If self-denial was sold in a prescription bottle, the label would list a few side effects: May cause indulgence-withdrawals resulting in irritability, irrational claims, selfish demands, screaming outbursts and violent attacks of Wal-Mart cashiers accompanied by screams of “That’s not FAIR!” Particularly dangerous when combined with social interaction or breathing oxygen.
Self-denial isn’t sold in pill-form but it does come in various other forms, one of which is fasting. If you’re not a Sunday school scholar, fasting may seem to belong to the strange and mysterious land of weird Church things. Even if you did grow up in Church, it is very likely you’ve never fasted anything or understood why anyone does. Let’s explore a mini-theology lesson to understand the what and why of fasting before we jump into some practicals of how to do it.
Let’s start with a definition.
Fasting is denying yourself something for a period of time.
Most typically, it is giving up food. You can also fast television, the Internet, MySpace, fiction novels, chocolate, sports or your favorite pair of jeans. Anything that you would potentially miss is fastable (I just invented that word). However, if you absolutely hate liver and onions, then fasting that probably doesn’t count as self-denial. Deciding what to fast depends a lot upon the nature and purpose of that particular fast.
So now we know the what, what about the why.
Fasting is about setting a time apart for God to seek Him.
Our sinful nature tends to get really noisy and demanding when we are feeding it a lot (similar to a 2-year-old child) so our spiritual side is the quiet kid that often gets drowned out. Fasting is starving (sometimes literally) that sinful “gimme” nature so that we can feed our spirit and be more sensitive to the voice of God. From the Bible, we understand that from Jesus down, fasting was important in times of hearing from God and getting close to Him. (Matthew 4:2).
Fasting changes us so that we are less distracted, less caught up in earthly things and more ready to be with our God.
It’s not that our desire for food is keeping us from God, but sometimes the physical hunger can lead us to spiritual hunger. Particularly if we are accustomed to giving ourselves whatever we want. It is dying to ourselves so that we can be more alive in Christ. We can’t “earn” anything with God, and the ascetic monk practices of the Middle Ages were based on the wrong belief that we have to punish ourselves in order to be forgiven by God. That’s not why we fast. We fast out of obedience and a heart of love for the Lord, knowing He already loves us and forgives us.
There are several specific times that you may feel led and decide to fast:
– When you need a breakthrough spiritually. To get out of complacency and apathy (Isaiah 58).
– When you’re making a decision and want to hear from God (Esther 4:16).
– Times of beginning new things (Acts 14:23).
– Times of need (Acts 13:3).
– When a corporate or group fast is called by your spiritual leader to jointly seek God (Joel 1:14).
Understanding a little bit of the what and why leads us to the how. The first question is “how long.” This really is a personal decision between you and God. As a spiritually ambitious 12-year-old, my very first fast was 20 days of no food before I went on a missions trip. I always was an all-or-nothing person. Do not try this at home, kids. Most people start with a meal or two. Daniel fasted certain types of food so it’s OK to do that as well (Isaiah 58:4). If you’re worried about weight loss distracting you from true motives, you should know fasting is not the fastest way to lose weight. In fact, because of the way your body processes calories when it is in “fasting” mode, you would be a lot more likely to lose weight if you kept eating but on a strict diet.
Most of the time, you’ll set how long the fast is before you begin. If not, then at least you’ll have some sort of “cut off” date that you know is the longest you can safely physically fast food. Everyone should potentially talk to a physician if they are considering a fast longer than a week, depending on your health. If you’re fasting something besides food, it can be as long as you feel led or until you feel a change in your heart. If it’s MySpace, I heartily recommend a life-long fast. But that’s just my opinion.
The practical realities of fasting food
This is where the screaming fits in Wal-Mart enter the picture. Isaiah notes that it’s a bad sign when, “Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.” I can definitely relate to this. When I first started fasting, I did not recognize that there are physical realities that accompany the spiritual denial. As a 12-year-old, I was shocked to discover that instead of becoming all spiritual and pious, I was more irritable with my family than ever! If you allow your blood sugar and calorie intake to drop, crankiness is a natural result. All of a sudden everything is a major emotional crisis and instead of being more spiritual, you’re being dragged off in handcuffs for assaulting a stranger. So how do we avoid long criminal records being a mark of our spiritual devotion?
The first practical reality is that if it is an extended fast from food, you need to drink a lot of liquids. Juice, smoothies and water until you have to visit a restroom every 15 minutes (another side effect of not consuming solid foods). I do protein water, fruit and yogurt smoothies, tons of juices and most importantly, lots of water. Coke doesn’t count since caffeine dehydrates you. These are not compromises of your fast; they are dealing with the fact that your body needs some nutrition so that you don’t get sick. If you’re fasting one meal, you probably don’t need 16 milkshakes, but if you’re fasting longer than that, you better hope you’re not lactose intolerant!
The second practical consideration is relationships. If you’re fasting an extended period of time and your relationship time is often at meals, you should consider going to meals even if you are not eating. In my family, the only time we are all together is once or twice a week at dinner. In college, my time to build relationships with friends and have a social life outside of school and work was at lunch. Therefore, I made a decision to go anyway, bring my juice, ignore the food and participate in the conversation. This may sound like torture (and it can be!) but it means you are making sure your heart is in the right place and you are gaining, not losing, spiritually. This doesn’t mean you don’t skip lunch one day to go spend time with God instead, but don’t completely disappear from the relationships in your life for a long time. Keep in mind we should not be all somber and depressed during a fast, and we don’t need to advertise to everyone we’re fasting or complain about it. Our spiritual leaders should know, and we should intentionally be joyful and have loving attitudes toward those around us, even when we feel cranky. Jesus tells us to be joyful when fasting (Matthew 6:16). That can be difficult, but do it anyway. It’s part of the self-denial: denying yourself food and the right to get angry at the cashier.
The third practical is to always be willing to cut a fast short if it becomes necessary. Don’t become religious or ritualistic about it. If you are fasting every Friday but this Friday is a big family event that revolves around food, it’s OK to cancel. If you start a fast for a week but on day three you are really getting sick, eat a healthy meal and see if you feel better. God’s not waiting to punish you for failing, so don’t have that attitude with yourself. Be flexible to see how your body responds and while being extremely hungry is not a reason to eat (good news is, you get less hungry after the first couple days) don’t let yourself get sick.
Finally, regardless of what kind of fast you are doing, constantly do heart checks. If you are too busy to make any time for God, and you don’t slow down at all during your fast, then it will just be going through the motions. If you take the time you would have spent in front of television and spent it on the Internet, it is unlikely you’ll be more sensitive to God’s heart. Make Him your priority during this time. Usually, it is easy to get into His presence when we are in the midst of a fast. We call, and He does answer. Remember fasting does not bring you closer to the free gift of salvation, so this is not about “earning” anything. This is simply about setting aside other things in order to become closer to your God.
In Isaiah 58, God gives us a promise about His response to our sincere fasting: “Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I … The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land” (TNIV).