More thoughts on fasting

Some time ago I posted on fasting. Here are some more thoughts …

1. Fasting better enables to enjoy food with gratitude

Fasting reminds us we are creatures. We are not self-existent. As the hunger pains bite, we recognise with gratitude and prayer:

  • Our dependance on creation for existence. We are intimately bound together with the rest of creation. We depend on seasons, rainfall and harvests – something those of us in cities whose food comes from supermarkets are prone to forget.
  • Our dependence on community for existence. We are intimately bound together with other people. We depend on countless people across the world who produce, gather, process, transport and sell our food. We learn again to value then and give thanks to God for them.
  • Our dependence on God for existence. He provides our daily bread and our every breathe. And so we pray again, ‘Give us today our daily bread.’

One of the dangers of fasting is that we despise food and think of it as unspiritual when food is God’s good gift to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4-5). But I suggest that many of us have lost much of our ability to appreciate food because we over-consume. We miss the joy of satisfaction because we are perpetually satisfied. We are still full from one meal when we tuck into the next. Fasting is any opportunity to rediscover the joy of simple food received as a gift from God.

2. Medicating on sugar, salt and fat – or the living God

When we in the western world have emotional needs many of us turn to food for refuge. We self-medicate with food. The result is ill-health and weight gain. The result is an over-consumption of the world’s resources that contributes to the hunger of other people. And every time we miss the opportunity to turn to God. We don’t live by bread alone. We need God in our lives so that life without God is an empty life. And we cannot fill that emptiness with food. Fasting helps re-oriente us away from self-medication through food towards finding refuge in God. We particularly we turn to foods high in sugar, salt and fat. These consitute our comfort foods. We find comfort in sugar, salt and fat. Sugar, salt and fat instead of the living God. We must be mad! Fasting helps restore our sanity.

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Food and Salvation in the Prophecy of Joel

Food is central to the vision of Joel, defining both judgment and salvation.

I think of my own gospel community. A dozen or so people of all ages and backgrounds, eating together on a Thursday night around the table, enjoying simple food yet relishing it (as we do) as a good gift from God, celebrating together what the Spirit has been doing in our lives, praying for the needs of the world, discussing how we can bless our neighbourhood in Christ’s name – this is a fulfilment of Joel’s promised feast.

In chapter 1 Joel describes an invading army of locusts. Verse 4 describes them as locusts and verse 6 as an army. It’s unclear whether the locusts or the army are metaphorical. Is it a plague of locusts like an army or an army like a plague of locusts? What is clear is their impact on the diet of God’s people!

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Marcus Honeysett on fasting

I’m never sure how many people read the comments that others leave on my blog, so let me draw attention to these words from Marcus Honeysett on one of my recent series of posts on fasting. It was a conversation with Marcus that prompted me to think again about fasting and he puts it so much better than I did …

If I had to sum up in a couple of words what I have learned so far since we chatted about fasting, it would be that fasting is a lesson in “intensifying longing or desire”. Living in a culture of instant gratification means we know next to nothing about longing for anything at all, and therefore have a paucity of experience when it comes to longing for God. When a feast comes our way we therefore accept it as our normal expectation rather than with special delight. And our expectation for anything more is dulled. We cease to long because we feel full all the time, even if the reality is that we are full with things that are not delightful but mediocre or even toxic.

I think one of the devil’s most cunning strategies in the West is to give people everything they think they need, thereby making us think that there is nothing better to have and no reason to desire God. Which is the heart of the way Jesus was tempted: have all the kingdoms of the earth, and let them substitute for Yahweh. Fasting takes away the kingdom of the earth and retrains our spiritual desires towards God rather than his providential gifts.

Let me also take this opportunity to commend the ministry that Marcus heads up, Living Leadership, whose aim is to train and sustain leaders.

How should we fast

This completes my short series looking at fasting.

Should Christians fast?

Using a hunger for food to cultivate a hunger for God

And today …

How should we fast?

There are two dangers associated with fasting. The first danger is to deny that food is good. The Bible says food is a good gift from God and is to be received with enjoyment and thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

The second danger is to think we can earn merit with God through abstinence. Fasting does not earn God’s approval or blessing. It is not the Pharisee who fasts who goes home justified in the parable Jesus tells in Luke 18:12-14, but the sinner who cries out for mercy. ‘It’s true that we can’t win God’s approval by what we eat. We don’t miss out on anything if we don’t eat, and we don’t gain anything if we do.’ (1 Corinthians 8:8). Fasting, like other ascetic practices, cannot of itself restrain indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23). And fasting done for selfish gain which disregards other people is an abomination in God’s sight (Jeremiah 14:12; Zechariah 2:5; Isaiah 58:3).

