Would you like your repentance to yield some return on investment this Lent? Perhaps in the form of optimized productivity and enhanced cognitive performance? Now you can join Jesus in the metaphorical wilderness, with a Silicon Valley biohack: intermittent fasting.
According to one tech mogul, intermittent fasting produces “super-fuel for the brain.” As Christians around the world prepare for the liturgical season of Lent, marked most famously by the discipline of fasting (with a focus also on praying and almsgiving), they are presented with an opportunity to take their cues either from the wilderness or from the Valley.
In the startup world, fasting is aimed at the liberation of bodies from their natural limitations, such as mental fogginess, creative blocks, the need for rest, or the possibility of failure. For these engineers and CEO types, the human body is just another industry to disrupt. Whether completely abstaining from food on weekends (the “5:2 plan”), or restricting a day’s calories to an 8-hour window (the “16:8 fast”), or tracking ketone levels in their blood (while sipping raw water and mushroom coffee, probably), these faithful fasters strive to embrace the ethics of warriors or monks. But unlike the fasting of religious asceticism, the fasting preferred by biohacking tycoons is directed at results—results meant to offer an advantage in a highly competitive global market.
One CEO of a “biohacking and nootropics company” participates in a fast with his coworkers. Together the company employees track their spiking ketone levels and employ software that measures their productivity at work during fasts. “I’m focused on longevity and cognitive performance,” the CEO told The Guardian.
But Christians are called to adopt a different focus, a different posture, during their Lenten fasts.
In contrast to the modern deities of Silicon Valley, Christians are called to fast to recognize that they are not gods, but creatures—formed out of dust, and to dust destined to return. Whatever people fasting choose to give up, the discomfort of the practice is an embodied reminder that we are creatures reliant on God, thus cultivating deeper communion with God. We cannot exist without food (and our food cannot exist without a favorable harvest!). We are utterly dependent on a greater Being for daily provision.
The Lenten season is traditionally connected with Jesus’s forty-day fast in the wilderness, as depicted in the fourth chapters of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. As Jesus faces down temptations from the devil, he is challenged to prove his divinity by turning stones into bread and jumping off the pinnacle of the temple. The devil offers him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for a simple bow. But Jesus resists the devil’s offer of prestige and power.
Whereas Silicon Valley fasts to gain influence and dominion, Jesus says no to the power available to him in his hunger. Whereas tech CEOs are mortals who leverage their appetites in order to transcend their bodily needs, Jesus is the God who remains in his hunger in order to embrace his humanity. Jesus clues his church in to the strange reality that being hungry and human—and not being in control—is a necessary part of the way we are made.
For the Christian, the frustrations and failures of having a human body are not a limitation to overcome, but a gift to receive. Fasting is about accepting that true life is not found grasping at success, as if the world existed solely for our satisfaction. The only return on the investment of fasting is the humility that comes with nearness to God. And yet this modest profit eclipses whatever advantage the Valley purports to offer, because through it, we acknowledge that we were designed with limits in mind. Our bodies aren’t built to be conquered, but to abide in the world that God made.
And just as God took time to rest on the final day of creation, we too are commanded to slow down, to lean into human contingency, to give our bodies a break (Gen. 2:3).
Of course, even with the humble purpose of fasting, Christians risk bungling this Lenten practice with the desire for self-improvement and power. In the early modern era, for example, a person could purchase permission from the Church to relax fasting requirements. Today, Christians have myriad opportunities to sneak an ulterior agenda under the sacred camouflage of Lent. Our motivation, behind these holy-seeming forms, can too easily mirror that of Silicon Valley. We can watch our waistbands and track our steps (the faithful restrictive eater can even find guides to capitalizing on Daniel's diet or liturgies to help pray the weight away). We can use hunger to feel better about our bodies and better than our neighbors.
Like the devil whispering into Jesus’s ear, our fasting schemes often promise the keys to human satisfaction. They suggest that holiness is achieved through human effort to refrain, or that with the right set of prayers, God will help us move past the mortal limits with which we were created. The lesser reward is the bigger target.
But when the Lenten fast is used to embrace the beauty of limitation, the Christian finds freedom in the season’s paradox. True freedom comes not in “liberating” bodies from their humanity, nor in achieving measurable results. It comes in tumbling into the care of the God who gives us each day our daily bread, that we may carry on as humans.
Kendall Vanderslice is a Duke Divinity student and author of a forthcoming book on dinner churches. Hal Koss is a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and writes from Chicago.