On the Lost Art of Fasting

For many Americans, deep hunger-pangs are a foreign thing, as far removed from us as the earth is from the edge of the Milky Way. We certainly experience hunger, of course, but we quickly appease it before it gets too much of a say in our bodies. We appease it immediately by driving through McDonald’s for a quick burger, or we appease it short-term by organizing an after-work dinner with our friends and family, or we appease it long-term by planning out our meals a week at a time - we’re simply never hungry for long.

On one hand, that is something to be profoundly thankful for, an extraordinarily good gift from a Good Gift Giver. On the other hand, it is something we must pay very close attention to, because if we are not careful, our hearts can take the good gift of Satisfied Hunger and turn it into a false god who will ruin us, who will lead us again and again to a place where we feel entitled to something more lavish than our daily bread, a land of bitterness, a country where we come to despise our loving Father for not giving us what we deem “necessary.”

An Ancient Problem

The Israelites were no stranger to this ruinous god. When they were delivered out of slavery in Egypt, they were led through the wilderness for many years by God himself. He guided them, instructed them, and fed them miraculously with a substance that was called manna. God always, without fail, provided enough manna for all of the people to eat and be satisfied - and in a barren wilderness, no less! But tragically, that miraculous manna eventually proved to be loathsome for the Israelites.

“The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna’” (Numbers 11:4–6)!

God’s people had become so consumed by their cravings, that they lost sight of the truth that mankind does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3). They spurned the One who met all of their needs, and thus spurned their highest good, all because their full stomachs cried out, “We need more!” If we are not watchful, we too will find ourselves turning a good gift into a false god. We must learn to ask ourselves, “How do I avoid turning Satisfied Hunger into a god that is always telling me that the one true God has not provided enough for me - not just with my food, but with everything else he’s given?”

An Ancient Discipline

One way that we can guard against this error is to regularly practice thankfulness and gratitude: it’s much harder to feel unsatisfied because of your Don’t-Haves, if you foster thankfulness for your Do-Haves. But there is another oft-forgotten practice that powerfully guards us from bowing to this false god, one that Christians have been employing for millennia.

Fasting. Particularly from food.

From the earliest days of the church, Christians have fasted in order to devote themselves more fully to God and to remind themselves of their total dependence on him. We see fasting practiced as an act of individual worship (Luke 2:37), as an element of corporate worship (Acts 13:2), and even as a part of commissioning people for church leadership (Acts 14:23).

Why, of all things, fasting? At least in part, when we abstain from food, we allow our growling stomachs to cry out to us - and as we continue to let them cry out, we train our bodies to keep themselves from bowing to every whim of our appetites. I speak primarily of fasting from food, but we can fast from anything that we “consume” or have an appetite for. Paul spoke to those who were married of fasting from sex (1 Corinthians 7:5), and in our time a great deal has been written on fasting from our smartphones or from social media.  

Fasting, like prayer or Bible reading, takes some time to become “proficient” at - especially given that fasting is not something that is practiced within most churches with any semblance of regularity. Perhaps that is because we typically view fasting as an act that’s too radical to routinely incorporate into our worship, but practically speaking, fasting does not always have to be complete and total abstinence from food or consumption (Daniel 1:11-13). We could wean ourselves into this discipline by choosing one day per month to fast, or by setting apart certain hours in the week, or by observing seasons of the church calendar like Lent - whatever will most help us establish a rhythm of allowing our bodies and minds to “want,” and from there allowing that want to recenter our hearts on God.

When we fast, especially in a society as consumer-based as ours, we tell our myriad cravings that they are not our gods and that we will not mindlessly serve them. In this way, we remind ourselves that only Jesus is worthy of total devotion and obedience, that all of our desires are meant ultimately to bring us back to him. Our aim in a fast of any kind is not to put on some show of piety, or to merely afflict ourselves for the sake of afflicting ourselves, but to turn our hunger-pangs into a prayer: "God, keep me satisfied with who you are above all, and show me how to fully enjoy the gifts you give as just that: gifts, not gods."