If you slip up, don’t start over, as if to punish yourself with more fasting. Fasting isn’t punishment! And stretching it out really isn’t gonna develop your self-control any more than usual. Give yourself some grace, same as God gives you, and just go back to fasting. Do better next time.

And if it gets too easy, pick a different thing to give up. For four years I gave up coffee for Lent, and by the fourth year I discovered coffee wasn’t a challenge any more: I had grown too used to the idea, “It’s Lent, so no coffee.” I switched it to bagels the next year… and suddenly doing without got way harder. Hey, some areas in our life are far more under our control than others.

But everything we choose to do, should be wholly under our control—and we should be under Jesus’s control. So work on that self-control.