"Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it."
This quote from the great John Wesley opens Chapter 4 of Celebration of Discipline. Of the two extreme positions Wesley finds people taking regarding fasting, I know without a doubt I fall into the latter category. I might have fasted for 24 hours at some point in the past decade -- there seems to be a very murky memory floating around somewhere -- but I could not tell you for sure if I did it, or why, or with what result.
Why have I possibly never fasted, even though the practice is participated in and approved by Jesus and other heroes of the faith? If I'm honest with myself, there's two main reasons. First, I've thought fasting was either for tonsure-wearing monk types cloistered away from the world who make a habit of denying themselves things, or for God's people who were about to be brutally slaughtered by heathen enemies or punished significantly by God Himself, and who hoped something as drastic as fasting might save their skins.
The second reason I've never adopted fasting is, until I read Chapter 4 of this book, I never knew what the purpose of fasting was, and how we as Christians were supposed to make use of it.
Here's a bit of what Foster has to say about the purpose of fasting:
"Fasting must forever center on God. It must be God-initiated and God-ordained. Like the prophetess Anna, we need to be 'worshiping with fasting' (Luke 2:27). Every other purpose must be subservient to God. Like that apostolic band at Antioch, 'fasting' and 'worshiping the Lord' must be said in the same breath (Acts 13:2)...If our fasting is not unto God, we have failed."In other words, if we fast for any other reason -- to get better focus, to help us pray with more intensity, to teach ourselves discipline or to help us lose weight -- all of these things can't be why we deny ourself food, at least if we want to fast as the Bible tells us to. The main reason must be to help us worship God better.
Foster says if we have that first purpose in mind and follow it, then we can realize a host of secondary benefits from fasting. I was surprised to read the following assertion, which I'd never heard anyone make before:
"More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. David writes, 'I humbled my soul with fasting' (Ps. 69:10). Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear -- if they are within us, they will surface during fasting."Foster goes on to talk about other benefits of fasting:
1. It reminds us that "we are sustained by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God...food does not sustain us; God sustains us."
2. "Fasting helps us keep our balance in life. How easily we begin to allow nonessentials to take precedence in our lives...Our human cravings and desires are like rivers that tend to overflow their banks; fasting helps keep them in their proper channels."
3. Fasting, Foster says, can also produce "increased effectiveness in intercessory prayer, guidance in decisions, increased concentration, deliverance for those in bondage, physical well-being [and] revelations."
Wow. What a package! Foster not only lists benefits, but shows how even though fasting isn't commanded by Jesus in the Bible, it nevertheless played a big part in early Christian life.
The author then spends a lot of time dealing with specifics -- why fasting is medically safe if done correctly, how to start fasting (slowly), how to build up the length of fasts, what to eat and not eat afterwards, how the body reacts to a fast (the toxins are cleaned out quite nicely, he says).
This was a long chapter, and again, I will have to read it at least once more before a lot of it sinks in. But it has opened my eyes to a Christian Discipline I hadn't thought much about before now. And that list of benefits has made me want to try this.
My big problem at first will be adhering to Foster's wise counsel of making worshiping God the primary motivator. I'm afraid I would spend most of my fasting time either mired in the daily grind, or lamenting my hunger pangs, or patting myself on the back for being so spiritual. The focus has to be on God, and that's the part of fasting I'm not sure I can pull off yet.
With prayer and a willing heart, I hope I can.
One final thought: I'm hoping other Celebration of Discipline bloggers (or commentors on any of the blog sites) who have successfully engaged in fasting will write about that experience. I'd love to hear from some pathfinders in this area.
Here's what some other bloggers had to say about Chapter 4:
The Village Muse
DB on DB