More on fasting following on my previous post on ‘Should Christians Fast?‘
Food as refuge
We often use food in ways that mask our desire for God. We turn to food for comfort in moments of pressure or frustration or inadequacy or despondency. Food becomes our refuge.
Because we turn to food for refuge, fasting often reveals the desires that control us. If you snack as a means of escape or to find comfort or to relieve boredom then fasting will ask of you: ‘Where will you go instead for refuge or joy?’ John Piper says: ‘We easily deceive ourselves that we love God unless our love is frequently put to the test, and we must show our preferences not merely with words but with sacrifice.’
Food as distraction
It is not only the worries of life that can weaken our relationship with God, but also its riches and pleasures. ‘The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.’ (Luke 8:14) We can become gluttons whose desire for the immediate pleasure of food is unrestrained. Martin Luther says: ‘Of fasting I say this: it is right to fast frequently in order to subdue and control the body. For when the stomach is full, the body does not serve for preaching, for praying, for studying, or for doing anything else that is good. Under such circumstances God’s Word cannot remain. But one should not fast with a view to meriting something by it as a by a good work.’
‘”Everything is permissible for me” – but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me” – but I will not be mastered by anything.’ (1 Corinthians 6:12) Here Paul quotes slogans of people in Corinth. Everything is permissible for me.’ ‘It does not matter what I eat,’ they were saying (13). ‘All food is good.’ Yes, says, Paul, but we must not be controlled by anyone or anything other that Jesus.
So sometimes we do well to resist the hunger (or desire) for food to allow our hunger (or desire) for God to grow strong. We can use the hunger pains to turn attention to God. They become a prompt to turn to God. They can be a reminder that true satisfaction is found in God. ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Matthew 4:4)
Rediscovering the goodness of food
One danger with fasting is that it causes us to think of food as bad. But it in practice fasting can enable us to rediscover the goodness of God’s gift of food. Our culture craves excitement. We want action movies, video games and rich food. But this constant diet of intense stimulation – mental and edible – numbs us to pleasure. Insatiable consumption means we do not appreciate the wonder of God’s created world. Rather than denying the goodness of food, fasting may well help us to appreciate the simple pleasure of buttered toast once again.
Using a hunger for food to combat sexual temptation
Seeking satisfaction in God might also involve seeking satisfaction in God instead of something else. In other words, we might fast to combat sinful desires.
Fasting perhaps has a particular role in helping us combat sexual temptation. Hunger and sexual desire are both bodily appetites. Fasting teaches us to say, ‘I’m in the habit of turning to food for refuge when the pressure is on. My body reinforces this with physical sensations. But, Father, I am going to turn to you for refuge. I am going to find satisfaction in you.’ This is transferable lesson! Fasting can therefore teach us to say: ‘I’m in the habit of turning to sexual fantasies or pornography for refuge when the pressure is on. My body reinforces this with physical sensations. But, Father, I am going to turn to you for refuge. I am going to find satisfaction in you.’ Fasting helps us form the habit of turning to God for refuge.
Think about your sporting heroes. Top athletes get up before dawn to train and strictly control their diet. Paul urges us to adopt a spiritual training regime akin to that of athletes. The difference being that there is more than one winner of the prize and the prize does not fade. We discipline our bodies so that we control our bodily appetites rather than being controlled by our bodily appetites.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)