The Ancient Ways – Part 3

An unintentional fast
There have been a few times in my life I have considered the idea of fasting with some seriousness. I first read about it in a serious sense in college and again sometime later in seminary. In seminary, I tried a few times to fast just to get an idea of what it might be like while taking classes on spiritual formation and the like. I usually lasted for about eight or ten hours before I was ready to ransack the kitchen and eat everything I could find up to and including things I had no taste for at all like artichokes or rutabagas.

Back in February however, when Covid-19 was just beginning to make its presence felt here, I started to notice a weird tickle in my throat and an occasional cough. It was not the Sars-Cov2 virus, but without a doubt, something was bothering me. I tried to ignore it and largely succeeded until I was eating dinner at a restaurant for our anniversary. Dinner was great. The restaurant was annoyingly loud, but the food was excellent. The only problem was I couldn’t enjoy it. It was like every bite was causing its own acid volcano, stopping in my throat to soak my voice box. By the time dinner was over, I felt hoarse, like I had been coughing all evening. After an appointment at the doctor’s office, I found out what the problem was or at least what they thought it was: laryngopharyngeal or silent reflux. It’s a form of acid reflux that doesn’t seem to show any effects on your throat until it gets to your voice box. When it acts up, it causes you to have a dry cough and leaves you feeling like someone scratched your throat with a nail file. So, its uncomfortable. But it is treatable.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “The treatment is worse than the cure.” Since I’m reluctant to take medication and my wife happens to be a dietitian, I decided to try a dietary method of treating silent reflux. It’s called the FODMAP diet and it takes everything fun out of your diet. Fat? Gone. Bread? Out the door. Dairy? Nope. Caffeine? Only if you can take it and I couldn’t at the time. I could chew gum and that helps a lot but it’s not filling. Even some of the vegetables I enjoy eating were off-limits. For the better part of two months, I tried to treat reflux with diet and exercise only. For part of that time, I was successful. I lost some weight that needed to go, was more energetic and felt overall healthier. I hated it. Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but do you have any idea how much I really like mint chocolate chip ice cream and egg salad sandwiches? Okay so I did hate it some, but it was good for me overall. After getting used to it, I managed to develop a little more discipline when it came to my eating and some discipline with some other things in my life too. It seems this kind of discipline rubs off on other areas of your life.

What is fasting and why do we do it?
Fasting is in its simplest expression, a spiritual discipline. It is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function—usually eating food—for the sake of intense spiritual activity. In other words, it is replacing something you do day in, day out with a spiritual practice. The biblical concept of fasting usually referred to the act of abstaining from food and/or fluids except for water, though there are examples, such as Daniel 10:3, where people fast from something more specific. Though there are no laws or commands about fasting in the bible , it was a common practice throughout biblical literature—Jacob, Moses, Daniel, Elijah, and of course Jesus and his disciples all fasted at various times. Their fasting was centered on God, initiated by God, and ordained by God.

Fasting as a discipline, also shows us how the things of our lives control us when they surface during our times of disciplining our bodies and spirits to abstain from certain things. Think about Lent and how hard it is to avoid chocolate if you’ve given it up. You’re thinking about it right now; a Reese’s peanut cup; broken up in a Blizzard and—no wait that’s me. But you get my point. When we deny ourselves certain things, we have to face the level of control they have over our lives and how entrenched they have become in our being.

Our Judeo-Christian heritage is filled with commentary on the art and practice of fasting. But the how of it has varied and continues to vary. In the Psalms, David saw the fast as a whole-body activity, where we mixed prayer and mourning together with an act of self-denial. According to Isaiah, the fast was for the benefit of others, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isa. 58:6–7). And of course, Jesus sets the example of fasting while in the desert and qualifies the proper attitude for fasting in The Sermon on the Mount. For many of the early church fathers and mothers, fasting was an act of sacred rhythm and discipline. Athanasius said, “Sometimes the call is made to fasting, and sometimes to a feast,” and Augustine saw it as a means of overcoming temptation. Many others in ancient times saw it as a Lenten observance or an act of penance—something that led to extravagant expressions of false contrition and abuse—which was seen later in a negative light. Church reformers like John Calvin, Martin Luther, and John Wesley made regular practice of it and modern writers like Dallas Willard and John Piper extol its virtues. Yet, even with all this encouragement from such a long and storied history of writers, theologians, and practitioners of the faith, fasting is one of the most misunderstood and loathed practices of the church. We simply do not like denying ourselves anything, seemingly more so today than any other time.

