I Don’t Like to Fast.
I’d tried it half-heartedly once or twice before, but when asked for an article on fasting, I got serious. Six weeks later, I still don’t like it.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the idea of fasting. As I did some research to prepare, it just looked better and better. I’ve been food-conscious for a while now (thanks to my young family and a local deli) and, whatever else fasting was, it seemed also like the next step in growing to appreciate God’s gift of food.
I read that the monastic church fathers fasted, in part, to refine their awareness of what was good for their bodies and minds. Certain foods beget certain moods. If you are celibate, it is wise not to ingest aphrodisiacs.
Similarly, I’d noticed that a heavy lunch did not lend itself to afternoon meditation or sermon-writing. Could it be that a stricter leash on my diet would extend my ability to concentrate? Cure my forgetfulness? Make me a better administrator and preacher? I was ravenous at the possibilities.
Upon the advice of a certain Orthodox recluse, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, I planned to generally avoid alcohol, meat (except for fish), spicy foods, and over-eating. In addition, I would fast two days a week by eating half-meals. I couldn’t wait.
A Biblical Interlude
One time, Jesus had to bail his disciples out of a botched exorcism.
“And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ And he said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer’”* (Mark 9:28-29 ESV).
*some manuscripts add “and fasting.”
I’m not blaming the manuscript tradition, but isn’t this asterisked verse a fit illustration for how we have come to treat fasting? It’s an optional, maybe even questionable artifact with a footnote position in our religious practice.
In this text, Jesus calls the disciple’s attention to their inadequacy to cast out a demon apart from turning to God. The disciples assumed that their time spent in ministry with Jesus had qualified them as spiritually advanced. They had moved beyond the constant need for prayer. They could do some things without Jesus. They were becoming self-sufficient.
If they’d been fasting, they might have known better.
What Actually Happened
The first week, I recall being hungry and distracted. I began to notice how often I’d become used to eating and how indiscriminate I’d been as to the content. I found it also awkward socially, to turn down food without stating a reason. Nevertheless, my initial excitement and, I confess, some spiritual pride got me through.
During the second week, things unraveled. Not eating enough makes me alternately giddy and crabby. I did experience a certain change of focus, but it didn’t make up for my distraction anytime someone said “cheeseburger.” Worst of all, I began fudging the rules and, on that Thursday, after dark, I premeditated and carried out the demise of a whole bag of Chips Ahoy®.
From there, things went downhill. I spent the next few weeks neither fasting nor ever eating comfortably. My attempt to refine my spiritual life had made me binging, irritable, and visibly unbalanced. Is there a correlation between movie star diets and tabloid behavior? Undoubtedly, yes.
“When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach” (Psalm 69:10 ESV).
I don’t like to fast. I’m not good at it. I’d like to give it up.
But maybe that’s the point.
I’d expected fasting to be a discipline like prayer, meditation, or hymn-singing. Those were initially awkward, but quickly became a joy, a welcome break from work, a boon to self-control, and a hyperlink to God’s grace. But fasting, for me, was the opposite. It reached right down into my guts to prove that my self-control is a mirage. I’m completely dependent upon nourishment from without. I am thoroughly incapable of sustaining my own soul.
Perhaps, this is why we treat fasting like a footnote: It can be a disaster.
Fasting and Jesus
Fasting declares our inadequacies, both physical and spiritual. It’s intended to showcase our absolute dependence upon God’s grace. Apart from daily bread just look where you’d be!
I’d hoped fasting would make me a better pastor—more spiritually able than other pastors. (Lord, forgive me. You know how I think.) Like the disciples, I’d have done better to have prayed and waited for Jesus. Just like their botched exorcism, my adventure with fasting was a sure recipe for disaster.
But disaster sends us running back to Jesus. He endured privation and worse on the cross—the place to which He draws me ever closer. I need God’s forgiveness more, not less, than when I started this journey.
I may not like it, but I don’t think I’m done fasting.