Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

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.


2/18 2015

Would Thomas Merton Delete His Facebook Account?

giving up facebook for Lent

Updated 02/28/17

On the first day of Lent, I expect when I open my Facebook news feed that several of my friends will post this type of status update:

“Hey y’all! I’ve decided to give up Facebook for Lent. I need to spend some quality time with my buddy JC. If you need to get ahold of me during Lent, please shot me a text, an e-mail, or a tweet.
See you in 40 days, Facebook friends!!!!!”

This status update is followed by 35 likes, and 10 comments where my friend’s Facebook friends congratulate my friend on her self-discipline, and how this fast will help her grow closer to Jesus.

Having read Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, these status updates make me stop and assess the validity of social media fasts as a form of detachment. There seems to be a growing movement amongst my Christian friends to equate social media usage with un-holiness. I can understand why this link exists. Facebook can be a huge time-suck. Twitter could put newspapers out of business. Instagram might be producing a generation of narcissists.

I’m not denying that excessive social media usage can make it difficult to follow Christ. My problem with Facebook fasts is that they can encourage Christians to take a certain pride in their ability to unplug, without helping them to address the overemphasis of self their attachment to social media can perpetuate.

Let me explain.

Thomas Merton, in New Seeds of Contemplation believes that a contemplative must detach themselves not just from the things of this world that distract them, but also from their very sense of self. In other words, a Facebook fast is not going to help you draw closer to God if the fast does not make you think about why your sense of self depends on having 900 Facebook friends. A Facebook fast also will not help you draw closer to God if you substitute one area of self for another, i.e giving up Facebook, but making yourself more available via text messaging, e-mail, or Twitter.

So instead of doing a Facebook fast this Lent, should we all delete our Facebook accounts?

Perhaps. For some people, the only way for them to detach themselves from their sense of self is by removing all things that distract them from God. But what if we started to envision social media not as a way for us to brag about ourselves, but as a way for us to detach from ourselves and more fully engage with each other as people of God? Instead of fasting from Facebook for 40 days, what would it look like if we committed to wishing everyone a “Happy Birthday” whose birthday fell during Lent? Or if we committed to writing one encouraging post a day on a different friend’s wall for 40 days?

If Thomas Merton were alive today, I like to imagine how he would use social media in a detached way. I picture him logging in on Sunday afternoons while sipping a hot cup of tea, gleeful with the idea of loving his scattered friends with words of encouragement, birthday wishes, and inspirational quotes.

The Rev. Rebecca DePoe is pastor of Mt Nebo United Presbyterian Church in Sewickley, Pa., and can be found on social media throughout Lent. Follow her tweets at @RebeccaDePoe. She previously served as the seminary intern at Bellevue United Presbyterian Church and live tweeted her #ch47pts readings.

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