Day 26: Fasting in the Method of the Methodists

In Scot McKnight's book, Fastingwhich I talked about yesterday, he repeatedly mentions Methodism's founder, John Wesley, because of the central place that fasting had in Wesley's life and in what he taught to the early Methodists. In the book, McKnight says:

The great preacher John Wesley made an observation about fasting that reminds of how customary fasting was in a former era: “While we were at Oxford the rule of every Methodist was (unless in case of sickness) to fast every Wednesday and Friday in the year, in imitation of the primitive church, for which they had the highest reverence.” But fasting among the Methodists began to shift noticeably even as Wesley aged.

"And I fear there are now thousands of Methodists, so called, both in England and Ireland, who, following the same bad example, have entirely left off fasting; who are so far from fasting twice a week (as all the stricter Pharisees did) that they do not fast twice in the month. Yea, are there not some of you who do not fast one day, from the beginning of the year to the end?"

And he cut the Methodists of his day no slack because fasting was for Wesley symbolic of spirituality itself: “Since, according to this, the man that never fasts is no more in the way to heaven than the man that never prays.”

Ouch. (If you're a Methodist reading this–and most of you are–please direct any complaint emails to our founder, not to me.) Even though it's uncomfortable to say, and difficult to believe in today's Methodism, there is no way that we can call ourselves Methodists (in any meaningful sense that has an ongoing connection to what it meant to be a Methodist in our beginnings) if fasting in some form is not a regular part of how we shape our lives with God.

In John Wesley's sermon on the passage which we are looking at this week, when Jesus said, "When you fast...," Wesley observed, "Of all the means of grace there is scarce any concerning which men have run into greater extremes, than... religious fasting. How have some exalted this beyond all Scripture and reason; -- and others utterly disregarded it."

Wesley urged his Methodists to be part of neither of those extremes, but rather (as he did with so many aspects of the Christian life) to find the wisdom of the way in between them. To aid his people in trying to accomplish this, he gave them sound, practical guidance on fasting, which is still very valuable to us today.

Wesley wanted to practice fasting as it was represented in the Bible and in the majority of Christian history. Though he recognized that fasts of different kinds occurred in scripture, he saw the normal fast as abstaining from food for one day. As McKnight mentioned above, early in Wesley's life, he and the Methodists practiced fasting twice per week, on Wednesdays and Fridays. Later, the teaching was reduced to once per week, on all Fridays.

Wesley's own regular practice was to begin his fast on Thursday after supper. This was a weekly way of connecting with Jesus' experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. He would then end his fast on Friday afternoon, to mark the time of Jesus death on the cross, when he said, "It is finished!" (Wesley allowed himself to take liquids during the fast, and taught the Methodists to do so as well.)

Wesley countered that extreme (those who had "utterly disregarded" fasting) by making it such a central practice in his own life and in the method he taught to the early Methodists. He countered the other extreme (those who had "exalted this beyond all Scripture and reason") by making room for other kinds of fasting–particularly in being careful to never value fasting above one's health. As one alternative to the normal, no food, fast, Wesley suggested what he called "abstinence," which meant that someone would abstain from all foods except those necessary to their health. Another option, which it appears Wesley himself practiced and taught–at least later in his life–was to forego all kinds of "pleasant" foods during the fast.

Whatever the details of it, and whatever the frequency, if we want to find a methodism that has similar effects in moving us toward God as experienced by Wesley and his early Methodists, it is certain that he would insist that our routines include fasting.

As I said yesterday, perhaps a good place for us to start is in thinking ahead toward Good Friday. What will be a natural, whole-person, methodical way for you to respond to all that Good Friday represents?

A Prayer for the Day:

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; 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.*

Click here for this week's scripture readings.

*From The Book of Common Prayer

[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]