In my mind growing up, the idea of fasting was always tied to food. My Catholic friends would fast during Lent—the 40 days leading up to Easter—by not eating meat on Fridays. While my family never observed Lent in the traditional sense, I was still encouraged to consider fasting from food as a spiritual discipline by abstaining from eating for 24 hours as a means to focus more attentively on God.
In many ways, my views on fasting have not changed. I still see spiritual value in removing food for a period of 24 hours. The practice does indeed heighten awareness of spiritual matters.
And nothing I write beyond this point is meant to take away from that practice or the spiritual benefits of it. I only mean to add to it.
You see, as I have matured in my life (and my spirituality), I have begun to recognize additional value in the discipline of fasting. Moving beyond abstaining from food, I have also learned to appreciate the benefits of fasting from almost anything in moderation.
Fasting, it seems to me, is ultimately about self-control. It is about the intentional removal of one, external controlling factor in our lives for a period of time. It is an exercise in self-control. And self-control holds benefit for all—regardless of our faith or nonfaith preferences.
In college, for the first time, I set out to give up one “controlling factor” in my life for a period of 40 days—a form of fasting that drew inspiration from my Catholic friends (although I’ll be quick to admit that most world religions embrace some form of fasting).
My thinking went like this, “If there is any external reality in my life that I could not give up for 40 days, it has become a controlling influence on me. By definition, I have lost an element of self-control.”
Over the years, as a result of this exercise, I have fasted from television for 40 days, eating out for 40 days, my cell phone for 40 days, and candy for 40 days. Each time, I chose one thing that would be difficult to part with for a period of days, and then challenged myself to go without it as an exercise in self-control.
Each time, it seemed, I learned more about myself and gained additional insight into finding balance in my life.
I am not alone in my practice of this discipline. The Minimalists recently gave up social media for 30 days. Courtney Carver has written about giving up sugar for 30 days. And almost everyone who attempts an extended shopping ban will tell you it was worth it.
There is value in this practice—however you choose to embrace it.
Currently, my fasting practice looks a bit different than the extended period of abstaining 30 or 40 days from a specific item. Over the past year, I have returned to the 24-hour model of intermittent fasting, choosing to abstain from coffee on Saturdays. It’s not a long, drawn-out practice that requires pre-planning of any sort. It’s just a simple reminder to me—every weekend—that I am in control of my habits, not coffee.
Recently, I texted a friend to see if I could call her about a writing project on a Sunday evening. She said I’d have to wait until Monday, “Sunday evenings are family time. I don’t do any work on purpose.” Just another form of fasting, I thought to myself.
There is value in this discipline. Here’s a quick guide to get started:
1. Choose one external influence in your life to fast from. The best practice for testing (and strengthening) self-control is to choose an item you imagine would be difficult to part with. Finish this sentence, “I could never go 40 days without ____________.” Whatever pops into your head might be a good place to start. Maybe it’s chocolate or Facebook or alcohol or Netflix. You get to decide.
2. Choose a period of time (or regular interval) for your exercise. You may choose 7 days, 40 days, or 365. Or maybe you want to fast every Saturday, every weekend, or every first week of the month. Again, the choice is yours. But do choose a period or interval of time that will challenge you and require a measure of self-control on your end.
3. Make arrangements if necessary. If you are choosing to abstain from sugar for 30 days, it might not be wise to keep lots of sugary snacks in your pantry. If you decide to give up television for a period of time, it may be beneficial to remove the temptation entirely (assuming other members in your family do not object). When I gave up eating out for 40 days, I needed to think through and prepare adequately for brown bag lunches each day instead.
4. Embrace the discipline and expect the beginning to be the hardest. There is nothing wrong with this being difficult—especially at first. Expect it and embrace it. In fact, if the fasting is not difficult for you, you may want to consider choosing something more difficult to give up.
5. Find meaning in defeat. If you give in at some point during the experiment and succumb to the temptation, don’t lose heart. Make failure your servant by examining its root. And then get back up to try again.
6. Re-enter slowly. When you complete your exercise, reintroduce the item into your life deliberately. Remember, you have not committed to giving up something for the rest of your life—only for a predetermined period of time. But that doesn’t mean you automatically return the element to the same level of influence it had before. Almost certainly you will have learned something during the process that will enable you to reintroduce the item in a healthier manner.
Many of the external items that subconsciously control our lives are not needs, they are wants (coffee, dessert, television, Facebook, etc.). But we have become so accustomed to having them in our lives on a daily basis, we quickly confuse our wants and our needs.
Fasting from anything (and/or everything) for a set period of time helps put these items back in proper perspective and gives us the strength to walk away when necessary.
There is value in the practice of fasting. I have found this to be true. So will you.