How to Discern What to Fast for Lent

Aaron Damiani
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One feature of Lent that I appreciate is its scalability. Nearly everyone can find a path that is both challenging and sustainable for them. The partial fast—known as the Lenten fast—involves cutting out part of your diet such as sugar or desserts, alcohol, meat, caffeine, or dairy products. Like the Christians in the early church, some people choose to cut out most parts of their diet, eating only vegetables, grains, or dried food.[1] The Eastern Orthodox canons call their faithful to give up meat, fish, eggs, dairy, wine, and oil.[2] A partial fast limits or removes the food and/or drinks associated with feasting. I typically give up sugar and alcohol for my partial fast.

Fasting from Food

Provided you do not cut out essential nutrition, a partial fast is a safe yet challenging way to practice Lent. You’re not skipping any meals, but you’re cutting out the extras. If you’re accustomed to satisfying your every craving, a partial fast helps you learn to control your appetites. Jesus meets you in this training, inviting you to call out to Him when you feel irritated, bored, or restless.

Fasting from Entertainment

Modern Christians have found incredible spiritual benefit in expanding their partial fast beyond the physical appetite to abstaining from other trappings of modern life. Many of us have instant access to any kind of entertainment, information, or mental stimulation we desire, for little to no cost. When I read Jesus’ words about “the cares of the world” that choke out the Word of God (Matt. 13:22), I’m reminded of the glowing, chirping screen in my pocket. Its broadcasts can use up the bandwidth I need to meditate upon and share the good news.

Whatever might capture our imaginations and mental energy is fair game to give up for Lent: movies, TV, the news, social media, video games, sports, texting—you name it. Christ might ask us to lay one or more of these distractions aside for something better.

Caveats of a Partial Fast

Before I address how to discern your partial fast, let me offer two important caveats.

A partial fast is distinct from repentance of sin. Do not take a partial fast from using pornography or sleeping with your significant other. Rather, confess your sin to God, receive Christ’s forgiveness, and take drastic, intentional steps to remove it permanently from your life. The same is true for any other sin, such as gluttony, racism, violent behavior, slander, envy, or deceit. A partial fast may help you repent of sin, but it is a different path altogether.

A partial fast limits or removes the food and/or drinks associated with feasting.

A partial fast is not an addiction treatment program. If you feel powerless to break a dependence on alcohol, sexual activity, gambling, drugs, overeating, or any other vice, seek professional help from a licensed counselor and an addiction recovery pro- gram in your church or community. Also seek support from your local pastor and church family. There is hope! The spiritual benefits of observing Lent with the people of God will be a support and encouragement as you walk the road of recovery.

Discern a Partial Fast

With that said, here are a few questions to help you discern your partial fast:

  • What cravings have a hold on me?[3]
  • What would be truly liberating to leave behind?
  • Short of an addiction, have I become dependent on a particular food, drink, substance, or activity?
  • What would be truly challenging to give up for Lent?
  • What is Jesus asking of me?

After praying over these questions, I encourage you to select at least one luxury food or drink and at least one “modern distraction” to give up. If this is your first time observing Lent, keep it simple and make a short list of one or two abstentions that will challenge you without crushing you. Consider getting input from a mentor or pastor to ensure you set realistic goals. If you have already practiced the partial fast and are ready for more, then consider adding other items to your list.

If you have medical problems and diet restrictions that prohibit you from fasting from food, you are still welcome to participate in the spirit and discipline of Lent. It may require some creative experimenting. Please consult with your doctor, pastor, and others who can help you discern your Lenten path. You are not left out but are blazing a trail for others who share similar limitations.

[1] Scot McKnight argues that this type of fasting should be called “absti- nence” to eliminate confusion with the classic discipline of fasting. See Fasting: The Ancient Practices (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 20–22.

[2] Rev. George Mastrantonis, “Fasting from Iniquities and Foods,” Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (website), ourfaith/ourfaith8125.

[3] This question originated from an Ash Wednesday sermon by Fr. Kevin Miller, “What’s Your ‘Gotta Have’?” preached February 21, 2007, at Church of the Resurrection (Wheaton, IL).

For Further Reading:

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