When you fast…
We’ve been talking about spiritual practices for a couple of weeks, and we’ll continue through Lent. What is a spiritual practice? It’s something like prayer, seeking God’s will, fasting, and worship. It’s something we do intentionally to give us space to keep company with Jesus and learn to know him better. If that sounds too spiritual for you, or too religious, think of the spiritual practices this way: they are ways of helping us to be human. And if that’s too airy-fairy for you, let’s put it this way: spiritual practices help us to get to age 70 or 50 or 30 without succumbing to crippling cynicism or to terminal grumpiness.
Today, we’re talking about fasting.
I can still hear my mother’s voice in my boyhood’s ear: ‘Finish what’s on your plate. There’s children starving in Africa.’
I used to wonder what did finishing my food have to do with children in Africa? I was meant to be grateful that I had food to eat, rather than taking it for granted. But the main thing it’s given me is something else: a compulsion that I still have to eat everything that’s put before me.
Jesus said, ‘Whenever you fast…’ I’m not so good at fasting. We live in a strange time; a time with plenty of food, in which young women—and increasingly, young men—are in danger of succumbing to anorexia. A time when the most readily recognised sign in the world is not the Christian cross but MacDonald’s arches. A time in which food is dumped in order to keep prices high. A time that knows all about dieting, but nothing about fasting.
Fasting: let’s be clear. Biblical fasting is about seeking God’s will in a particular situation, or seeking a sense of God’s grace and peace.
The primary ‘thing’ people fasted from in biblical times is food. But they also fasted from other things: water, or sex, or bathing to name some.
I don’t intend to give a ‘how to’ talk about fasting from food. Those of you who are studying Richard Foster’s book will get something of that. I do want to say this: Fasting, if done to extremes, can be harmful. There are people who shouldn’t fast from food—children, many diabetics, pregnant women, to name a few. I think that Richard Foster tends to ignore the potential health issues of fasting. I’d just like to say that anyone who wishes to fast from food for any length of time would be wise firstly to have a chat with their doctor.
Jesus says, ‘Whenever you fast…’ Jesus takes fasting for granted. For the Jews of his time, there were three things that were central to the life of their faith: Prayer, giving to the poor and fasting. We keep to the first two, but seem to have forgotten the third.
But have we totally forgotten? Might there be some echo of fasting? Have you never heard anyone say, ‘I just don’t feel like eating’ when someone close to them has died? ‘I just don’t feel like eating.’ That may be an accidental way of fasting.
Remember last week, we said that people pray more than they realise? A sigh, a hope for better things, a desire for peace can each be a prayer. Even if God isn’t even named. Even people who profess not to believe in God let out an unnoticed prayer from time to time. Unnoticed by them, that is—God notices, God hears. What we Christians need to do is to learn how to be intentional about prayer, so we don’t pray ‘accidentally’.
It’s a similar thing with fasting. We can explore a trail that leads us beyond ‘I don’t feel like eating right now’ to something deeper and more intentional and less accidental.
Scot McKnight gives this definition of fasting:
Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a serious sacred moment in life.
Fasting is ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable’. That’s why every religion and every culture knows something about fasting (every culture that is, except ours!).
Fasting is a response to ‘a serious sacred moment’. A serious sacred moment is something like death, or a disaster, or the suffering of others. It’s a response to realising our lack of holiness, or to some sin that we have committed. Fasting can also be a response to finding ourselves in the holy presence of God. We can take ‘I don’t feel like eating’ up a few notches. It could be the doorway to something fuller: no longer ‘I don’t feel like eating’, but ‘I am fasting to seek to be closer to God.’
Of course, if you fast from food, the first thing that you’re going to hunger for is not God. It’s bacon. And pizza. And ice cream.
Bread—food—is important. But these hungers can serve to remind us that our first hunger and our first need is for God. As Jesus says in today’s Lectionary Gospel reading,
One does not live by bread alone.
We live in a time when we expect to satisfy our hungers as soon as they occur. But do we allow ourselves to hunger for God?
We have just entered the season of Lent, a time of self-examination and preparation. It’s the time when Christians prepare to celebrate the new life that Jesus brought into being on that first Easter morning, when he conquered death for us.
One thing almost everyone knows about Lent is that we give things up at Lent. I got my hair cut during the week, and even there I was asked what I’m giving up for Lent.
I wonder if we might take that question up a notch? Not, ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’. Why don’t we ask, ‘What are you fasting from this Lent?’
Lent is a serious sacred moment in life that comes every year. It’s a time when we have an opportunity to be reminded that Jesus died for us, that he gave his life for us. It’s a time when we might realise again that we need a Saviour who has overcome sin and death. It’s a time to fast.
We may fast from a variety of things. Chocolate, alcohol, soft drinks and coffee are big ones. The common theme: these things are pleasurable.
But people sometimes decide not to eat meat, or dairy, or not to eat on Fridays. People might fast from buying CDs or new clothes. They might fast from TV, or using artificial light at night.
A lot of us are fasting from something for Lent in order to give the money we save to people in developing countries. We call it the Lent Event. It’s a good thing. We can fast from chocolate, or coffee, the money we save can greatly help people in other parts of the world.
But are we giving up something for the Lent Event, or fasting? If we’re just giving something up, we may feel our job is finished once we’ve given our money.
However, if we’re fasting from something, if we’re seeking God’s will, then we’ll be asking God to show us what we should do into the future. Should we simplify our lives? Should we give regularly to an aid organisation? Should we actually go out there, as some of our people have done in going to Africa or India or Papua New Guinea?
Fasting for Lent is a real step up from giving something up for Lent.
Let me finish by pointing out some things to be aware of with fasting. Jesus pointed out one—people were fasting because they wanted others to notice them, to admire them for their religious zeal. But he says to us,
Whenever you fast, do not look dismal…
Fasting can lead to pride in our achievements. Not a good thing if we’re seeking to know God better, because pride puts us in the way. We can even start manipulating God—‘I’ve fasted so well, you’ve got to do this one thing for me.’
Fortunately, God can’t be manipulated.
Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a serious sacred moment in life. We are in such a time right now, in Lent. What are we fasting from so that we can know the Lord better?