FAST FOOD (OR BANQUETING WITH ANGELS)
“Fasting possesses great power and it works glorious things. To fast is to banquet with angels.” Athanasius (4th Century)
In modernity we are blessed with an abundance of food only dreamed of by our ancestors. In fact, we have a variety of food available to us that would put many a former kings’ table to shame. Supermarkets provide us with year round international produce, perfectly prepared and ready to eat, picked and washed, cut and dried, butchered, baked and seasoned. A quick visit to a supermarket web site brought me up 420 results for yoghurt alone! We love our take-aways to be delivered straight to our door and programmes about food: sourcing it, cooking it and eating it, are some of the most popular on TV.
It’s hard to escape from the ubiquity of food and the idea of fasting for spiritual purposes seems oddly out of place in a society that practically worships it. Sure, there are fasting fads that do the rounds from time to time, you know, the one day on-one day off kind, but these are largely focussed on weight loss rather than spirituality.
WHAT IS FASTING?
Fasting is the discipline of denying ourselves the gratifying of a perfectly legitimate physical need or desire for a period of time. Traditionally in Christianity fasting has usually meant abstaining from eating food, or certain types of food, but it can include abstaining from other things too (like TV).
So what’s the benefit of fasting? Well, we all know that governing our physical needs and desires can be challenging. Watch a young child scream when it’s told it can’t have the chocolate bar; that’s what I’m talking about. On a basic level we are all that child and fasting, perhaps more than any other devotion, teaches us to control those desires.
Fasting, when practiced rightly, helps to introduce self-control and humility into other areas of our lives too. True fasting seeks a life governed and filled by God rather than by natural desires and needs.
It’s true that a legalistic approach, or too much emphasis on externals in any spiritual discipline will often make matters worse. You know what I mean; we’re good for a whole week and then have a massive binge to make up for it. But what the true Christian disciplines do, including fasting, is help us to humble ourselves and better position us to receive from the Holy Spirit. We must never see disciplines like fasting as making us good in themselves, but as useful tools that assist us to be teachable and allow the Holy Spirit to do his work.
WHAT DID JESUS SAY ABOUT FASTING?
In Matthew 6 Jesus specifically mentions three personal devotions (charity, prayer and fasting) and gives us helpful instructions on how to approach them. Just as we have not abandoned charity or prayer as normal aspects of the spirit filled life we have no reason to suppose that fasting is no longer of any value. Particularly since Jesus said, “When you fast”, rather than “If you fast”.
Jesus also taught us, much like the personal devotions of charity and prayer, that fasting is to be, as much as possible, a private activity between ourselves and our Heavenly Father:
“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:17-18 NIV
What Jesus promises us is that what is devoted to God in private will be rewarded by God openly. Putting it another way, a personal devotion to God within your heart will manifest as the fruit of the Spirit in the outward expression of your life. Galatians 5:22-23
MYTH BUSTING IDEAS ABOUT FASTING
So let’s just address a few misconceptions about fasting:
1. It will make me into a better person
No, it won’t. In the first instance it will probably make you a worse person! Who wants to be hungry! Grumpy, irritable, self aware, and even worse: smug and self righteous. That’s the work of fasting. Just as it detoxes your liver, so many weaknesses and unpleasant traits will begin to rise to the surface. What you do with these as they emerge dictates whether fasting will be of any benefit. Only recognising and taking these ‘toxins’ to the cross and surrendering them to Jesus will determine whether the Holy Spirit can do his work of deepening your faith and spiritual understanding.
2. I will get ill if I miss a few meals
For anybody who is healthy missing a few meals will not harm your body. In fact, on the contrary, there are many proven health benefits to fasting, for example, ridding the body of toxins.
However, if your doctor has advised you not to skip meals because of some health issues, there are many other forms of fasting available to you.
3. Great – fasting will help me lose weight!
Of course all calorie controlled diets are forms of fasting, but the general medical consensus is that fasting to lose weight is not a good idea and in fact it can do harm. Besides which, we really want to focus on the spiritual with devotional fasting, so let’s not get side tracked by other agendas.
4. I won’t be able to do my job
We all have different circumstances and physical demands when it comes to our occupations and we need to be sensible about what’s the right kind of fast and when is best to do it. For example, If you have a heavy physical job in the construction industry you may put your safety and that of others at risk with a prolonged food fast (say, consuming nothing but fluids for over three days). However, if you job is largely sedentary, reduced food intake should not prevent you from working. The thing is to be realistic and sensible about your needs and circumstances.
However, there is a great variety of types and duration of fasting that can fit your circumstances.
