Encouraging Christian Teenagers to Fast

We all know that teenagers need food to grow. In fact, as youth ministers whove tried to buy enough food for an event we are painfully aware of just how much some teenagers can eat! But if we are thinking about spiritual rather than physical growth, it is fasting–abstaining from food and drink except water for all or part of a day–that can help our teenagers grow.

In the Anglican tradition we are currently in the season of Lent–40 days before Easter (not counting Sundays) corresponding to Jesus40 days in the wilderness. Since we are told that Jesus ate nothing during those days” (Luke 4:2), its natural that the spiritual practice of fasting is associated with the season. Whether or not your church tradition observes Lent, the lead-up to Easter is an opportunity to encourage young people to try the spiritual practice of fasting, in the hope that it will become a habit.

As we speak about fasting we should bear in mind that some of our students may have an unhealthy relationship to food, or an eating disorder of which we are unaware. We should encourage students to consult with their parents before fasting, as they might well know things we dont. And certainly if we know that a young person has an eating disorder, we should not encourage them to fast from food, but perhaps to abstain from something else, like social media.

We also need to be clear that choosing not to fast isnt sinful. There may be seasons of life in which followers of Jesus arent able to fast for one reason or another. Yet at the same time, Jesus expects those who follow him to fast. In Matthew 6:16 Jesus says when you fast,” not if you fast. And then in Matthew 9:15 Jesus explains that the days will come when the bridegroom [Jesus] is taken away from them [his followers], and then they will fast.”

Jesus is no longer physically present with us, so we are to practice fasting until he returns. Here are three concrete ways fasting can help us and our students to grow as followers of Jesus.

Growing in prayer

Throughout the Scriptures fasting and prayer go hand in hand (e.g. Jonah 3:8), and one very simple way in which fasting can help us follow Jesus is by giving us more time to pray. Ive had lots of students tell me that they want to pray, but just cant find the time. Fasting is a way to make time to pray. Ive found that missing lunch in particular can create a space for prayer in the middle of the day that Id never have otherwise. By encouraging young people to fast, were showing one way they can carve out time to pray (and testing whether they really want to!).

Its not just at mealtimes that fasting can help us to pray–it can also prompt us to pray throughout the day. It might just be me, but once Ive deliberately not eaten a meal its not very long at all until Im hungry! That hunger tends to be what my mind settles on when Ive got a spare moment–I find myself wondering why I feel so hungry. And when I remember its because Im fasting I can use that as a prompt to fire up a quick arrow” prayer at any time of day.

Growing in (acknowledging) dependence

Dependence on God is the fundamental reality of our lives. Despite our desires to be independent, we are sustained moment by moment by God. Our students are surrounded by a culture that idolizes independence, that tells them to look after number one, to make their own way, to find the strength they need within themselves. In that environment, it is hard to live the prayerful, grateful life that would reflect the reality of our dependence.

I have found, however, that fasting has helped me to see my dependence on God. In Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses tells Israel that God used their need for food to teach them about their need for God and his Word, and that has been my experience too. Realizing our physical dependence on food makes our spiritual dependence real to us in a way no amount of mere thinking about it could achieve.

Growing in self-control

Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and a crucial part of living in light of the gospel (Titus 2:2, 5-6). But for teenagers, self-control is especially challenging. As they develop physically and emotionally, we need to help them build the muscle” of self-control. Fasting can play an important role because it trains our bodies to not get what they want.”[1]It is not sinful to break a fast earlier than planned–but each time we keep fasting with the Spirits help, we are weakening the hold our bodily desires have over us. We are building that embodied habit of self-control. We hope that when our students find themselves wanting something that is sinful, like drunkenness or sexual intimacy outside of marriage, they will be  in the habit of being able to say no” to their bodies.

The good news of Christianity is that our salvation does not depend on how well we observe any spiritual practice, fasting included. We are saved not by our own good works, but by trusting in the work of Christ in his life, death and resurrection. Still, God has given us the good gift of food, and Jesus has commended the practice of fasting. So lets encourage the young people we serve to fast, praying that God might use it for their growth.

[1] John Mark Comer, Live No Lies, p179

Andy Hood serves as Children, Youth and Families Minister at Inspire Saint James Clerkenwell in central London. Andy is married to Rose, and they have a super-energetic 1-year-old daughter!

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