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Fasting: A cross-cultural perspective on the season of Lent

The Season of Lent brings to mind the historical practice of fasting, of “giving up” something in order to “take up” something else.

Fasting has been a spiritual practice from biblical times. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus included instructions on three particular “acts of righteousness”—almsgiving, prayer and fasting (Matt. 6:1-18).

Both Muslims and Christians of Central Asia, including Afghanistan, India, Iran, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey, practice fasting. Devout Muslims worldwide fast for thirty days each year during the month of Ramadan, when no food or drink is permitted during daylight hours. Muslim parents encourage children to start fasting at about age 7-10.  This fasting is connected with feasting and almsgiving, since breaking the fast each evening is a time for celebration with family and community, and many give gifts to the poor during Ramadan.

For the most part, the Christian church in Pakistan observes seventy days of fasting every year—thirty days with their Muslim neighbors during the month of Ramadan, and in addition, forty days during Lent according to the Christian calendar, between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. For Christians in Pakistan, Lent is a community-based season. The body of Christ practices repentance and righteous acts that include celebrations of fellowship and worship in their homes, showing the love of Christ to the extended community. Devoted people try to observe all forty days during Lent by not drinking or and eating during the day (except for Sundays). Some churches schedule retreats to encourage pastors and worship leaders to fast and to teach their congregation to practice fasting in combination with prayer. Although Muslims may eat and drink all night long during Ramadan, Christian fasting usually involves only one meal in the evening. Families host special prayer meetings in their homes, inviting others to join them. Christian families may also place daily offerings in a little clay bank throughout Lent, bringing their banks to church for Maundy Thursday services as their offering. Some take special offerings of money and food for neighbors.

The mighty men and women of God in scripture always combined fasting with prayer. Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Nehemiah and other prophets from the Old Testament knew the power of fasting and prayer. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ himself fasted forty days in the wilderness when preparing to begin his ministry. He taught and encouraged his disciples to fast with prayer in order to be better prepared and empowered to serve. The Apostle Paul and churches in the early centuries also practiced fasting. In biblical and church history wherever and whenever people had a strong desire for God’s guidance, renewal, and power, they combined prayer and fasting.

Christians in Pakistan, living in a majority Muslim culture, continue this practice. In the post-modern Western world, both communal and personal fasting have largely disappeared against a backdrop of consumerism, comfort and prosperity. Restoring the practice of fasting in the Western church may help to reinvigorate their spiritual life through the combined practices of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, in order to prepare individuals and churches for more faithful service. God’s power through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is still available.