One pendulum that has swung in Christian teaching over our lifetimes is the amount of things people teach and write about fasting. In the first helpful thing I ever read on fasting, Richard Foster's chapter on this practice in Celebration of Discipline, he noted, "in my research I could not find a single book published on the subject of Christian fasting from 1861 to 1954, a period of nearly 100 years." Today, in contrast, I just did a quick search online which turned up 157 current Christian books with fasting as their subject! In scanning through the list, I only see three of them that I have read, and honestly–I have no desire to ever read a good portion of them. While I'll give the authors the benefit of the doubt and assume they say some good things, just judging by the titles, there are many which I think don't reflect what fasting was in the Bible. To illustrate, just from the titles of books on this list, these are things which we are led to believe can/should come if we practice fasting:
- breakthroughs of different kinds (spiritual, emotional, physical, and–of course–even financial)
- health, energy and longer life
- better preaching
- and the one that takes the prize, from one of the book descriptions: "achieving your dreams at 'break neck' speed"
It seems like we've turned this biblical practice into a way of twisting God’s arm into giving us something that, by our fasting, we are showing him that we really, really want. It's kind of like our spiritualized adult version of a toddler’s attempts at manipulating their parents by throwing a temper tantrum. "God, I really want this, and I'm going to prove it to you by going without food for a while."
Author Scot McKnight has written a fantastic book (simply titled Fasting) which provides a much-needed corrective, focusing on what fasting was in the Bible. (If you'd like to read my review of his book, click here.) From the book’s introduction to conclusion, he directly addresses this misconception of fasting and continually reiterates that in the Scriptures, fasting is our appropriate response to God, and/or to some part of life, not “a manipulative tool that guarantees results.”
So instead of fasting for something, biblically, we are given the model of fasting as a response. There are times in life when filling our mouths is out of line and fasting is the natural, appropriate way of us expressing our reaction in a whole-person kind of way by including our bodies in the response. For example, perhaps we lose a loved one and we fast as a way of grieving (2 Samuel 1:1-12). Or, at times we certainly have a profound need to plead before God on behalf of others (Deuteronomy 9:15-21). We may become more deeply aware of those suffering in poverty or injustice (Isaiah 58:3-12). Certainly there will be times when we are overcome by our need for repentance (1 Samuel 7:3-6). And Lent is–in part–a continuation of the ancient Jewish practice of regularly observing days when a particular response to God is appropriate (Leviticus 16:29-30).
If our understanding of what fasting is has drifted this far from what it was in the Bible, it shouldn't be any surprise to us that we have more trouble with Jesus saying "when you fast..." than we do with him saying "when you give..." or "when you pray...." Part of our problem, which McKnight addresses so well in his book and as I've hinted at in previous posts, is that we have come to view our bodies as having little or no roles in our "spiritual" lives. Many of us even think of our bodies as being opposed to living the kind lives that God wants. It's true that our bodies need to be trained, like every other part of us, but they are given to us as allies–or, as Dallas Willard says, our "power packs"–for living life with God.
Fasting is one of the primary practices that can help us to restore the body to its proper place in our efforts to live this embodied life in God's kingdom. Now that we are more than halfway through Lent, I don't expect that any readers will decide to pick up fasting as a Lenten discipline now if we hadn't already done so. But if there is any way in which fasting is beginning to seem inviting to you, we have a day coming which is as appropriate as any to find ways to deny ourselves through fasting: Good Friday. Perhaps you'll want to pause now and prayerfully think about how you will observe that day this year.
A Prayer for the Day:
Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer
[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]