Power and Purpose of Fasting
Fasting is an ancient spiritual disciple. It's been in disrepute for most of the modern era. Growing up in the Methodist church I never heard any teaching on fasting from any clergy or lay leadership. Why is that? Perhaps the best explanation is our modern understanding of religion has devolved into a set of therapeutic practices aimed at enhancing one's self-satisfaction. Fasting is an act of self-denial in order to achieve a greater purpose quite outside a direct benefit for the self.
Fasting was widely practiced by nearly everyone in the Bible: Abraham, Moses, Hannah, David, Elijah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel, the whole city of Nineveh, Jesus, Paul and the entire church of Antioch. The greatest names in church history were regular at fasting: Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Wesley. Even pagan philosophers were regular in fasting: Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Why? To what purpose? We must be careful here not to succumb to the “What's in it for me?' attitude of therapeutic religion. Fasting isn't about “me” at all and that is the point of it.
The greatest reason Christians should fast is because they are called to it. Jesus taught, “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father in heaven who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:17-18) Jesus didn't say “if” but “when” you fast. Jesus assumed his followers would be called to fasting and would answer that call.
Fasting reveals what controls us. Those who miss a meal by choice quickly discover it doesn't feel good. That's the first lesson: most of us live lives under the complete control of a lust to feel good. We will do almost anything just to make ourselves feel good. It's a humbling discovery.
Fasting meets an urgent need for prayer, for action, or for decision-making. In fasting we set aside something to make space for something more important like listening to God. We become more disciplined people as we fast.
If your employer made you work 9 hours a day seven days a week. You would file a complaint, go on strike or quit. Sixty three hours a week with no time off would be considered inhuman and unsustainable. Yet this is exactly the time most of us put in looking at screens—without pay! Have you considered fasting from screens one day a week? Or perhaps for four consecutive hours each day? Is Jesus calling you to get your eyes away from the screen and turn your ears towards him? It is time for you to recover the practice of fasting.
Fasting from food requires some preparation. You need to check with your doctor to make sure you are fit to do this. People with blood sugar or blood pressure issues may put themselves at risk. People with a history of eating disorders risk a relapse and should not fast. There is a time for fasting and a time for feasting in life, healthy people can and should discern this.
The best place to begin is with a brief, partial fast. Choose to miss one meal—like breakfast but allow yourself to drink liquids. John Wesley recommended a weekly fast with no food from Thursday after 6 PM to Friday noon. This entailed only missing one meal and it also served to commemorate the time period from Jesus's arrest and trial to his Crucifixion. Others will fast from favorite foods such as coffee, chocolate, pizza or alcohol for the duration of Lent.
This Lent, I'll be fasting from coffee and I aim to take up John Wesley's Thursday to Friday noon fasting challenge. Won't you join me? And as we do, let's pray for a Great Spiritual Awakening all around us!