The concept of fasting was brought to my attention a number of years ago. I do not mean, by that, the "fact" of fasting, but exactly as I wrote: "the concept". I had already come across the fact of it a long time before. The concept itself, however, was an entirely different thing. The "concept" is the idea of giving up something that we want, for the sake of building up our personal resistance to sin. Now, most of us understand this concept, so it is not very new to the majority of you who are reading this. It was made clear to me, however, when I heard about a homeless man who had died of starvation. His was not a willing fast, but rather one forced on him by the circumstances. This made me realize that the same act of being hungry (both in starving by consequence of your circumstances, and intentionally choosing to fast) are different because the latter is done by choice. When we choose to fast, we are choosing to give up something that is good for us (more on the "good for us" part below).
This also made me take notice of the fact that just as easily as we choose to fast, we can choose not to fast. Therefore, if we can choose whether or not to fast, then we can also choose to fast only outwardly and not inwardly. In other words, we can fast by eating less food, but not actually have any clear spiritual benefit from it. Why does the Church tell us to fast? Well, because Jesus said to, right? Yes, but that is not the whole story. Fasting is a discipline that has numerous spiritual (and physical!) benefits, which we often do not think about. When we neglect the spiritual dimension of fasting, it becomes merely an empty action that does us little (if any) good.
There is another dimension (at least in America and other affluent countries) that makes our practice of fasting often fall short. When we become accustomed to "getting what we want", then fasting seems even more of a hardship than it really is. For those who were raised by permissive parents, and have been deprived of the grace of self-control, then fasting appears to us to be more than just a challenge, it appears to be something that is wrong. I recall being in a restaurant, and watching a 3 year old throw a temper tantrum once when she was told that the item she wanted for dinner was not available on the menu. "No you may not" is not a bad thing to say to a child once in a while (if for nothing else, than to teach them that life does not always give us everything we want!).
I have come across a new "twist" for the Lenten practice of additional fasting lately. Some have said "instead of fasting from good things, fast from bad things". One said he was going to fast from "cursing", and another said she would fast from "being rude". While I hope they do avoid cursing and being rude, that is not the idea of a fast. You are supposed to "repent" from bad behaviors (remember that word, "repent"? people do not like it much today) all the time; but when we fast, it is supposed to be from good things. This is because fasting from something good is a self-sacrifice that is done for the glory of God and the strengthening of our spirits. You are always supposed to avoid bad behavior (not just "give it up for lent"!).
What further concerns me is that it seems that people (especially in my home country of America) want desperately to find ways to avoid giving up the good things that they so enjoy. Let me make it clear that I do not know what their actual motives are (that is between God and them), but the way that some of them have described this "twist" on fasting, I think that at least some of this is motivated by less than holy desires. It appears that they do not want to go through the discipline of sacrificing their morning cup of coffee, or that tv show they like so much, and so they have sought for a way to be holy while avoiding the historic practice of the Church. So rather than "hunker down" and struggle through the challenge of giving up what they enjoy, it appears that many of them seek an artificial piety by saying "I'm going to fast from bad stuff".
In Mass recently (Friday after Ash Wednesday) the first reading was from Isaiah 58 where the Lord warns the people that they "seek [their] own pleasure". In other words, they were not fasting in the self-sacrificial manner that God required of them. He also shows them that godly fasting is more than from food; we are also supposed to give up other things that we enjoy (which can apply to everyone, including those who are not of the age determined by the conference of Bishops when fasting from mere food). We are also supposed to give up our personal time, and our possessions (either by giving them to someone in need, or by simply abstaining from them). The Lord tells us that this "is the fast that [He] choose[s]" for us to follow.
So this lent, fast. Fast as the Church requires of you, but also fast from other things as well, for the penitence involved in such behavior is pleasing to our Lord, as well as beneficial to each of us. Just imagine with me what it would be like this coming Easter if everyone around you had taken advantage of the spiritual benefits of fasting, and had become more holy in their personal lives? What amazingly faithful parishes we would have. That would truly bring more people to Christ, and thus more glory to God.