Fasting, for me, started taking on some real meaning in a bookstore.
It would be a much better story if this bookstore was one of those big chain stores, you know, with the food counter and the coffee drinks, but no. This bookstore was the kind rented in a small space of a retail complex that can’t get enough tenants, and all they have are printer’s over-runs. From day to day, it’s a different place.
My girlfriend and I wandered in, and before long I was in the religion section. Great authors were on every shelf, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley and Norman Mailer. Norman Mailer?
Apparently, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author wrote a novel about the life of Jesus. He paints a picture of God’s Son struggling with all the things you would expect, (some very familiar and personal ground covered) including whether or not He’s actually the Son of God, how to treat Mary his earthly mother, and what to do when the disciples don’t listen. But one idea really struck me right over the head (or should I say, in the stomach).
[THE EMPTINESS OF FASTING]
In his book, The Gospel According to the Son (Random House), Mailer says Satan hates emptiness. During the temptation of Jesus, Mailer pictures Jesus emptying Himself of all connection to the world, just as His body has emptied itself of all food during his 40 day fast. Satan jumped right in and tried to fill that emptiness. You know the story (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13), Jesus was hungry and the Devil tried without success to get Him to turn stones into bread.
Not to be thrown off, Satan tried to appeal to Jesus’ vanity and said, “I’ll make you the ruler over all that you see if you worship me.” There’s that emptiness again, but Jesus didn’t bite, and wasn’t susceptible to any of the world’s tricks. The Devil tried to convince Him he was the one who could set Jesus up as the leader of the world. Just worship me, the Devil said. Just worship me.
But Jesus’ emptiness was filled another way: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
One more try … How about you throw yourself off the temple and let the angels come and rescue you? Jesus says, “No thanks, I’m not going to test God.” Satan gives up, and soon the angels are ministering to Jesus, and nursing Him back to full strength. But for me, the idea of Jesus emptying Himself by fasting was a new concept.
Obedience to God is in what we don’t do as well as what we do? Definitely, and fasting is one way to increase our reliance on God and what God does for His people.
Strictly defined, fasting is the avoidance of solid food and the ingestion of only liquids, but a true fast is not eating or drinking anything. As much as the next guy, I know that a delicious meal can be a truly religious experience, but evidently, the avoidance of one can be too.
The alternative medicine community supports any number of reasons to fast, it helps with digestive disorders, weight loss, cold and fever, but the most common benefit is internal cleansing. Fasting is a naturally occurring process, as indicated by the body’s response to illness (you usually lose your appetite first thing, right?). In fact, in nature, animals of all sizes fast instinctively.
The Desert Fathers embraced fasting as an important discipline of faith, as did Luther, Calvin and Wesley. The Bible has a bunch of examples from Moses, Elijah, David, Ezra, Daniel and Isaiah in the Old Testament to Jesus, Paul and Anna, the woman in the temple who saw Jesus as a baby in the New. But what about today? Is God asking us, you and me, to fast?
Plenty of medical research has been done on the benefits of fasting, mostly centering on the body’s natural ability to detoxify itself. While I don’t want to go all science class on you, you should know a couple things about what your body is actually doing.
If you don’t eat, your digestive system (mostly the stomach, intestines and liver) gets some time off. In order for your body to be at its most efficient, the digestive system needs to eliminate some substances and produce others, and that’s a never-ending process. The key to a fast is that the liver can play catch up, and give your stomach and intestines a thorough cleaning, breaking down all the chemicals you’ve eaten that it hasn’t had time to clear out. The same goes for your blood and lymph. This is why a lot of fasters have a noticeable brightening of the skin, and an enhanced feeling of well being.
A thorough, cleansing fast can be accomplished several ways, but the medically safest is a juice fast, where no solid food is eaten, but throughout the day the faster drinks eight to 12 glasses of fruit or vegetable juice. The juice contains glucose, which is critical to high-level brain function. The sugar also offsets protein loss in the body (yes, we would basically feed on our muscles if we went without food long enough). Eldon Haas, M.D., the author of Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine (Celestial Arts), advises checking the tongue as a guide to the body’s detox process: “With fasting, the tongue usually becomes coated with a white, yellow, or gray film. This represents the body’s cleansing, and it will usually clear when the detox cycle is complete.”
The key word there is usually. Checking the tongue is not foolproof, according to Haas. And fasting is not without medical risks; negative effects on the menstrual cycle, heart rhythm and biochemical values have been recorded. No fast of longer than three days should be undertaken without medical supervision from a doctor or other qualified person.
The medical benefits of a fast can be maximized without actually having to go without food. A consistent meal schedule is an equally important factor in maintaining a healthy toxin level, which means that midnight fast food run is about the worst thing you can do for your digestive system. Here’s the ideal day, from a digestive point of view: Don’t eat before going to bed, in fact try to get 12-14 hours of fast, including sleep. In the morning, get up hungry, drink a glass or two of water, exercise, then have some breakfast. Have a well-chosen lunch and dinner (remember the four food groups?), and then repeat. If 12-14 hours seems like a long time, remember where the first meal of the day got it’s name: breakfast, break fast, breaking the fast … and you need a little time to go by before it’s actually a fast, don’t you?
