As I write I’m on the third of three days of prayer and fasting. This is a normal practice for our church, we have corporate times—often three days—of prayer and fasting two to three times a year. Which is weird.
In some ways I’m only waking up to how weird it is as I write. Obviously, I knew that my colleagues thought it was weird, though it’s a few years since I was in a job where my colleagues would actively notice due to different habits around lunchtimes, I used to work somewhere where they would notice and then ask about why I wasn’t eating.
They thought it was strange but not especially so, we had Muslim colleagues who would keep Ramadan and so people found my fasting interesting as a compare and contrast activity and because they were interested in me, much as I would ask after things in their lives, but not beyond that. When religion is weird anyway, a strange practice isn’t any weirder.
What I’m waking up to is that this is less normal in churches than I had realised. Every church I’ve been in since I was 18, all two of them, practiced regular times of prayer and fasting. The church I help to lead now was planted from a 40-day season of prayer and fasting, this is normal stuff for us.
While liturgical churches keep the fasts of Advent and Lent this is rarely total abstention from food so feels like a different category of thing—not necessarily less valuable but with different sorts of emotional responses and different sorts of lessons to teach us. I’m always surprised that low church evangelicals don’t fast more. After all, Jesus assumes that we will, for all he doesn’t command it (Matthew 6).
Fasting is rarely fun, but often significant in the life of churches and individuals. Partly because we give more time to God, removing meals so we can have more time to pray, but that isn’t why we fast. One summer I read some books and explored every reference in the Bible to fasting and came up with a list of 51 reasons the Bible gives to fast.
Before you get too concerned, this post won’t be a short book because those 51 boil down in their nub to one stunning—and stunningly obvious—insight:
fasting makes you hungry
In Matthew 9 Jesus tells a parable about fasting, saying that it’s silly to fast when the bridegroom is present, but instead we fast when he isn’t. You can imagine the scene: you’ve been invited to a wedding and the ceremony was beautiful and everyone’s in tears (even the cake). You then arrive at the reception and it’s all laid out and the food arrives and you politely say ‘not for me thank you, I’m fasting.’ At which point I, sat nearby this killjoy guest, decide as the food’s been paid for I may as well eat theirs too.
It’s absurd. Jesus draws the picture for us so we grasp the principle—when he, the bridegroom, is around we don’t fast. When he isn’t, we do. What’s different when he’s not there? He’s not there! Fasting is about waiting and longing, hoping and aching.
Have you ever wanted something you couldn’t have? You feel hungry for it. We describe desire as hunger. We are supposed to be hungry for Jesus’ return, and so in order to help our souls line up with this emotional landscape we abstain from food as a spiritual discipline—using our physical hunger to build our spiritual hunger. Much like if you were sat outside of a dining room laden with the choicest of feasts, unable to go in but able to smell the delicious aromas of roasted meat and rich wine, your stomach would start to grumble. It’s this way spiritually too: hunger pangs make us yearn for the feast.
Sue and the Sugar
I once worked with a lady called Sue who gave up sugar as part of a diet, she was ruthless about it and eliminated it wholesale from everywhere she could. After a while she stopped enjoying its taste, she tried a piece of cake she would have loved a few months before and it made her feel ill. If you stop eating you stop liking it, if you keep eating it and eating it you don’t like anything else. Our taste buds are rewired by habit, and our hearts work the same way.
Fasting can be a useful discipline to regain control and remember that are supposed to be satisfied by feasting on Christ, not all the rubbish we keep pouring into our hearts (John 6).
To approach the same thing from another angle, John Piper says, “what we hunger for most, we worship.” As long as we mean hunger metaphorically and so mean desire then I think that bears itself out as true. Though, I’d like to expand the paradigm: what we do (or give our attention to) we love, what we love we worship, what we worship we become. We become what we do or what we look at. We become what we eat.
Which, coincidentally, is part of what’s going on in the Lord’s Supper.
When we fast we choose to make our bodies feel hungry in order to help our hearts. When we fill ourselves with vile things we will hunger for them like Sue with the sugar. What we hunger for we end up worshipping.
The Danger of Sandwiches
Do you feel hungry for God? My answer to that question is going to depend on the day of the week. I run hot and cold. I suspect many of you do too, friends. Why do we lack an appetite for spiritual things? Often this is because we’re already stuffed full of other things.
I like to think of this as the danger of sandwiches. I love bread. I am an enormous fan of a sandwich. Lunch is often my favourite meal of the day because I get to have a sandwich. There’s something wonderful about fresh bread and fresh butter with a thick slice of ham in the middle. Fancy sandwiches are great too, but a simple slice of ham is wonderful. Or, and I’ll probably lose you here, my favourite thing to put in a sandwich is pork tongue. Offal is satisfying to eat, and speaks some theological truths about God declaring us clean besides, but I imagine I’m in a minority here.
So, what’s the danger of sandwiches? Nothing, they’re great.
No, wait, that’s the problem. Sometimes we aren’t stuffed with terrible things, as though we’d been drinking from the sewer. Often, especially if we’re talking about Christians, we’re filled with good things that we make ultimate things. We so love the ordinary rhythms of our lives that we’re full and so don’t develop a hunger for God.
We’re supposed to be homesick for God, waiting for the wedding Jesus described when the groom returns. There will be no fasting on the new earth. We’re meant to be longing: that’s a Christian emotion we should cultivate. Fasting is one of many tools in our armoury, along with feasting and a wonder at the world.
Fasting and Feasting
A last word on this, there’s a time when fasting doesn’t ‘work’—I mean it never ‘works’ it’s a discipline not a meritorious act—and that’s simply when it makes you full. Most likely that’s full of yourself. I’ve been there. It’s easy to get proud about your ability to abstain from food, the iron will you display in choosing to not indulge hunger pangs, the delight with which we remind people that it takes weeks for the average human body to become ‘actually hungry’. That last point is at least roughly true, by the way, but should produce the humility of knowing that I have never in my life been hungry. I’ve never done a long fast, around a week is the most I’ve managed, I have friends who’ve done 40 days without food. It’s astonishing, but not because of their willpower.
The Christian life is supposed to be patterned by fasting and feasting—we’re supposed to fully enjoy and fully abstain. Paradoxically, when looked at the right way fasting is feasting. I’ve tasted something so good I’m willing to give up everything to get it. I choose instead to feast on Christ, to long for the feast at the end of history, and to embrace the difficult emotions associated with waiting.
For we are waiting, friends. There will come a day as the church matures and the earth grows old, when the sun will be torn from the sky and the prince of the air finally deposed. A day when heaven will marry earth, the Christ will marry the Church, and for the first time in our lives we will truly eat.
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