5. Fasting will persuade God to do something for me
In the Christian devotion of fasting we’re not in the business of ‘twisting God’s arm’ to make him do something for us. There is a time and a place for intercession (when we know we can pray confidently in line with God’s will), but with devotional fasting we’re not primarily focussing on this type of activity, but on humbling ourselves before God and allowing him to do his work in our hearts.
A note on eating disorders
And finally, I just want to mention eating disorders such as anorexia nerviosa. I would advise anyone with any kind of diagnosed eating disorder to avoid fasting. Get the ministry, counsel and help you need to get well, and be free from any debilitating eating disorder. You may be able to come back to fasting when you know you’re completely free of any eating disorder problem.
So how do we go about the devotion of fasting? Essentially, it’s not complicated. We decide what kind of fast we want to do, for how long and we get started. It’s important to determine exactly what you are going to fast from and for how long and, this is important, stick to it. Otherwise it’s amazing how easy it is for a fast to get compromised.
As with all the other spiritual devotions absolute secrecy may be a challenge, if not impossible. You’ll probably have to tell those you live with, and maybe even those you work with. Try and keep it on a ‘need to know’ basis, it won’t spoil your fast, God sees your heart.
When you’ve decided on the type of fast you’re going to do (and for beginners I don’t recommend anything longer than one day – in fact perhaps just start off by skipping one meal), begin to anticipate the fast with prayer and thanksgiving. Tell God that you, more than anything, are hungry for more of him in your life.
If you’re missing meals you still need plenty of liquids (food often contains water). Of course drink as much water as you like but also consider adding some fresh fruit juice or some mild herbal tea like camomile (caffeine free) to hot drinks.
Seriously consider cutting out addictive substances such as caffeine, alcohol, chocolate and high sugar drinks/snacks. In fact, just fasting from one of these (if you are a regular consumer) will likely be enough of a fast on its own. However, be aware that if you do this there can be very unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as headaches that may take a few days to pass.
If you’re in a cold climate you may need to wrap up extra warm if you are doing a prolonged food fast.
Another practical aspect of fasting is meal times. For many these are social times around the cooker and the table; times to be with family or friends. It’s perfectly possible to join in these times while fasting, perhaps with a drink.
One unfortunate side effect of fasting is bad breath. This will only be an issue in fasting that lasts 24 hours or longer because the body will begin to detox (a process whereby the body begins to release toxins which have built up over time). The bad breath is caused by these toxins coming out; so it’s all good. Sugar free mints or gum are a good antidote.
When you break your fast have something light and nourishing like vegetable soup and fruit juice. Praise God for his goodness and for the blessing of food and provision.
FASTING: SPIRITUAL PREPARATION
If we’re new to fasting it’s hard not to feel just a little self-righteous if telling others about it… God is revealing our pride already and we havn’t even started yet! Humble yourself and let the Holy Spirit do his work.
One thing you’ll notice pretty quickly is that our days are naturally punctuated by meal times. We talk of ‘lunch break’, but now we’re fasting it’s just an ’empty break’. The obvious way to use these times is in devotional prayer or reading. Prayer and fasting combine together in a very powerful way.
Before fasting you may consider meditating on a particular scripture during the fast. How about Isaiah 58 in which the Lord rebukes Israel for the misunderstanding of fasting:
““Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” Isaiah 58:6 NIV
It’s not that fasting is wrong but that true fasting should bear this kind of fruit.
Fasting, when practiced well also yields times of joy. Times of heightened revelation and union with God. It brings us into a clearer perspective – a ‘God perspective’. We may experience times of deep peace and profound spiritual depth. Fasting can strip away barriers or blockages in our faith life and open up new vistas. Why not journal while you fast; the good the bad and the divine. See what God will reveal and speak into your life.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
If we imagine our life is like a garden and Jesus is our master gardener, when it comes to our soul garden perhaps fasting, more than any of the other disciplines is going to make us face up to the more unpleasant jobs around the garden.
You see, just when we thought the garden was looking lovely and fruitful our Father God is going to put his finger on those areas which we’d rather ignore. He’s going to prune us back so that we can walk in more freedom and revelation of who he is in us, and bear even more fruit. Devotional fasting helps reveal some of these deep seated areas of fear and pride so that the Lord can deal with them. If we allow God to deal with us in these times of secret honesty and vulnerability, we will find that we are able to be more honourable to Jesus in public.
Through fasting we are able to be filled with a deeper reliance on God and walk in a proven trust. It empowers us to live an overcoming life that roots us deeper into the soil of God. A life filled with the abundance of heaven. Isaiah 58 goes on to say:
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
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