Fasting from Technology: A Lenten Discipline and Much Harder than Giving Up Cheeseburgers!

Fasting during Great Lent is one of the oldest practices of the Christian Church. Of course, fasting predates Christianity and virtually all religions practice some form of fasting from food. Originally, fasting meant just that – no eating or drinking of any kind, the way you might fast for 12 hours before a blood test or surgery. You will notice that in the early Church, these fasts were typically short in duration, usually a day or two, because to fast longer would lead to severe bodily harm. 

The Bible has many references to fasting from food. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets often fasted. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord commented on the fasts of his hearers: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18). Christians continued the practice of fasting as you can read in Acts of the Apostles 13:2-4. In the lives of the Saints of the Church, the biographer will usually describe and praise the fasts of that particular saint.

While we use the term “fast” to describe our Lenten discipline, apart from some kind of pre-Communion fast (no food or drink for at least a few hours before receiving Holy Communion), Christians today actually only “abstain” from certain foods. Eastern Christians will typically abstain from meat, dairy products, eggs, and oil during their “fast’ but other foods are eaten, mainly vegetables. We could say that the Lord Himself initiated the practice. In the Book of Genesis we read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:15-17).

Today, fasting (and I will use the more popular term) is still practiced widely during Great Lent. In the Eastern Church, Great Lent is also called the “Great Fast.” There are references to fasting itself in the hymns of the East during this time, emphasizing how integral this fast is to Great Lent.

The point of the fast is not the food, it’s the discipline involved in abstaining from them. There is nothing inherently spiritually wrong with the food we eat. Abstaining from them is meant to raise our consciousness about our lives and our relationship to God, others, and the world. Abstaining from certain foods can provide the opportunity to focus our attention on heavenly things, not just our earthly and bodily concerns. As one priest I know said, “If you can say ‘no’ to a food item, you can learn to say ‘no’ to the many other temptations that lead us away from God.”

However, giving up meat or dairy products seems to have become easier and easier for many of us. With our health consciousness, we are increasingly avoiding these foods.  Meatless Mondays have grown in popularity and eating fish on Fridays is now being encouraged once again for Roman Catholics. Giving up bacon cheeseburgers during Lent then is hardly a difficult discipline to observe when we don’t eat them any other time of the year!

Perhaps, then, the time has come to focus on a “technology fast” for Great Lent. We have become increasingly dependent, even addicted, to our smart phones, our social media sites, our video games, and more. These have pushed human interaction aside, shortened our time for prayer and religious devotion (how many of us have replaced these by reading religious blogs?!), or personal time for quiet reflection and introspection. If you are not convinced, notice how many people “freak out” when their phones aren’t connected or even worse, when they are asked to turn them off for a period of time. We somehow believe that our lives will be adversely affected and we are shocked when they aren’t!

But we cannot truly fast from technology. It is a tool for everyday life.  None of us can stop using e-mail for forty days (as much as it might be nice). A technology fast will be one of abstaining from certain dimensions of technology for the Lenten period.

We can make an individual commitment to abstain from technology in some ways. We can also make a family or communal commitment. In fact, fasting from certain foods as a community strengthens the bonds of that community, becoming an act of solidarity, a means of accountability, and as a support when the vigor for the fast wanes.

If you choose to include a technology fast in your Lenten discipline this year, here’s a series of simple steps you have to work through.

What is essential versus non-essential use of technology in my life? Technology is essential for our lives. We use e-mail and social media in our jobs. We attend virtual meetings, web seminars as part of our employment. Parents, children and teens receive text messages, e-mail, and other forms of electronic communication from school. We shop on-line, purchasing things essential for our work and homes. The key becomes sorting out what is essential technology use versus non-essential technology use.  A couple of years ago, I watched a teenage Sunday school class list all the ways they use technology and sort by essential and non-essential as they were developing their principles for their technology fast. They realized that there were plenty of ways that technology was non-essential to their lives.

Write down the rules for abstaining.  Once the sorting is complete, develop the rules for the technology fast and write them down. For example, turn off the cell phone, computer, and ipad at 9 pm every night and not turn them on until 8 am (I already do this and find it quite liberating.). Limiting social media use. Limiting texting. Then write the rules down where all can see. Place the rules on large newsprint, hang lists on the refrigerator, or sticky notes by the computer can all be ways to remind us of our technology fast.

Replace the activity. If part of the fasting from food is to be free to devote more time to prayer or devotional reading, with what will we replace the time that was devoted to surfing the web? Will it be reading? Will it be family time in conversation? Will it be service to others?  Will it be prayer?

Go public with your principles. Just as we all know the rules for fasting from food and these are publicly communicated, do the same with the technology fast. Tell your social media friends that you won’t be there too much for forty days.

How will we hold one another accountable for observing our technology fast?  Fortunately, Great Lent has built in helps. Since we are often at church events during Great Lent, we can include checking in on one another to learn how we are managing without something. We can “confess” to one another when we break our rules.

Like all forms of fasting, establishing a discipline will be challenging. The first few days are always hard. But the effort will be worth it.