Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. Luke 4:1-2
He ate nothing. That does not sound too inviting. I like to eat. And I don’t like to be religious. A quick look at the New Testament seems to show that is what fasting is: a religious self denial of food. The Pharisees, those duty-bound, religious, high achievers, fasted a great deal and they were the “bad guys,” right? So if they did it we should not is how the logic goes.
There is a fasting that should be avoided. A fasting that is done believing that it will score us points with God to get the prize we desire or as a self-inflicted punishment for a mistake has no place in the life of a follower of Jesus. Nor does using it to prove to God (or others) how committed or spiritual we are.
Yet while Jesus gives us freedom to not fast (Jesus never commands us to fast) he sees it as a natural practice of a follower. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: “And whenever you fast,” which means Jesus expects there will be fasting. His words are against twisting it into something it is not: “do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt. 6:16-18).
So then what is fasting?
A while back I started riding my bike to work occasionally (i.e. when it was a sunny day over 45 degrees—so maybe I should say rarely). I discovered the level street leading from my home actually has quite an incline and that small cars can be as intimidating as larger ones. I noticed changes in neighborhoods, the wind off Lake Union, my (lack of) physical condition and the forgotten childhood joy of weaving back and forth on a deserted road. There was a whole array of different input I received outside of my normal steel and glass encased ride.
Fasting as part of following Jesus is like that. It is a disruption that opens us more to the Spirit’s work. When we fast from something we are throwing our normal patterns a bit off kilter, putting ourselves into a place where we see from different angles, where our vulnerabilities may come out of the shadows, where our timing is disrupted and creating space for God to do something new.
Fasting as a follower of Jesus is an act of worship. It is a way of stepping into God’s Gym saying, “I am Yours—coach me into the image of Christ, into a fullness, that I might glorify you and be your image bearer.” Fasting, especially from food, puts us more in touch with the reality that we gain our being—our “is-ness” as Madeline L’Engle calls it—from God and nothing else. What God chooses to do in us in our times of fasting is God’s choice.
God may choose to work through our fasting to give us:
- A sense of peace that “surpasses all understanding.”
- A sense of agitation as feelings bubble up that we have not had a chance to attend to
- Guidance on a decision through a phrase or image that comes into our head
- An affirmation of being loved by God
- An awareness of a hindrance to our transformation that we have become blind to
- A spirit of thankfulness, release and joy that comes with giving thanks
- Promptings for an action that will bless others in ways we do not know
- A sense of solidarity with those we pray for in the midst of our fast
- Or maybe we will experience something we have no words for but nonetheless sense God is doing something in us.
And maybe we won’t sense anything at all. Yet that doesn’t mean something significant has not happened, for in fasting we have more intentionally done what we are created to do: worship God.
Fasting can take a variety of forms both in terms of object and duration. We can fast from food (not water), a TV show, people, shopping, to name a few, and we can do it for 12, 24 or 36 hours (consult with your doctor and check out fasting resources on line when you get to the point where you want to go for multiple days) once a week, month or whenever.
Below are a few fasting suggestions to feast on. Test one (or more) out this week. Who knows, you might find something you’ll find you want to practice throughout the year.
- Start a fast after lunch one day this week and continue it until you have lunch the next day. Take the time normally committed to securing and eating your dinner and breakfast to take a walk, read scripture, reflect, sing or read a hymn, sit quietly attentive to what comes to mind, intercede for others or journal your thoughts. Perhaps you might want to give the money that would have been spent on meals to help in a place of need.
- Fast from digital entertainment. Forgo consuming content on the TV, monitor, tablet and phone for two days. What do you experience? Anxiousness? Peace?
- Fast from people. Take three evenings in a row to be by yourself in the company of God. It may mean reading at a coffee shop, taking a long walk, going to a museum or library, but pull yourself out of your normal interactions for a few days and spend it exploring and resting in God’s delight for you.
- Choose anything that you regularly commit time toward and put it on the back burner for awhile. The goal is not to create suffering (although there may be some of that or some inconvenience) but to create space.
- Meditate each morning on Isaiah 58 (try different translations) and ask, “ Lord, what do you want to say to me?”
Reminder: Those with kids or who have others they are responsible for will find fasting more difficult –you can create space only to find it filled with others’ need to eat or be hugged—so remember fasting is not a commandment. Fasting is an act of worship of a God of freedom who desires for us to drink more deeply of the Spirit’s presence in our life and experience transformation into the image of Christ.