Monday, 15 October 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Fasting

Whenever I talk about the Spiritual Disciplines there is one discipline that people tend not to take very seriously- That’s fasting. The suggestion that people should try fasting is often met with laughter or eye-rolling. That just tells us how affluent our society is. We live with such abundance that the idea of going without food tends to be something that doesn’t seem realistic. Many of us believe it might even be dangerous or unhealthy to not have three meals a day. Most of us have missed meals, but it is rare to go a full day without eating something. We live in an amazingly abundant society, so we have the privilege of scoffing at the idea of going without food.

Richard Foster defines fasting as “the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity”. Usually this is abstaining from food, but sometimes we will talk about abstaining from things like social media, television, or specific foods (many fast from chocolate and wine during Lent). It is especially important to have times of abstinence when we encounter something that is starting to enslave us. … Foster would say that a hunger strike or dieting is not necessarily a spiritual fast because they are not necessarily directed towards spiritual goals. … The discipline of fasting can’t really be understood apart from prayer. They go together- fasting adds a certain kind of energy to prayer. And prayerful repentance is particularly connected to fasting. As are preparation for ministry and when seeking healing.

When we search the Bible regarding fasting it becomes clear that it is has been a spiritual practice of God’s people throughout the Bible- Old and New Testaments. Fasting was a spiritual practice of Moses, King David, Elijah the prophet, Queen Ester, Daniel, Anna the prophetess, and St. Paul- to name a few. Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. And Jesus assumes that his followers will practice the discipline of fasting. In Matthew Ch 6 Jesus doesn’t say “if you fast…” He says, “when you fast…”. The assumption of Jesus is that his followers will include fasting as part of their spiritual practice. … So, fasting has been a constant practice in the life of God’s people. The Early Church practiced fasting, as did many other Christians including: St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards, but many others as well. Fasting has also been practiced outside of Christianity- it is no exaggeration to say that fasting is a spiritual practice of humanity.

The Bible doesn’t explicitly describe how to fast, it assumes that people know how to do it. We also can’t really say that it is a commandment for us to fast, though it is an assumed part of the spirituality of the people of the Bible. …

The Bible seems more concerned with teaching us how to fast rightly, rather than convincing us to do it. At numerous points the Scriptures ask people to question their motives in fasting- Are we doing it to connect with God, or is it a show to impress others with how spiritual we are? Some of the prophets do this, and Jesus teaches about this in Matthew Ch 6. Jesus questions our motives, but he still assumes that we are going to practice fasting. Richard Foster also points out that in Jesus’ teachings “there is an almost unconscious assumption that giving, praying, and fasting are all part of Christian devotion. We have no more reason to exclude fasting from his teaching than we do giving or praying. … Certainly we have as much, if not more, evidence from the Bible for fasting as we have for giving” (Celebration of Discipline, p52, 54).

There are at least two opposing fallacies when it comes to practicing fasting (and most of the Spiritual Disciplines). One, is to turn the practice into a legalism where you have to participate in fasting in order to be saved and to be acceptance by God. And the other extreme is to reject it completely because it is seen as too extreme, or as a part of a bygone era. Fasting is a part of the wisdom of living a spiritual life. The Bible and Christian history treat fasting with seriousness and that should make us investigate it seriously.

Fasting has been an assumed reality for the majority of Christian history, but the question remains- “why fast”? In our culture fasting might seem particularly strange because we are taught to indulge our desires and appetites. To resist a natural desire is considered unhealthy. We have come to believe that if we only had all of our desires fulfilled, that we would finally be happy. (The people I meet who give that kind of control to their desires are not happy people.) We live in a culture of indulgence. But, we don’t have to serve our appetites. We don’t have to be enslaved by our desires. When Jesus was fasting in the wilderness, he was tempted to turn stones into bread to feed his hunger. He responded by saying “one does not live by bread alone”. Jesus adds that we live, rather, “by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” It is God who ultimately sustains us. It is God’s word that keeps us in existence at every moment. If God were to stop speaking us into existence, we would no longer exist. By fasting we express that our true hunger, our true need, is for God.

