Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

2/10 2016

How do Christians Fast?

how do Christians fastYesterday we answered the question “Why do Christians fast?” Today we’ll take a closer look at how Christians fast.

Eating Less

Though there was no single method St. John Cassian prescribed, he did offer “a single goal: avoid overeating and the filling of our bellies.”[1] While going long periods of time without food is a common form of fasting in Scripture, for many of us it can backfire and lead to binge eating when breaking a fast.  In contrast, refusing to get seconds or putting down your fork before you’re full can be simple but powerful way to fast, and avoids the dangers of either irritability or binge eating.

Eating at Fixed Times

In Celtic monasticism, people like St. Aidan often waited until after 3:00 p.m. to eat, but then ate whatever was available in moderation. They didn’t want to eat during the hours when Christ was on the cross. How might the timing of your meals create a greater awareness for you of the events of Christ’s life?

 Eating a Disciplined Diet

Our Eastern Christian sisters and brothers abstain from meat and dairy products on most Wednesdays and Fridays during the year, and do the same throughout the entire season of Lent. Wednesdays are traditionally fasting days because they are the day on which Judas agreed to betray Jesus. Fridays are fasting days because of the crucifixion. The restricted diet helps one grow in consciousness and discipline, but doesn’t deplete one’s energy as much as a total fast.

 Eating With Your Attention on Christ

St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote that “While one is eating, it is good to imagine Christ our Lord eating in company with his apostles, and to observe how he eats, how he drinks, how he looks about, and how he converses, and then to try to imitate him. In this way, one’s mind will be occupied chiefly with the consideration of Our Lord and less with the sustenance of the body.”[2] Similarly, I know a pastor who has a large replica of Rublev’s famous Trinity Icon in his dining room. When he practices his morning devotions, he imagines sitting at the table with the Trinity. How might we eat differently if we were sitting at the table with Jesus?

Regardless of how we fast, we do it as a discipline to bring us closer to God.

The Rev. Christopher Brown moved to Pittsburgh from Colorado to pursue a master of divinity (MDiv) degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He currently serves as the coordinator of the Church Planting Initiative at the Seminary along with pursuing his master’s in sacred theology. Chris is the organizing co-pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church, a church plant of the PC (U.S.A.) in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Chris regularly blogs at https://christopherbrown.wordpress.com and tweets at @brwnchrstpher.

[1] St. John Cassian. p. 73.

[2] St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises and Selected Writings (New York, NY: Paulist Press 1991) p. 172


2/9 2016

Why do Christians fast?

Why do Christians fast?

Updated 02/28/17

In the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading, Jesus says “when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:17-18). Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “If you fast . . .” The implication is that Jesus’ disciples will fast. Aside from teaching his disciples to fast humbly and not call attention to themselves, Jesus does not give explicit instructions about how and when to fast. Even the why seems to be taken for granted in the Gospels. During this season of Lent, as many Christians practice some form of fasting, I think it may be helpful to consider some of the reasons why the Church has practiced fasting over the centuries.

Why do Christians fast?


We fast to learn self-control.

For starters, we do not fast because we’re dualistic, gnostic, platonic, or don’t see value in food. The creation is good, and we honor God’s intentions for the world and our bodies when we nourish our bodies appropriately. But we often are not the best judges of what is appropriate. One of the fruits of the Spirit is “self-control”—the ability to discipline one’s appetites and urges. Fasting helps produce this fruit in our lives.

For example, because the same part of our brain that controls our appetite for food also controls our sexual appetites, the monastic tradition has long recommended fasting as a remedy for lust. On a larger scale, by delaying the gratification of our appetite for food, we cultivate the sort of self-discipline that is valuable in all things (1 Pet 4:8). As Richard Foster wrote, “Our human cravings and desires are like rivers that tend to overflow their banks; fasting helps keep them in their proper channels.”[1]


We fast to think more clearly.

Our culture has a playful term for the drowsy and sluggish feeling one has after eating too much: a “food coma.” But it’s hard to pray when you’re in a food coma. Jesus invites us to practice watchfulness instead of drunkenness (Luke 21:34), and we can be more mentally alert to pray and serve when we’re not weighed down by too much food. St. John Cassian was a monk who lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, and whose writings influenced the famous Rule of St. Benedict. Writing about why we ought to fast, Cassian said, “It is not only too much wine that besots our mind: too much water or too much of anything makes it drowsy and stupefied.”[2]

Fasting can have the opposite effect: sharpening our thinking and making us more attentive to God and those to whom God sends us. (Many of us will respond at this point, “But I get cranky when I don’t eat!” Anger is obviously not a desired fruit of fasting, but here’s a hint: eating a low carbohydrate diet makes it easier to fast without getting irritable, because it forces your body to get used to burning fat for energy, and fat is a more stable source of energy. Try it.)

