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A Prayer and Fasting Devotional

It is possible to do all the right things in all the wrong ways. You may already know this, but it is something very easy to forget. It, therefore, ought to come as no surprise that we find warnings about this very thing throughout Scripture, especially in the Prophets. It is put perhaps most poignantly in the first chapter of Isaiah:

10            “Hear the word of the LORD,

                                    you rulers of Sodom!

                   Give ear to the teaching of our God,

                                    you people of Gomorrah!

11            ‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?

                                    says the LORD;

                   I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams

                                    and the fat of well-fed beasts;

                   I do not delight in the blood of bulls,

                                    or of lambs, or of goats.

12        When you come to appear before me,

                                    who has required of you

                                    this trampling of my courts?

13            Bring no more vain offerings;

                                    incense is an abomination to me.

                   New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—

                                    I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.

14            Your new moons and your appointed feasts

                                    my soul hates;

                   they have become a burden to me;

                                    I am weary of bearing them.

15            When you spread out your hands,

                                    I will hide my eyes from you;

                   even though you make many prayers,

                                    I will not listen;

                                    your hands are full of blood.

16            Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;

                                    remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;

                   cease to do evil,

17            learn to do good;

                   seek justice,

                                    correct oppression;

                   bring justice to the fatherless,

                                    plead the widow’s cause.’”

In these verses, Isaiah is calling the people of God to account for engaging in religious practices (the very ones prescribed by God) in a way that is unbefitting. They are doing the right things in the wrong way (of course, it needs be said that they’re also not doing the things they ought, namely justice (Isaiah 1:17)).

We are not impervious to this. This is especially true of fasting. Jesus warns us about this in the Sermon on the Mount: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is unseen. And your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18) This is a classic example of doing the right thing in the wrong way.

Saint Thomas Aquinas has observed that there are three criteria to consider when determining if any action is morally good: the nature of the action itself, the circumstance in which the action takes place and the intention of the actor. An action is good if, and only if, it satisfactorily meets all three criteria.

Let’s explore fasting in this way. First, the nature of fasting. For an action to be good, it must be inherently good or at least morally neutral (the circumstances and intentions are typically the deal breaker). The nature of fasting, like most actions, is morally neutral. Thinking, running, talking, eating, drinking, etc. are all amoral. Fasting, so far as it goes, is a fine thing to do. So far, so good.

Second, the circumstance. Your life circumstances can have a massive impact on your fast. It’s not good to fast if you are ill, for instance. It’s at least potentially dangerous to fast if you struggle with an eating disorder. In what circumstances do you find yourself during this fast?

Third, the intention of the heart. There are loads of good and bad motivations for fasting. Why are you fasting? For what end are you fasting? Is it to draw closer to God? To heighten your prayers? To humble yourself? Or is it to appear to be seen as holy? Or to look a bit better in a bathing suit this weekend? This third criteria is the trickiest. Indeed this is why T.S. Elliot wrote in his Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Now, let me encourage you lest this devotion inspire such a fear of fasting in an unbefitting way that it cripples your fast.  This is not my intention at all. What I would hope you do in response to this devotion is to simply engage in some self-reflection on your life circumstances and the motivations of your heart. Why are you fasting? What do you hope to gain? A little introspection never hurt anyone and may even get you back on the right track.  

Kevin Antlitz
Ministry Fellow at Princeton