Holy Lent, Holy Life: Fasting

Matthew 4:1-11

I feel like I’m not supposed to preach about this.

Today I want to share with you about the spiritual discipline of fasting.  But Jesus had clear words about how we are to fast:  “…when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:17-18).

I want to share with you my journey with fasting… I want to tell you what I’ve learned from the past 9 months, attempting to fast one day a week.  And it feels kind of… wrong… because saying it in a sanctuary or putting it on a blog isn’t exactly keeping it “secret.”

But, as William Law has pointed out, if we took Jesus’ instructions literally it would mean the only people who could fast would be people who lived alone (found in Spiritual Classics).  Sometimes it’s OK to talk about when we fast, and I’m hoping this is one of those times.

So… let’s talk about fasting.

First, some definitions.  Richard Foster gives a good working definition: “the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.”  Note that fasting is “for spiritual purposes.”  A fast is not a cleanse or a weight-loss trick or a way to kick a bad habit, but a means of connecting to God.  A fast can also take many forms.   It can be a complete fasts (nothing but water), a partial fast (giving up just one item), or even a fast from an action or thought (like complaining).  All of these count… as long as they’re done for spiritual purposes.

During Lent, we modern Christians think of fasting more than usual because many people give something up for the 40 days.  Otherwise, we don’t think of fasting very much… and certainly not complete fasts.  This lack of interest is a phenomenon of the past couple hundred years of Christianity.  Scot McKnight – in his book about fasting – says it comes out of a dualistic view of body and soul.  We can think of the body as either a “celebrity to be glorified” or a “monster to be conquered.”  Either of those views creates an unhealthy understanding of body and soul.  That cultural context makes fasting seem strange… because fasting unites body and soul.  McKnight calls fasting “body talk” to God.

Prior to the 1800s, fasting was as basic to the Judeo-Christian faith as reading Scripture, praying, and going to worship.  Fasting shows up all throughout the Bible, in people like Moses (Exodus 34:28), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), Daniel (Daniel 10:3), Paul (Acts 9:9)… and in today’s Scripture, Jesus (Matthew 4:2).  Many early Christians fasted on Wednesday and Friday.  Big names on our Christian family tree made fasting a basic part of their spiritual life:  Martin Luther, Basil, St. Augustine, Jerome, Catherine of Siena – just to name a random few.  John Wesley (who founded the Methodist movement in the 1700s) saw it as so essential that he even refused to ordain anyone who didn’t fast twice a week.

Our cultural context has distanced us from the practice of fasting, but for thousands of years it was an essential Judeo-Christian practice.  That makes me wonder:  Should we fast?  What’s the point?  What would we get out of it?

For most of my life I’ve given very little thought to fasting.  As a teenager I began taking on partial fasts for Lent – giving up soda or sweets or meat.  I started to see some value in this kind of bodily prayer.  Every time I missed the item, I thought of God… which meant for 40 days, I was thinking more about God and the much greater sacrifice God made for us through Jesus Christ.  When I broke the fast on Easter it made the day feel even more celebratory, like my body and my soul were worshipping together.

I liked the experience of those partial fasts… but never considered a full fast.  Then I went to seminary, and read more about John Wesley, and noticed how many people fasted prior to our recent history.  I started to wonder about the value of complete fasting.

A couple years ago I decided to see what fasting was all about by abstaining from food every Friday in Lent.  It went… badly.  For one, I learned Friday is not a good day for this.  Although it is my day off, at the time it was also a day at home with my kids (for whom I still had to prepare meals).  For second, I tried to fast from when I woke up all the way until dinner – but dinner is a moving target, and I became desperately hangry about the hour of 5pm.  For thirds, I was mostly motivated by wanting to be like all those spiritual greats who had fasted… and that is not the best reason.

I think I made it a miserable two weeks.  The experience didn’t leave me eager to try again anytime soon.

This summer I read some new-to-me books about Wesley.  I was struck again by his commitment to fasting.  On a practical level, I noticed that Wesley broke his fasts at 3pm, not at dinner.  That seemed much more doable.

So I decided to try it.

This has been going on since September.  I’m far from perfect – I’m probably averaging twice a month, since I don’t try to fast when things like vacation or lunch meetings come up on my calendar (and sometimes, I’m just worn out and don’t wanna).  But even with my inconsistency, I have been surprised to find real value in this practice.  I think there’s a good reason all those people before us fasted.  I think it can be as useful to us as prayer and reading Scripture.

Here are a few things I’ve discovered from attempting a weekly morning-to-3pm fast:

  • When I feel mildly hungry, it reminds me that I’m fasting – which reminds me of the reason for my fast, which is God. Simply put, I think about God a little more often throughout the day when I fast, and that is certainly a good thing.
  • When I feel very hungry, I pray using Jesus’ words to Satan: “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).  I say this same prayer when I want to eat because I’m tired or bored or emotional.  I have to literally act on the belief that I need God more than I need food.
  • As I tried to figure this out, a friend of mine pointed out that usually you replace meal time with prayer time. (A similar practice is to donate the money you would have spent on meals to a food bank.)  On fast days, I go into the sanctuary around noon and put my phone on silent and set a 30-minute timer.  Many weeks this is the single thing that motivates me to fast – getting to replace a meal with time with God.  I love this time.
  • Once or twice I’ve found fasting to be an appropriate expression of my distress. There’s a lot of biblical precedent for that – think of Joel 2, the Ash Wednesday passage, where the prophet calls for a fast in response to Israel’s sad state of affairs.  Fasting doesn’t fix the problem… but when something really grievous happens, it feels right that my body and soul are both talking to God.
  • Excepting this sermon, I try to talk as little as possible about my fasting (per Matthew 6:16-18). Some people need to know, like my children who wonder why I’m not eating breakfast.  I might want to talk about it with a few close friends as I process it with them, and I don’t feel anything wrong about that.  But largely, there’s no need to say anything.  If someone asks me to lunch I just say, “I already have plans.”  Which is true, after all.
  • Finally, like any spiritual discipline, there’s no guarantee of “results.” Fasting is not a way to boss God around, like some kind of hunger strike.  Just like we don’t get a holy-ground-God-moment every time we pray, some fasts are more meaningful than others.

So, to come back to the original questions…  Should we fast?  What’s the point?  What would we get out of it?

That’s a question for you to explore.  Start with a reminder that God made you body and soul, and both are good.  Then consider the needs of your body.  McKnight names some people who shouldn’t take on complete fasts:  diabetics, children, women who are pregnant or nursing, those with serious diseases, who are sick, or who are infirm.  Finally, ask yourself how you might try something under the umbrella of Foster’s definition of fasting: “the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.” 

Here are some ideas:

  • If you have never done any fast of any kind… try giving something up just for this week, like sweets or coffee. See how it feels, and how it affects your prayer life.
  • This is just the first Sunday of Lent… it’s not too late to give up something for the whole 40 days. Some Christians break that fast on Sundays (since every Sunday is a little Easter), some do not.
  • There may be a non-food item that you could use a fast from. I’ve heard of people “fasting” from things like complaining, using sharp language with a family member, Facebook, or the news.
  • Try a complete fast one day from when you wake up until 3pm, replacing meal times with prayer. When I fast, I still drink coffee – I might cut that out one day, but I’m giving myself space to learn and grow.  So you might fast but still drink fruit juice – nothing wrong with that.
  • Try that kind of day-long fast one day each week in Lent. See how your experience changes over the course of 7 weeks.
  • Consider fasting on a special day like Good Friday (when Jesus died) or Holy Saturday (the day before Easter).

So:  Should we fast?  What would we get out of it if we did?

Give it a try and see for yourself.

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