John Piper says: ‘The question is not of earning or meriting or coercing anything from God. The question is: Having tasted the goodness of God in the gospel, how can I maximize my enjoyment of him, when every moment of my life I am tempted to make a god out of his good gifts?’ [1]

Since fasting is not in itself meritorious there is no ‘right way’ to fast. But it is good to stick to whatever you intend. The body suffers from a lack of water long before it suffers from a lack of food so you should normally continue to drink water during your fast. Do not eat a lot at the end of a longer fast. You could consider one of the following:

— a regular 24 hours fast – eat an evening meal one night and then break your fast with a light supper the following evening

— a regular day fast – eat an evening meal and break your fast with breakfast the day after next

— a fast for guidance – fast for a period leading up to a significant meeting or throughout a significant time together

Finally let me repeat my recommendation of John Piper’s book, A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer (Amazon UK and Amazon US).

[1] John Piper, A Hunger for God, IVP, 62.

Using a hunger for food to cultivate a hunger for God

More on fasting following on my previous post on ‘Should Christians Fast?

Let me also take this opportunity to recommend John Piper’s book, A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer (Amazon UK and Amazon US)

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.’[1]

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.’[2]

‘”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)

[1] John Piper, A Hunger for God, IVP, 18-19.

[2] Martin Luther; cited in John Piper, A Hunger for God, IVP, 185-186.

Should Christians fast?

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking on fasting so today I begin a short series of three posts looking at the topic:

What is fasting?

Fasting normally involves going without food for a limited period of time. But it can also involve abstinence from sexual intercourse, technology or shopping. Paul assumes married couples may abstain from sex to focus on prayer together when he warns them not to do this for too long: ‘Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.’  (1 Corinthians 7:5) Fasting could also involve not using the internet, television, phones or movies for a period of time. Finally it could involve not shopping. Rodney Clapp says: ‘The consumer is schooled in insatiability … The consumer is tutored that people basically consist of unmet needs that can be appeased by commodified goods and experience. Accordingly, the consumer should think first and foremost of himself or herself and meeting his or her felt needs.’[1] The Sabbath day is a kind of fast from work and spending. It is a declaration that we are not defined by what we do or what we buy. In a similar way, a Sabbath fast is a declaration that we are not defined by what we eat.

Should Christians fast?

Jesus assumes Christians will fast. In Matthew 6:16-18 Jesus says ‘when’ you fast, not ‘if’ you fast. He assumes his followers will fast. The early church also fasted (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23).

In Matthew 9:14-17 Jesus says his disciples of Jesus do not fast because he is among them as the bridegroom of God’s people. But one day he will be taken away and then they will fast. This could refer to the period between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The problem with this interpretation is that the early church fasted after Easter Sunday (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23). So it is more likely that it refers to the period between the ascension and return of Jesus.

This means New Testament is both like and unlike fasting Jewish fasting. The Jews fasted as a sign of mourning and repentance, believing that God would return to vindicate his repentant people (Luke 2:36-38). Christians believe this event has happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So our fasting cannot have the same note of mourning. But we also believe the public vindication of God and his people lies in the future. So we, too, are looking for the coming of God.

What is the purpose of fasting?

1. To seek guidance from God
The early church fasted when important decisions needed to be made like the appointment of leaders. In Acts 13:1-3 God guided church leaders when they fasted. Although it’s not explicitly stated that they were seeking guidance, it seems likely they were seeking the next step for the church.

2. To seek satisfaction in God

In Matthew 6 Jesus promises a reward to those who fast. (Jesus also says those who fast to be seen by people receive their reward in full – the temporary and inconsequential admiration of people without the favour of God.) What is this reward? It is not a reward that we earn through fasting as if fasting were some sort of meritorious act. The reward rather is God himself.

In both cases, fasting can also be used to create time for prayer – prayer about the decision needing to be made or prayer pursing a stronger relationship with God.

In my next post I’ll develop this last idea – using a hunger for food to develop a hunger for God.

[1] Rodney Clapp, ‘Why the Devil Takes Visa,’ Christianity Today 40:2, 7 October 1996.