Fasting is definitely not a ‘glamorous’ topic to write on. It was Richard Foster who wrote that, “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us… We cover up what is inside of us with food and other things.” (Foster, The Celebration of Discipline, p 48) Although this can seem like a boring or even irrelevant topic, could this often-neglected discipline of the Christian life help us in a time of global pandemic?
Our church recently had a season of intentional prayer, meditation and fasting. Now, I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I'm not some super-holy monastic pietist who's always fasting and meditating. I struggle with this just as much as anyone else and it is a discipline I woefully under-utilize. However, our recent season of fasting really helped me in a number of ways spiritually. So, what I offer here are a few thoughts out of that season that I hope will be helpful to some others.
What we are talking about is not the in-vogue weight-loss dietary strategy of intermittent fasting, or the ascetic self-denial of other religions to earn favour with God. It is a purposeful giving up of good and even necessary things temporarily by those who already have God and want more of Him. Christian fasting is simply the self-denial of either a necessity or luxury of life for a time in order to seek God more fully.
Diagnosing the virus
There is an invisible enemy out there, often imperceptible and unavoidable despite our best efforts. It is spread not by physical contact, but by birth in Adam. There is no vaccine and no amount of social distancing can prevent or cure it. We all are infected with the virus of sin, and, like some cases of COVID-19, our symptoms may not all come to the surface immediately.
Some people with eating disorders anesthetize themselves from dealing with the reality of their brokenness by either turning to food (as in gluttony), or away from food (as in anorexia). However, we should not be quick to dismiss this as a problem only held by some few troubled people with a rare syndrome. We all are afflicted by a similar disorder.
Discomforts that Expose Us
We all ease our discomfort by using food, or other pleasures (or vices) to take our minds and eyes off our brokenness, hurts, and issues. This is readily apparent in the current situation we find ourselves in with the COVID-19 pandemic. The startling disruption to our comfortable modern lives and the abrupt derailment of the conveniences of Western society exposed just how unacquainted many of us are with suffering and how contented we were with the status quo.
This was exposed in how quickly some turned to binge watching Netflix, or overstocking and raiding our fridge for the latest fancy of delectable delicacies, or getting lost in virtual worlds until we’ve lost track of what day it is and whether we’re going to bed or getting up with the sunrise. Perhaps for others, it is the countless hours in front of the glow of an endless scroll of news and the latest studies and stats to try to grasp on to some semblance of control that uncovers our self-reliance for future security. I know for me, this was the case. In one way or another, many of us—myself included—find ourselves exposed.
This is why fasting may be a help to us all in these times.
Pull Out the Pacifier
But why voluntarily forfeit more when so much has already been involuntarily taken away from us? Because it takes away the pacifiers of comfort to expose the raw issues beneath – our pride, anxieties, bitterness, jealousy, pain, anger and fear. At first, we may rationalize that our irritability may be due to our hunger, but as we persist while continuing to deny the temporary soothers that would otherwise prevent us from seeing clearly, we realize that there remains much for Christ our Great Healer to cure within us.
Fasting is one of the tools God can use to show us our own sin and brokenness, and moreover our need for Him daily as our Saviour and Sanctifier.
Controlling the Spread
Amidst the current pandemic, we’ve seen the importance of reliable data concerning the spread of the virus in averting potential overload on our medical systems. Sin left unchecked will spread viral as well.
Fasting puts our love for God to the test, not for God's benefit, but our own. Nothing can reveal to ourselves the true colours of our faith more than suffering. Augustine said,
“For the most part, the human mind cannot attain to self-knowledge otherwise than by making trial of its powers through temptation, by some kind of experimental and not merely verbal self-interrogation.”(Augustine, The City of God, 554)
We need an experimental test, not just one of words and hypotheticals.
We can take for granted that we love God unless our love is actually put to the test, until it has passed through the fire. However, in much of our Western society, something which is present in every book of Holy Scripture is conspicuously absent in God’s holy people—suffering.
In our modern Western cultures during this stay-at-home pandemic, what has been revealed in many of our lives is not how much our faith can weather suffering, but rather how much we love our own comfort, control, security and pleasures. Instead of turning to God first in times of distress, we turn to our pacifiers. In this way, God has kindly provided to us an opportunity for the experimental temptation and self-interrogation which Augustine speaks of. The question is, will we take it?
Fasting is very much a journey of self discovery of one's own faith and the good work God has started in us to His glory. It is the ‘testing kit’ for this epidemic within us for which we don’t have to wait on supply chains to provide. It helps to show us how He has changed our will, affections and desires—revealing the true intensity and endurance of our passion for God. On the other hand, it can also help to show us how far we still have yet to go—and this is a good thing!
