The students in our church have begun what they’re calling “Fast Week.” It has nothing to do with how fast they drive their cars or how quickly they can get what they want. Quite the contrary: It’s about their willingness to temporarily give up the props they routinely depend on for satisfaction.

Fasting — going without or strictly limiting one’s food or other goods — has a long history. It has been observed in many religions around the world since ancient times. Biblical heroes practiced fasting. On at least two occasions, Moses undertook long fasts. King David fasted. The prophets Elijah and Daniel fasted, as did Ezra, Esther, St. Paul and even Jesus.

The church has historically given greater emphasis to fasting during the Christian season of Lent than at other times. Lent begins 40 days before Easter (46, if you count Sundays), and is a time for self-examination and the practice of spiritual disciplines like Bible reading, prayer, and especially fasting.

Fasting is not a universal requirement in the Bible, though on specific occasions groups were sometimes called to fast. Likewise, there are no examples of individuals being commanded to fast, though many chose to do so. Regular fasting is not an obligation, but it does seem to be an expectation. When asked why his disciples did not fast like members of other religious communities, Jesus answered: “The time will come when ... they will fast.”

The goal of fasting is not to get God’s attention but to be able to give God our attention. Fasting is not a way of twisting God’s arm, but a way of trusting him to meet our needs. Fasting temporarily removes the props on which we have supported ourselves so that we can experience God’s support.

Abstaining from food is not the only kind of fast. In the Bible, St. Paul sees abstinence from sexual intimacy with one’s spouse as a legitimate type of fast, if it is for a limited time and for the purpose of prayer. But one can fast from all kind of things: Television or talk radio, social media or video games, coffee, alcoholic beverages or soft drinks.

What does fasting do for a person? It disentangles a person from life’s demands and allows him or her to connect more profoundly with God. It assures a person that God can satisfy one’s soul at the deepest levels, even in absence of other nourishment for body and soul.

Fasting has a way of shining a light on the things that have taken control over us. We don’t notice the things we “can’t do without” until we are without them. Without realizing it, distractions become demands and pleasures become slave drivers. Fasting shows these things up for what they really are: False gods.

Fasting helps develop the indispensable ability to say “no” to oneself. The inability to deny oneself stunts all spiritual and personal growth. Jesus told would-be followers, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself ...” Almost any worthwhile goal, including the mastery of any discipline, skill or sport, requires self-denial.

But self-denial is not trending in today’s world. Last year, Americans spent $65 billion on soft drinks, $117 billion on fast food, and $96 billion on beer. And this utter lack of self-control is occurring in a society where 40 percent of people struggle with credit card debt and the average adult’s net worth is estimated to be $0.

Americans don’t know how to say “no” to themselves. Fasting helps with that. The person who fasts discovers that life goes on without junk food and digital technologies. And it not only goes on, it is good.

One needn’t be religious to benefit from fasting, but fasting is most effective when combined with prayer. The two are frequently linked in the Bible, and it was often during times of fasting and prayer that biblical heroes shed the blinders of routine to experience God and his guidance in new ways.

Yet fasting is not a shortcut to God. It doesn’t cut time from our route but adds patience to our lives and helps us recognize God’s presence on our journey. It empowers us to say no to the many inviting paths that lead nowhere and yes to the risky life of love to which God calls us.

— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County (Mich.). Read more at shaynelooper.com.