Some things you must understand in order to do them. Surgery is one example of that principle that comes to mind. Conversely, some things you must do in order to understand them. Fasting is a prime example of this latter principle.
From an intellectual perspective fasting is hard to understand. All sorts of plausible reasons can be put forward as to why fasting is a good thing to do. Some have to do with purely physical benefits. Some have to do with psychological and spiritual benefits.
Fasting is put forward by some as a practice that is beneficial for our bodies. The web site, www.webmd.com, suggests several positive effects for our bodies from the practice of fasting. The first one is almost too obvious to mention — weight loss. I don’t suppose I need to explain how abstaining from food would cause us to lose weight, do it? Now, I have to let you know that, because of some of the complex physiological response in our bodies when they are completely deprived of food, in the long term, fasting can actually sometimes slow down the process of losing weight and can, in fact, make it more likely that we will gain that weigh back eventually.
Another benefit mentioned by that web site is detoxifying or purifying our bodies. I suppose the idea behind this benefit is that by not eating, we allow our bodies’ natural filtering systems – for example, our kidneys and liver – to catch up, since, during fasting, presumably no new impurities are being added to our system through our food.
One final physical health benefit from fasting that is mentioned on webmd.com is that researchers have notice a correlation between regular fasting and longevity. It seems that lab animals and human beings who fast regularly tend to live longer than those who don’t. Scientists aren’t entirely sure why that is the case, but that it is the case is clear.
But, look, I’m not a weight loss guru. A brief glance at me will make that fact pretty obvious. And my interest in writing to you about fasting has very little to do with any of its physical health benefits. I want to help you understand how fasting can help make you a better disciple of Jesus Christ. Fasting for physical health benefits is a perfectly acceptable practice in my view. But don’t try to mix your motives for fasting. Don’t delude yourself that fasting once a week in order to look better in a bathing suit this summer will also deepen your relationship with God. Fasting to lose weight involves keeping your eyes fixed on yourself. Fasting as a spiritual discipline involves getting your eyes off yourself and fixing them on God. The two motives for fasting work at cross purposes. We have to be careful not to allow our spiritual disciplines to become complicated by ulterior motives in our hearts.
So, setting aside physical health fasts, we find a number of explanations offered for why fasting as a spiritual discipline has from the earliest Old Testament times been commended to God’s people as a great benefit to their spiritual lives. The Bible writers advocate fasting, and they give a number of examples of people fasting – individually and as a community. What the Bible never really does provide is a direct argument for why we should fast or even an explanation of how fasting works. How is it that fasting is supposed to work as a discipline of the godly life? That the Bible never seriously tries to answer.
Is that because no Bible writer knows the answer to that question? Or is it because God knows that fasting explains itself when we
actually do it?
Well, that, I suppose, should be the end of my article. But, naturally, I’m going to go on just a bit more. Keep in mind that what I write about fasting will really make the most sense to you only once you have done some fasting.
I tend to think about fasting along with some other spiritual disciplines as a discipline of self-denial or maybe a little more positively as a discipline of re-orientation. In that category I would include giving (especially, money) and Sabbath-keeping. In each of those, as with fasting, we choose to deny ourselves. For giving to be a discipline of the spiritual life, our giving needs to be planned, consistent and on-going, and sacrificial. That is, our giving must cause us to limit our spending on ourselves. Our giving should pinch, or it isn’t really a discipline and so won’t really have much impact on our spiritual life. If we are able spend as much on luxuries, comforts, conveniences, entertainments, etc. as others who make as much income as we do, then we are not giving away enough of our money.
Sabbath-keeping is much more about what we do on our Sabbaths (usually Sundays but not necessarily) than about what we don’t do. Sabbath-keeping is concerned with how we use our time. It’s about making choices about how we will allot our time on the Sabbath, and that will have implications about how we spend our time during the rest of the week. And that means we will certainly end up spending our time differently than the rest of our neighbors.
First of all, Sabbath is about worship. To keep the Sabbath means to gather together with God’s people to worship together, fellowship together, learn together, and serve together. That can be inconvenient, of course. There are lots of other things we might like to do with those Sabbath mornings, more and more things all the time. And so, you have a choice to make each Sunday morning. Will you keep the Sabbath this week or not? Notice, it’s not a question of how you feel about doing it. It’s a question of whether you believe God or not and a question of what you will do about that.
That’s why I think of these practices (fasting, giving, and Sabbath-keeping) as disciplines of orientation. They are about making decisions. Making decisions is how we orient our lives. I can make decisions that will orient my life toward God, or I can make decisions that will orient my life toward myself.
That’s why I also think of these practices as disciplines of self-denial. By making a habit of practicing these disciplines, I steadily build up in myself the habit of choosing God. In that way, my character, my habits of thought and deciding become more and more oriented toward God.
Fasting is especially helpful in this regard because it can be quite simple and focused. I decide to dedicate a set period of time to God, to refuse to gratify my desire to eat as a sign to me and God of my commitment. Every time I feel a pang of hunger, I remind myself that I am practicing the process, the habit of saying “yes” to God and “no” to myself.
It’s very much like going to the gym to lift weights in order to strengthen my muscles. With fasting, I am exercising my spiritual muscles that make me better able to say “yes” to God and “no” to myself not just about food but in every aspect of my life and for every decision I have to make.
If you want to have a life that is more and more oriented toward God, consider making these disciplines part of your life. If you want to develop the habit of saying “yes” to God in everything, consider giving your spirit some exercise with these practice.
[Note: One caution, there are some health conditions that make it inadvisable to abstain from food. Diabetic and people with serious digestive disorders should probably talk with their doctors before engaging in fasting. If you’d like to think about some alternatives to fasting from food, get in touch with me, and we can explore what options might be best for you.]