The first hints of spring are in the air, Lent is upon us, and Christians across the world are preparing to give up something close to their hearts for the next 40+ days as part of their Lenten observation. But what, exactly, is Lent? And what on earth does it have to do with intermittent fasting? Let’s take a look.
What Is Lent?
Lent is an important part of the Christian religious calendar, a time of spiritual reflection and penance observed over the weeks leading up to Easter. It represents the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and praying and being tempted by the Devil; it’s a time for Christians to confront their own personal demons and temptations, to make personal sacrifices and offer the results up to God.
The period of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (46 days before Easter) and generally ends at sundown on Good Friday — the Friday before Easter Sunday. (Some traditions instead end Lent on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, or on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.) Because the date of Easter varies from year to year, the period Lent covers also varies. In 2020, Lent runs from February 26 to April 10.
So What Does Lent Have to Do With Fasting?
Fasting as a form of penance or a tool for spiritual growth has always been common in religious practice, and fasting is intimately entwined with Lent. Historically, along with other penitential practices, people would fast from all animal products other than fish during Lent and would often confine themselves to a single meal per day.
In more modern times, the rules for fasting have become increasingly lax and today most people choose simply to give up a vice such as sugar, chocolate or even smoking.
Can Intermittent Fasting Fit Into Lent?
Since the Lenten season is already so strongly associated with fasting, beginning an intermittent fasting practice for Lent just makes sense. Traditionally, fasting during Lent is about more than simple self-denial; it’s about using physical discipline as a tool for deepening your spirituality.
And while the idea of intermittent fasting for spirituality may not have been on your radar, there are real benefits to be reaped.
The benefits of intermittent fasting for spiritual growth include (but aren’t limited to):
- Self-awareness. Intermittent fasting breeds mindfulness. Whether by choice (because you’re actively planning what and when you will eat) or by necessity (because in the early stages of IF you may find yourself hungry), intermittent fasting focuses you on the here-and-now. It makes you more conscious of your body and its wants and needs. You learn to differentiate between the two, and to recognize that while putting off a want (such as breakfast) may make you mildly uncomfortable, it isn’t a matter of life and death and can safely be put on the back burner.
- Better discipline. There’s no getting around it: fasting — even short-protocol intermittent fasting such as a 14:10 schedule — takes self-control. Fasters achieve a measure of discipline over their bodies which may be unfamiliar to many people, making dietary decisions based on their conscious desires and beliefs rather than on fleshly cravings and habits. And discipline is the gift that keeps on giving; once you’ve mastered restraint in one aspect of your life, it becomes that much easier to apply it to other areas.
- Humbleness. In a world of always-on interconnectedness, where virtually everything on earth is available at the click of a mouse and communication across continents happens at the speed of thought, it’s easy to fool ourselves into feeling rather god-like. Modern culture also breeds entitlement, pride, and a host of other sins both large and small. Fasting reminds us in a very physical way that we are not, in fact, god-like and that we’re mortal, physical beings. And that’s a good thing, especially on a spiritual level.
- Breaking bad habits. (Like alcohol and junk food). Fasting, purely by limiting the number of hours in the day during which you eat, can be helpful in breaking bad eating habits. But the power of the fast goes beyond junk food or overindulgence. The mental tools and psychological strength that fasting fosters — self-awareness, discipline, willpower, patience, mindfulness and more openness to the spiritual aspect of things — can help you identify and address poor habits in other areas of your life too.
- More willpower. Willpower, which can be seen as both separate from and as a component of discipline, is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it grows. With willpower comes the ability to resist temptations, whether they’re physical (like that quart of Haagen-Dazs in the freezer), psychological, or spiritual.
- Patience. If intermittent fasting teaches you anything, it’s patience, and patience is one of the most invaluable tools for successfully navigating life on nearly every level.
- Becoming closer to God. Fasting — especially stricter fasting protocols such as the 5:2 diet or 18:6 schedule — asks you to put your physical desires last rather than first. And without the distraction of so many bodily wants and needs clamoring for your attention, it becomes much easier to hear God when he speaks to you. Fasting sharpens your awareness and leaves room for a still and quiet space at your center.
What Fasting Protocol Fits Lent the Best?
Which fasting protocol to follow on your Lenten journey depends on where you’re currently at in your fasting practice. If you’re brand new to fasting and it’s something you’ve never tried before, a relatively short fasting period such as 14:10 may be in order.
But if you’re already fasting on a regular basis, Lent may be the time to step up your practice and push outside your comfort zone. The goal is to challenge yourself, to keep yourself mindful — to make yourself just that little bit uncomfortable, but not unbearably so. The operative word during Lent is “sacrifice,” and if you’re simply doing your normal everyday thing, you’re not sacrificing anything nor are you challenging yourself.
The Final Word
While fasting is primarily practiced for its effect on physical health, the spiritual benefits of intermittent fasting can also be profound. If you’re searching for a way to deepen your spiritual practice, adopting a fasting practice this Lent may be just the solution you’re looking for.