LENT: Fast - A Spiritual Experience

March 07, 2013

This is the second in a three-part series of Lenten articles written by Linda Woodson Stout, a graduate of the Iowa School for Lay Ministry, class of 2006. Click here to read the first article.


Fast – A Spiritual Experience

You’ll fast during this Lent.

Yeah, right.

It was Sunday morning worship early in 2005 and this persistent thought distracted my attention to our pastor’s message. Occasionally through the years, I have these seemingly counterintuitive thoughts, quiet messages out of the blue nudging me in a direction I wouldn’t take on my own. I have come to associate these nudges with the “still, small voice of God” Elijah experiences in 1 Kings 19. Even though as I have matured I have deepened my trust of them, this one I questioned.

I tried fasting in college and failed.

You’ll fast this Lent.

No, I won’t. I can’t even take medications that need to be taken an hour after I eat and two hours before I eat again.

You’ll fast this Lent.

I’m not repeating the stress of that fasting blood work without a good reason – and that was just an 8 hour fast.

You’ll fast this Lent.

Only if I can drink fruit juice and milk, maybe even milkshakes.

You’ll fast this Lent.

I’m quitting at the first sign of difficulty.

You’ll fast this Lent.

You’ll fast this Lent.

Pastor Jon Gaul, then of Grace UMC, Sioux City, was describing the fasting option of having the noon meal on one day, omitting the dinner meal that evening and the breakfast meal the following morning, then breaking the fast with the next lunch. He admitted that he sometimes did this fast unintentionally and that for many people this was a doable doorway into Wesley’s Acts of Piety.


Expectations and Preparations

Reluctantly I accepted this challenge to my spiritual discipline. My expectations were:

  • A physical experience characterized by hunger pangs, lack of energy, and lightheadedness.

  • I would fail, as I had in college, because I become too lightheaded without eating food at regular intervals.

  • I would complain, even if not verbally, by my oft-heard stomach rumblings announcing the times of expected meals.

  • Any benefits would be physical – loss of weight or systemic cleansing.

That year I chose Wednesday lunch to Thursday lunch during Lent for my fasting.

  • I took Matthew’s gospel to heart¹ and decided that until Easter I would not tell those closest to me that I was fasting weekly. I did tell my pastor and my walking buddy to provide an outlet if I wanted to discuss anything.

  • Wednesday evenings were busy for my family – I was leading one of our church’s Lenten Study groups after the usual Wednesday evening church supper. My husband was involved in choir practice and my daughter was on the leadership team for the first through fifth graders during the Lenten study time. I have a reputation of not being able to eat when I am experiencing nervous anticipation – including leading a new class, hosting dinner parties, going to job interviews, etc. Since neither family member would question me about not eating with them, I chose this evening to be able to fast privately.

  • I prepared my Wednesday and Thursday lunches carefully – well-balanced with lots of variety. I wanted memorable and inviting meals to bracket my fast.

  • I prayed during the remaining weeks before Lent that the experience would help me learn and focused on being open to the experience regardless of its ease or challenge.


My Reality

Even though I had mentally and physically prepared for my fasting experience, I was surprised by the unexpected results.

  • I found a new satisfaction with aromas. I found I could enjoy the scents of food without needing to eat them.

  • I was able to objectively prepare meals for my family without feeling deprived. I could enjoy the sight, feel and aroma of food preparation and happily share this with others.

  • I learned our physical biology is structured so that no food means more blood for the brain. That added brain activity provides opportunity for greater spiritual awareness, exploration of beliefs, and enhanced insights. These experiences were the biggest factor encouraging my continued practice of fasting.

  • Sorry, I didn’t lose weight. The only ongoing physical benefit I have discovered with fasting is that I now have a weekly check allowing me to recover from overindulgence.

I was also surprised by my willingness to repeat the experience. We may receive messages from society that these rituals have the purpose of making us suffer. While some aspects of fasting were challenging, the satisfaction of the spiritual benefits fueled my willingness to continue fasting experiences.

  • I repeated my Lenten fast two successive years with satisfactory results. I have never fasted “perfectly.” I slip up, consuming something when I forget I am fasting. Yet overall, the spiritual benefits invited me to repeat the experience.

  • My associate pastor asked if I thought I’d be adding fasting to my regular rituals and I said no. I was quite content having fasting be a tidy Lenten ritual. However, during a challenging period beyond Lent I adapted a regular fast practice. I was relieved that this familiar practice helped restore my focus and core tranquility. During this time I eventually committed to practicing a regular weekly fast.

I have never fasted "perfectly." I slip up, consuming something when I forget I am fasting. Yet overall, the spiritual benefits invited me to repeat the experience.

  • A grounded pause in my week with gratitude that this was still a choice, not a necessity.

  • Fuel for enhanced intellectual understanding observing my daily life or immersed in Bible study.

  • Restoration of my focus and core tranquility.

  • Inspiration for spiritual expression, growth, and ministry. 


Alternative Fasts

Food fasts are only one way to fast. Anything that takes up your time or otherwise distracts you from you spiritual development could be considered for a possible fast.

  • Author Julia Cameron recommended a Reading Deprivation Week in her book The Artist’s Way – A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Initially it seemed an overwhelming assignment, but most participants experience a discovery of meaningful, useful time. This assignment evolved into Media Deprivation Week, taking a break from reading, television, movies, e-mails, internet, etc., in her book The Artist’s Way at Work. This practice forces us to look at how much time we spend in these activities and may encourage us to restructure our time priorities.

  • Fasting from something that distracts our energy frees our time to pursue other, more meaningful interests. This is among the most effective methods to identify time that can be converted to an opportunity to work toward a long term goal.


Considerations before fasting the first time

Check with your medical professional, especially if you have any chronic conditions. If food fasting is not an option, consider a fast from some other activity.

  • Select a convenient, limited time. Lent is an excellent choice. Six weeks is long enough to have a broad range of experience without feeling overwhelmed by the commitment. Advent may offer a challenge for a successive fast following a good initial fasting experience.

  • Tell someone you’re fasting even if you don’t plan to tell the world. You’ll have someone with whom to discuss your experience as it is happening, as well as back up if something unexpected happens.


Tips for Success

  • Drink plenty of water. I carry water with me when I fast and drink some whenever I think of it or my stomach growls. During colder weather I heat a mug of water in the microwave.

  • Keep a record of your experience – list times or situations that seem easier or harder than expected, difficult challenges to overcome, and any observed benefits.

  • There is no Fast Force to police your ritual. You control the rules to make your experience both doable and meaningful. My fasting rules do not exclude licking my fingers after food preparation for others. I feel it is more honorable to allow these morsels to fulfill their purpose. However, purposefully coating my fingers, as in licking the bowl, is not acceptable for me.

  • Slip ups are not equivalent to automatic failure. We are indeed human and it says more about our character to continue our commitment rather than give up. It is typical to forget about fasting and inadvertently consume out of habit. I “failed” at least once during each of my Lenten fasts, either when food was offered to me or by me automatically eating breakfast the morning into my fast.

Remember that the fasting ritual is not the essence. What happens to us through the ritual is essential. Focusing on our personal transformation rather than a perfect performance frees us to venture into new experiences and spiritual growth.


Linda Woodson Stout
Iowa School for Lay Ministry
Class of 2006


¹ Matthew 6:1-18 recommends performing rituals for God to see rather than to impress others.