In Defense of Fasting

I fast.

I know that according to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I’m not supposed to tell you that.

But I have a reason for telling you. I think it would be a good thing if more Christians would engage in the practice of regular fasting.

I’m in my 50’s, a Christian pastor, and I’ve been fasting with at least annual regularity since I was in college when I fasted one year from dinner on Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday breakfast. Over the years, I have found it to be a meaningful spiritual practice. Yet, I find that most people view it as an oddity, something perhaps even to be admired, but certainly not something to be emulated. For the most part, Christians in America will engage a whole array of spiritual practices except for fasting.

I think there are some reasons for the aversion to fasting that are rooted in our unique American culture. Culture is the thing we can’t really avoid. I live in it; you live in it; we all live in it; and we are all influenced by it, both positively and negatively. It’s the soup in which we swim. Let me make some cultural observations and then I’ll come back to fasting.

Observation #1 — we live in a culture of abundance. Most of us have not only what we need, but way more than we need. Closets full of shoes. All you can eat buffets. 3 and 4 car garages. We are really good at excess.

Observation #2 — We don’t have to think about where our stuff comes from.  When you ate whatever you ate for dinner tonight, did you give any thought to the ground where the grain was grown, any wondering about the name of the farmer who grew it or the truck driver who drove the grain to the mill or the mill worker who supervised the huge machine that milled the flour or those who worked in the test kitchen so that the proportions of ingredients were just right to make whatever prepared or processed food you ate work and taste like food? Or when you get in your car do you think about where the iron was mined to make the steel or where the crude oil came from that made the plastics possible or the workers on the assembly line that put the whole thing together? We don’t have to think about where things came from. We need them, we buy them, we have them. We don’t have to think any further than our own front door.

Observation #3 — We have an inordinate attachment to things. You name it — I’m sure there’s something for you — shoes or books or cars or cash or electronic gadgets.  Food is one of those things we get attached to. We obsess about diets and restaurants and what to eat and what not to eat.  When we get stressed, we eat; when we celebrate, we eat; when we meet friends, we eat; when we get together with family, we eat. I’m not saying that’s bad; I’m saying that food and eating are central to nearly everything we do. We may go all day without thinking about God’s presence in our lives, but we will never forget to have dinner!

Observation #4 — We live as if there are no limits to what we can or should do. If we want food, we take food. If we want new shoes, we buy new shoes. If we want a new cars, we get a new car. If we want new electronic gadgets, we research and we shop and we revel in how this new phone is going to make our life so much better.  The goal of life in this culture is always more — more things, more experiences, more stimuli, more capacity. We can have it all, do it all, and we deserve it all.

None of which, of course, is true. We have written a false story that we are dependent on no one but ourselves. A life that recognizes no limits has no place for God. When the things of this life become the object of life, then we no longer have life.

And here’s where fasting comes in. Fasting is a way to remember that I am dependent on God. When I interrupt that normal routine of sitting down for a meal, I remember why. Food is a wonderful gift. It comes from God.  I remember that my life is a wonderful gift. All that I am and all that I have come from God. When I feel that mid-afternoon pang of hunger and instinctively get up to get a snack, I remember.

When it comes right down to it, there is not all that much about my life that I can control. I am dependent on God’s goodness for almost every aspect of my life. It’s not normal to think that we are self-sufficient. In fact, that’s how sin got started in the first place, when Adam and Eve thought they could make better decisions for themselves than the one who created them. When they ate that forbidden fruit, they were saying to God, “I’ll decide; I’m the captain of my own ship.” But that’s not normal life in relationship with God. Normal life is for the creature to acknowledge the creator.

One of the mantras of lent is this passage from the prophet Joel: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” So, could I be so presumptuous as to invite you to return? Return to normal life. Return to a life that acknowledges your dependency on God for all that you are and all that you have. And if fasting a meal a week or a day a week or whatever you decide can help you to do that, then what a gift it will be.  That’s why the discipline of fasting is so important. Fasting is renouncing something, it’s not depriving yourself of something — it’s a way to remember the good providence of a good God and because of that, it is a way for new life to be released in us.

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