Perhaps this clarity of mind is why the disciples—“while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting”—heard the Holy Spirit calling them to send out Barnabas and Saul as missionaries in Acts 13:2-3. This means that fasting can be a powerful, but often misunderstood or overlooked element in our processes of discernment.


We fast to open ourselves up to God’s power flowing through us.

A curious thing happens when Jesus gets caught up in conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4: He doesn’t get hungry, even though the other disciples are off searching for lunch. Jesus tells his disciples “I have food to eat that you do not know about. . . . My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (vv. 32, 34). Jesus, in his full humanity, practiced fasting as a way to live in the power of the Spirit and do the Father’s will. The inverse of this statement shows us that fasting is not a way to manipulate God. Fasting does not bend our God’s will to match our own. Rather it bends our will to match God’s. And when our will is aligned with God’s, we may discover that power greater than we imagine is at work within us (Eph 3:20).


We fast to confess our sin and brokenness.

This is most appropriate during the season of Lent, as we practice turning back to God and away from our sinful or selfish desires. Repentance gets short shrift in our proclamation of the Gospel today, but it was integral to the proclamation of Christ and the Apostles (cf. Matt 4:17, Acts 2:38, 2 Cor 7:10). To again quote Richard Foster, “More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.”[3] Fasting reveals the attachments we have to the world and demonstrates our desire to be attached only to Christ. To fast without an element of soul-searching and relinquishment of one’s own will is self-defeating.

All these are valid reasons to practice fasting. Maybe now you’re asking, “But how? Where do I begin?”  

We explore these questions in our next post: How do Christians fast?


The Rev. Christopher Brown was the first coordinator of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He previously served as the organizing co-pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church, a church plant of the PC (U.S.A.) in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. A graduate of Pittsburgh Seminary, Chris regularly blogs at https://christopherbrown.wordpress.com, tweets at @brwnchrstpher, and now lives with his family in Colorado where we serves a church.

[1] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco 1998) p. 56
[2] St. John Cassian, “On the Eight Vices,” in The Philokalia vol. 1 trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, & Kallistos Ware. (London: Faber and Faber 1979)  p. 74[3] Foster, p. 55


3/30 2015

The One Sin We Forgot to Confess This Lent


Updated 02/28/17

I’ve confessed a lot of sin in the last month. Not because I’ve committed more than usual, but because it’s been in Lent. I worship in chapel at least twice a week and at my church on Sunday mornings. That’s a lot of prayers of confession. I’m more aware than usual of the things I’ve done I ought not to have done, and the things I haven’t done which I ought to have done.

But there’s one sin these prayers haven’t prompted me to confess.

I was reminded of this sin during a conversation with my fifth-grade son. It’s a difficult age. The pressure to fit in and be accepted is great. He told me, in so many words, about his pain at wanting to be wanted by others. And it’s a very small step from feeling not wanted by others, to feeling not worth being wanted. The consequence? Self-rejection.

He didn’t need to tell me that last part. As a pastor, I’d seen it again and again, and I’ve felt it myself. As Henri Nouwen has said, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life.”

But when are we led to confess that sin? We are often prompted to confess the sin of pride, that supposedly ever-present over-estimation of our worth. Last week, one of those many prayers of confession had us admit that we “are misled by pride, for we see ourselves as great when we are small.”

Unfortunately, too many of us see ourselves as small when God sees us as great—created “a little lower than God” and crowned “with honor and glory,” as Psalm 8 tells us. The sin of self-rejection—the persistent under-valuing of ourselves—prevents us from delighting in God’s very delight in us.

“Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence,” says Nouwen. He knew the damage of self-rejection from experience, as do more people than our prayers of confession would make us think. Lent would be a great time for the church to help us give voice to this sin, tutoring us out of this false view of ourselves.

During this Holy Week many of us will have the chance to sing the hymn, “What Wondrous Love Is This.” The last time I sang it, one verse struck me:

     When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,

     when I was sinking down, sinking down,

     when I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,

     Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,

     Christ laid aside his crown, for my soul.

Many souls are sinking down beneath this false-image of a frowning God. I increasingly believe that if God is frowning, it’s because we’ve been unable to see the smile of God’s delight. Christ laid aside his crown to free our souls from these false images of ourselves and of God, so that we might enter at last the joy of God’s joy in us.

Maybe next Lent (or maybe before then?) we’ll get to confess this overlooked sin. Maybe we’ll be invited to say something like this:

     Smiling God, forgive us

          for not being able to see your delight in us,

               for living lives misled by self-rejection,

                    and for persisting in the illusion that we are nothing.

     Forgive us for treating ourselves and others as if that illusion were reality.

     Cleanse our vision so that we can begin to see ourselves

          as you see us—beloved children, the apple of your eye.

     Set us free to enter into the joy you take in us,

          a joy made flesh in Christ, through whom we pray. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.

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