Stuffing Our Soul: On Fasting
Rick James, Postcards From Corinth
There was Peter’s threefold denial, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and my battle with a ham sandwich on day six of my forty-day fast: these are the great crisis moments in recorded church history.
Thankfully, Jesus escaped the temptation, while I faltered having been lured to the brink of perdition by that sumptuous pig. Though I failed in my forty-day fast, the good news is that I never sinned, because eating a ham sandwich doesn’t transgress any moral laws at least in this corner of the universe. To me, this is the beauty of fasting.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).
Fasting is a practice deeply grounded in God’s Word and one that I have tried to pass on to my disciples. Finding a biblical precedent for fasting is easy, while finding a passage that explains its purpose is not. Like the tassels on the High Priest’s garments, I’m sure they serve a God-ordained function. I’m just a little vague on what that could possibly be. What I have learned about fasting has primarily come from doing it and noting its spiritual value.
These are the things that I share with my disciples – the reasons I encourage them to fast.
First, fasting seems to create habits or triggers of reliance in my life.
My hunger, which normally arose every 5 or 6 hours, becomes acute every 5 or 6 minutes when I am fasting, and hunger is my trigger to turn to God for strength, or at least I use it as such during my fast. Of course a tragedy in my life accomplishes the same thing, but fasting creates this necessary environment for reliance without the nasty side effects of inoperable brain cancer or the loss of a loved one.
While I’m fasting, all day long I call out to God, for strength, endurance, self-control, empowerment, and wisdom, which in fact, should be normative for a Christian, but it is not for me which is why I fast.
Second, is what I would call “practice choices.”
When I fast, my flesh, in a very persuasive way, demands to be fed, and throughout the day I continually have to tell it, “No, you can’t eat, so stop your whining.” It is the same fleshly dynamic of sin and temptation, particularly lust. The only difference is that if I stumble during my fast and give in to the terrorist demands of my flesh, I have not compromised myself morally. Through fasting, self-control is cultivated, and I habitualize saying “no” to my flesh. It’s like a full day of practice in preparation for game day.
Food is life and my umbilical cord is definitely tied to the kitchen. When I fast I am snipping the umbilical cord, which causes me to go to God for greater life in order to compensate for the life I am now denied. Many things impart life to us. Some of them, like relationships and Playstation, are God-ordained sources. Other sources are not necessarily sinful but deriving too much life from them, rather than God, does damage to our souls. The godly man or woman aware of this dynamic is willing to pull the umbilical cord where and when it needs to be pulled.
Fasting is a spiritual discipline that makes such suicidal choices (which paradoxically leads to deriving greater life from God) a regular part of my life. Say “no” to food for a week and turning off the TV for a few days is a piece of cake (all this talk of fasting, cake, and ham sandwiches is really beginning to make me hungry).
When I fast I am weak, and when I am weak I am humble. Fasting gives me a firm grip on my smallness and lack of omnipotence, as opposed to coffee, which makes me feel fast, smart, and competent (unless I drink coffee when I’m fasting which makes me delusional). Humility is not low-self esteem but an accurate perception of my finitude. Humility magnifies my need for God and always leads me to Him. Fasting is a helpful aid in humbling oneself before God.
Third, fasting is a plea for help, a red flare sent up from the soul for a specific reason or cause.
When I am in distress and desperate for God, I fast. But I fast with the caution that I am not attempting to manipulate God or make Him care more than He does. I’m not holding by breath in blueness until I get my way. Fasting is a vehicle allowing me to spend my passion and desire for deliverance, and I choose it instead of manipulating, yelling, or whining.
There is a lot I do not understand about the practice of fasting, or the tassels of the High Priest, but I have derived enough from its discipline to commend it to my disciples. I have at times suggested that they set aside a meal or day a week for fasting. On other occasions I have suggested a fast on things other than food, like television or video games (but never Playstation).
Jesus seems to assume His disciples will fast and even if I never understand it fully I would practice it and commend it to my disciples for this reason alone.