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Christian Union

A Prayer and Fasting Devotional

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In Eliezer Diamond’s thorough treatment of fasting in rabbinic Judaism (Holy Men and Hunger Artists, Oxford Press, 2004), he traces two different yet important ways of understanding and approaching devotional self-discipline. First, Diamond defines “essential asceticism” as entailing “explicit renunciation of some aspect of conventional existence because the self-denial itself is seen as inherently spiritually salutary” (12). Alternatively, this is contrasted with what Diamond defines as “instrumental asceticism,” those practices that necessitate a “commitment to a spiritual quest so consuming that one feels it necessary to minimize or eliminate worldly pursuits and pleasures because they detract from or distract one from one’s godly objectives.”
As we continue in a season of corporate fasting, I find Diamond’s delineation to be a timely reminder that the practice of abstaining is not, in and of itself, the telos of our commitments. Jesus’ warning in Matthew 6:16–18 similarly underscores the tragedy of spiritual practices that are chiefly predicated upon public appearance:

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But 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” (NRSV).

I think a corresponding lesson stemming from Jesus’ words draws attention to how times of fasting ought to be deeply educative moments (the “spiritual quest” in Diamond’s assessment), a point that’s minimized if the surface act of fasting alone is perceived as the only good. More concisely, there’s more to fasting than being hungry. Or, fasting isn’t primarily for display. There’s something far more important and formative at hand when we choose to put down our forks. 

For Diamond, a more nuanced approach to asceticism and fasting is one that is able to retain a perspective of instrumentality. Put another way, spiritual practices such as fasting are a part of a process. Along these lines, our hunger pangs are simply a byproduct of the path toward discipleship in which godly pursuits are pursued with greater care and focus. Toward this end, a helpful question regards what or whom your fasting is for. This is not to say that being hungry doesn’t teach us profoundly important spiritual lessons. For example, times of fasting invite us to acknowledge our neediness before God and others. Seasons of fasting also awaken us to our sincere need to express gratitude. However, the crucial lesson is that such realizations aren’t solely tied to the physical reality of an empty plate. Instead, our spiritual practices beckon us to heighten our faithfulness—both in the present and long after we’ve rejoined the meal.

Jared Wortman
Ministry Fellow at Harvard Law School
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