Through the history of the Jewish-Christian faith, there have been a number of reasons people have fasted, but according to Scot McKnight, “Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life.” He sees fasting as a response to something happening, (A) that leads us to respond (B) and this leads to a result (C). In this case, it has the potential to become an abuse of grace, if you intend to move from A to B in order to get to C. An example is you have sinned (A) and you fast (B) to get forgiveness (C). McKnight sees the appropriate response as you have sinned (A) so you fast as an act of contrition (B) not to get forgiveness but because it reveals their being attuned to God. McKnight says, “…when the grievous sacred moment is neglected and instead, we focus on the results, fasting becomes a manipulative device instead of a genuine, Christian spiritual discipline.”

These are all great historical expressions of fasting, what it is, and why we do it, but on a personal level, I see it a little differently. To me, fasting is the chance to overcome the things that keep us from the presence of God. We all have those things that we indulge in which are detrimental to our relationship with God. Fasting is a way to recognize the damage these things do to our relationship with God. Each person has a unique reason, a specific set of things that might lead them to fast. Sometimes a food fast will lead you to develop the discipline necessary to fast from or give up certain things. Sometimes it is simply a discipline to help you into the presence of God. Sometimes it is specific. If you have issues with certain foods—things that cause you harm or things you eat uncontrollably—fast or abstain from them. If watching the news or being on your phone is an issue, turn it off and put it away. In all these cases, the idea is that we are slowly but steadily putting away the things that hurt us and our relationship with God.

And while you are fasting from these things, embrace the time spent on those things for other spiritual practices: prayer, scripture reading, reading religious books and biographies, times of worship, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and imprisoned. We do not give up for the sake of emptiness but use the space vacated as space to be filled with the things of God that deepen our relationship with God and others.

How do we fast safely?
Fasting safely looks differently depending on what you are fasting from. If you are strictly speaking of a food fast, do a little at a time. Start with preparing to fast by eating smaller amounts for a few days and then on the day you decide to fast, go from lunch one day to lunch the next. This will mean skipping dinner one night and breakfast the next morning before eating lunch. And then doing that once a week and then after a while perhaps an entire day without food. Always be careful to drink plenty of water while you do this to keep from dehydrating. When it comes to other kinds of fasts, the same is true. We give up things for short periods of time (hours) and work our way to longer periods (weeks or months) and if necessary, give them up completely.

Fasting is, in short, denying ourselves for the sake of God’s presence. We give up something we don’t really need for something much greater and worth much more. Ask yourself, what is between me and God? What could I give up that would bring me closer to God? What spiritual joys might I find if I embraced new practices or old practices forgotten?

Bradshaw, Paul F. Reconstructing Early Christian Worship. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2009.
Foster, Richard J. A Celebration of Discipline. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.
—. Spiritual Classics. Edited by Richard J. Foster, & Emilie Griffin. New York: HarperOne, 2000.
Hall, Christopher A. Worshiping with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
Hippo, Augustine of. “The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.” In The Spiritual Classics, edited by Richard J. Foster, & Emilie Griffin, 67-69. New York: HarperOne, 2000.
Marshall, Catherine. “A Closer Walk.” In Spiritual Classics, edited by Richard J. Foster, & Emilie Griffin, 57-59. New York: HarperOne, 2000.
McKnight, Scot. Fasting: The Ancient Practices Series. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.
McLaren, Brian. Finding Our Way Again. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.

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