Plenty of websites are out there for info if you want to fast for heath reasons. Look for an endorsement by a reputable medical association or consult a doctor you trust for safe guidelines. Not all doctors are down, so you may need to try a couple, especially if you want to extend your fast beyond a day or two.
But many medical voices are describing a link between physical and spiritual health. Gabriel Cousens, M.D. describes the interconnection in Spiritual Nutrition and the Rainbow Diet (Cassandra Pr): “Fasting in a larger context, means to abstain from that which is toxic to mind, body, and soul. A way to understand this is that fasting is the elimination of physical, emotional, and mental toxins from our organism, rather than simply cutting down on or stopping food intake… It can mean complete silence and social isolation during the fast which can be a great revival to those of us who have been putting our energy outward.”
Both Cousens and Haas describe a link between the renewal of fasting and a tendency to make large-scale life changes. Haas: “Divorce, job changes, and moves are all more likely after fasts, because fasting often stimulates self-realization and change, enhances our potential, and leads us to focus on where we are going, rather than where we have been … In this way, fasting helps us follow our true nature.”
That stands in direct opposition to one of the spiritual foundations of the fast: Fasting brings us closer to God’s true nature, and shows us just where our nature is lacking. Romans 14:17 says, “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” And that’s just it, when we fast for spiritual reasons; we listen to the bidding of the Holy Spirit. We don’t just decide to fast, at least not without it being suggested to us.
Once that decision is made, the fast should remain a very personal decision. Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 6:16-18 to keep the fast between God and them. I’m paraphrasing now, but you’ll get the idea: “Keep yourself cleaned up, inside and out, so that only God knows what you’re doing. That way it glorifies God, and not you.”
That basic idea of obedience is at the center of the fast. It’s easy to forget everything we have is God’s and the only reason any of our stuff is in our temporary possession is to honor Him. Are we fasting to glorify God? Did the fast start because we were out of groceries (I’ve done this one … it never works) or because the Holy Spirit suggested this was the best way for us to glorify God at this point in our life?
I keep coming back to Isaiah 55:8, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. That’s for sure, fasting is a bit of a strange idea, very counter to the ways of the world: We weaken ourselves without any food, in order for God to build us back up. But just like the physiological ideas, we get the bad out of us so that the good can be in control. By becoming weak, we are made strong. It’s all about putting God’s plans above ours, seeking God’s face instead of our own, even in weakness. How’s that for a biblical principle? Paul knew it, “For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses … for when I am weak, I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
[MAXIMIZE THE EFFECTS]
Okay, so we’re weak when we fast. How do we maximize the spiritual effectiveness of our weakness? Both the Old and the New Testaments link prayer and fasting. (See Daniel 9:3, Luke 2:37, Acts 10:30 and 14:23, and 1 Corinthians 7:5). Studying the Word is also tied in, (See Nehemiah 9:1-3, Mark 9:29) as well as listening to the Holy Spirit about when to stop.
Two ends to a fasts are most common, God gives what is being prayed for (like Hannah praying for a son in 1 Samuel 1:6-8, 17-18 and Paul praying for his sight to be returned in Acts 9:9, 17-19) or God makes it clear that He will not be answer the way the pray-er hoped (like David praying about the child in Bathsheba’s womb in 2 Samuel 12:15-23).
But if you look at those references, as soon as the prayer is answered (either way), Hannah and her husband, Paul, and David all commit to worship. And that is the defining moment of a fast. Worship throughout and immediately after a fast ensures maximum impact, and lessens the strength of the Devil’s temptations. Which are definitely going to come when your faith is attacked during your period of weakness.
Bill Bright, the author of several books on prayer and fasting, writes, “As you enter this time of heightened spiritual devotion, be aware that Satan will do everything he can to pull you away from your prayer and Bible reading time. When you feel the enemy trying to discourage you, immediately go to God in prayer and ask Him to strengthen your resolve in the face of difficulties and temptations.”
Bright continues, “The enemy makes you a target because he knows that fasting is the most powerful of all Christian disciplines and that God may have something very special to show you as you wait upon Him and seek His face. Satan does not want you to grow in your faith, and will do anything from making you hungry and grumpy to bringing up trouble in your family or at work to stop you. Make prayer your shield against such attacks.”
And that’s the root of fasting: getting Satan out of some parts of your life and your identity. Isaiah 58:6 describes fasting as the way God “looses the chains of injustice, unties the cords of the yoke, sets the oppressed free, and breaks every yoke.” So again, out with the bad, and in with the Good. Capital “G” Good.
So should you fast? Depends. Are you cleaning your body? Or your soul? Check your motivation, and confirm it with the Holy Spirit. Pay attention to the details. Be prepared for where it might lead you, chances are it’s not where you’re planning to go. But it will be where God’s planning for you to go. What could be better than that?
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