"Better Than:" The Spirit of Fasting

If, like me, you didn’t grow up marking Lent, the whole practice of fasting may seem strange to you. I want to love God more, so, I don’t eat? Or maybe I do that juice cleanse I’ve been thinking about, because hey why not? It was kind of a New Year’s resolution and I bombed it in January, so I can try it now.

A few years ago, I came across a psalm that transformed my understanding of what fasting is supposed to accomplish.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me. (Psalm 63:1-8)

David wrote this psalm “in the wilderness of Judah” – during one of the times he was on the run for his life. The “wilderness diet,” so to speak, would have been pretty lean: scarce water, scrubby plants, no fruit, maybe the occasional lean and gamey deer if you’re lucky. David is likely spending his days with the hollow feeling of not having enough to eat.

That makes the visceral imagery he uses to describe his longing for God all the more powerful. Instead of asking for a no-longer-dry tongue, “my soul thirsts for you.” Instead of asking for a full belly, “My soul will be satisfied [in you] as with fat and rich food.” He’s letting his hunger turn his heart to long for God more.

The emotional crescendo is verse 4:

Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.

That’s where the light came on. The spirit of fasting – what we’re supposed to understand when we give things up for God – is captured in the phrase “better than.” God’s love is better than life. God’s spirit is better than a spring of water. The memory of God is better than a steak dinner.

Fasting is giving up a good thing to remind ourselves that God is better than that. It’s temporarily depriving ourselves, not to practice self-control or feel like dirt, but to try to direct that longing to the ultimate good. As Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

That means that instead of just depriving ourselves, fasting accomplishes its fullest purpose when we replace that lack with something of God. We replace a meal with time meditating on the Bible. We spend time in prayer instead of with Netflix. We practice silence and solitude one evening instead of time with friends.

The good things in life are good; but God is better. If you’ve never practiced fasting before, consider these questions:

1. What is one “good thing” in my life that I think I need more than I do? (that I’m afraid to give up for a time)

2. How can I let go of that thing and “replace” it with God, to remind myself that God is better than that?

Image: "St. Jerome," by Leonello Spalla