Dangerous Side-Effect #1: Mere Asceticism
As with all experimental treatments, we must be aware of the side-effects. One should be careful though not to slip into mere asceticism and demonize the good gifts of God. Food and other pleasures in life are meant to magnify the ultimate pleasure which is found in Christ Himself. Jonathan Edwards, speaking about this world's good pleasures says, “These are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean.”
For the Christian, both eating and fasting can be worship. Both can send our hearts—in gratitude and yearning—to the Giver of all good things. Both have their dangers. Piper notes that “The danger of eating is that we fall in love with the gift; the danger of fasting is that we belittle the gift and glory in our willpower.” (Piper, A Hunger for God, p 24) Even Paul says the point isn't in the abstinence from food, but that everything is to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3-4). Augustine summarizes it beautifully when he said,
“He loves Thee too little who loves anything together with Thee which he loves not for Thy sake.” (Augustine, Confessions of St. Augustine, p 54)
Dangerous Side-Effect #2: Self-Focus
Fasting is not an automatic cure-all to sin. It is quite possible to have a self-indulgent or prideful type of fast. In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus instructs his disciples not to fast for the reward of men, but to do so in secret. Foster comments,
“Nothing disciplines the inordinate desires of the flesh like service, and nothing transforms the desires of the flesh like serving in 'hiddenness'. The flesh whines against service but screams against hidden service. It strains and pulls for honour and recognition. It will devise subtle, religiously acceptable means to call attention to the service rendered. If we stoutly refuse to give in to this lust of the flesh, we crucify it. Every time we crucify the flesh, we crucify our pride and arrogance.” (Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p 113-114)
In Isaiah 58, God harshly criticizes a type of fasting that is selfish, harsh, irritable and disregards God’s clear commands to love of neighbour and compassion for the needy. If our fasting doesn’t change our daily lives, God is almost ridiculing it; “Is such the fast that I choose? …Is it to bow down his head like a reed?” (Isaiah 58:5) The fast in Isaiah 58 has a strong missional flavour to it telling us, “if you want to fight sin by taking away meals from yourself, then put those meals in the mouths of the poor.” What might this look like in a time such as ours where many around us find themselves in need?
Authentic fasting includes an attack on our own sin. Fasting is meant to starve sin not us. Therefore, fasting that is not focused on starving the sinful flesh while feasting on God is futile. Likewise, fasting that is only focused on self-discipline and improvement and not also being moved missionally outward is futile as well. Thus, fasting should shift our focus from self, to God and neighbour. This is perhaps much needed in this time where many are focused on self-preservation.
A Longing for Lockdowns to be Lifted
Our present situation has many of us pining for the days when we shall once again be able to move about freely in public without restrictions and social distancing. We long to see and hug our loved ones again, gather with friends and enjoy meals together without heavy-handed government restrictions. However, this longing also points the Christian to a greater longing, for a greater freedom and reunion to come.
John Piper writes, “Christian fasting, at its root, is the hunger of a homesickness of God.” (Piper, A Hunger for God, p 17) Fasting can be an expression that our physical appetites are lost because our longing for being with God is so intense, we almost don't notice their absence. However, the other half is that we recognize that our longing for God is threatened by our physical appetites for worldly pleasures.
Christian fasting can happen in either of these two ways.
So, could fasting cure our virus of sin? Is it our spiritual vaccination to escape the virus of sin?
Nope. Not by a long-shot in an of itself. Only Jesus can and will save us completely from sin’s power, penalty and presence. I have no delusions that fasting would cure every spiritual malady with which we’re ailed. However, I do want to suggest for you to consider whether this discipline may be a helpful tool at this time.
Perhaps in this time of global pandemic, when so many of our modern comforts and conveniences have been taken away, Christians will voluntarily give up more of what they cannot keep to gain that which they cannot lose. Perhaps we will lay hold of the opportunity to unflinchingly take the scalpel to previously undiagnosed cancers of sin that have been revealed through fasting and prayer instead of self-medicating on placebos and pacifiers. Perhaps instead of doing all that we can to avoid and distract ourselves from suffering, we’ll learn that the via doloroso is part of the narrow path to true life. Perhaps God will do a great work in and through many of us to display a Church that does not disappear and shrink back in a time of crisis, but shines forth their love for God and neighbour.
And perhaps, we’ll ask—not IF we’ll fast, but WHEN.
Piper, John., "A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer", Crossway, Wheaton, IL., 1997.
A Guide to Fasting for Beginners (Article on Desiring God)
Sharpen Your Affections with Fasting (Article on Desiring God)