In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. The demon Screwtape is advising a lesser demon, Wormwood, on the art of leading a human soul astray. At one point, on the topic of prayer, Screwtape advises,

 “At the very least, [humans] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls” (p16).
 Our bodies and our spirits are not independent of each other. Fasting uses our bodies to create energy for spiritual work.

So, what happens when we fast? There has been some recent interest in the area of fasting on the part of health researchers. 

 Jason Fung, a medical doctor, became interested in fasting because of his work with people living with type 2 diabetes (see The Complete Guide to Fasting by Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore). Fung became interested in fasting’s ability to control insulin and lower glucose levels in his diabetic patients. According to Fung, when we eat food it increases the insulin in our body. This causes our liver to store sugar in the liver and produce fat. When we fast, our insulin decreases, and we burn stored sugar and fat. While researching fasting Fung discovered it had a number of additional health benefits. Studies have shown that fasting lowers blood pressure, decreases risk of cancer, and increases growth hormone that helps maintain and grow muscle. Fasting has been shown to boost brainpower, slow the effects of aging, improve heart health, improve insulin sensitivity, lower blood cholesterol, decrease inflammation, and may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Fung also mentions that many ancient cultures have used fasting as a medical treatment as well as a spiritual practice.

Human beings are made for periods of feast and famine. Throughout history we have experienced times of abundance and times of scarcity. Human beings haven’t always had access to three balanced meals per day, so it makes sense that our bodies have the ability to adapt to a lack of food by increasing our energy and mental sharpness, so that we can be better equipped to find food. There are days when we get three buffalo and there are days when no buffalo to be seen.

It is helpful to know some of the health benefits of fasting to help battle against some of the myths about fasting being crazy or dangerous. But, our primary concern here isn’t the health benefits of fasting. We are thinking about fasting for spiritual purposes. When we are fasting we realize how much time we spend preparing or eating food. That time can be used for prayer and study. When we get used to fasting we also notice there is a certain kind of calm energy that fills our minds and hearts. We gain a new appreciation for how little food we actually need. We gain a greater awareness of what we eat, and we reawaken a gratitude for the food we eat. We also become aware of how often we eat out of habit rather than out of need. I remember fasting one day and I sat down and grabbed a handful of nuts out of the bowl and put them in my mouth. I swallowed them by the time I remembered I was supposed to be fasting. That eating was not even on a conscious level- it was automatic. …

Dallas Willard has said that fasting teaches us to be “sweet and kind when we don’t get what we want”. When we first start fasting we can become quite irritable and it can be tempting to be short with the people around us. Fasting can help us to treat people kindly even when we are feeling internally irritated. … There are many other benefits.

So how do you fast? There are lots of kinds of fasts, but what I would suggest is eating no food (I know, duh). I still drink black coffee, black tea (no cream or sugar), or water. You might be tempted to nibble on something small, but that actually makes the fast harder because it sort of teases your body rather than allowing it to jump into fasting mode. When you first start you might feel a headache at some point. If you do, I usually feel free to take a Tylenol. I sometimes fast for up to 4 days. If you are going to do that it is easier to be away from home like at a retreat centre. At home I have fasted for longer period of 2 months eating one meal per day. And there are many other ways to fast.

There are some people who probably shouldn’t fast or who should be very careful about fasting- People who are diabetics, expectant mothers, children, people with heart problems, people with eating disorders, and anyone who isn’t generally in good health, should either not fast or be very careful about fasting. Do your homework. 

Fasting is about putting God first. It reveals what is enslaving us, but as we cut those ties, we also learn to “feast on God” (as Foster puts it). Ultimately, the only way we will know why we should fast is to experience it. Once we try it and we feel God using it to transform us we will realize that fasting is a gift, and God wants to use it to bless us.

As Jesus fasted in the wilderness he learned where his priorities were to be. He was to be faithful to his Father. The Devil tempted Jesus with many good things, but Jesus knew that they were not the best things. We too are tempted by many good things, but they are not the best things. Fasting can help us make more room for God and God will faithfully use it to bring us the freedom He wants for us. AMEN

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