Sunday, March 02, 2014

Thoughts about fasting

There are those who fast regularly from certain foods, and those who fast occasionally from all food. I think in the Protestant cultures, fasting itself is suspected as being some kind of odd and unhealthy discipline, or a misguided attempt to earn God's favor. (It's sometimes seen as a doubly-misguided effort, if the ultimate fast that God desires from us is justice.) So is there any value at all in fasting?

The New Testament records that Jesus fasted -- and that while he was fasting, he was tempted. Fasting and temptation generally go together ... but I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself. If there were no value in fasting, Jesus would not have fasted, so we should look deeper there. If there is nothing wrong with food, why give it up? Food is a blessing for which we give thanks -- so why not simply give thanks and never go without?

One valuable thing about fasting is the practice and experience of mastering our appetites. Our body has appetites, and in a healthy person we find healthy appetites. Why set aside a healthy appetite? It helps us to know -- not just in our minds but to know by experience -- that even a healthy appetite which is genuinely necessary for life can be safely set aside for a time. We may fast for a meal, or for a day, and on the next day we find that there was no harm done at all. Our appetites are not eager for us to find out that we can safely ignore them for a time. Our habits feel the threat that we were able to set them aside for a day.

Fasting does bring on temptation. It deliberately challenges our appetites and our habits, and without some practice, those are enough to give us a struggle. We read that when Jesus was tempted during his fast, the first temptation involved feeding himself. If you've never tried fasting, consider it -- and watch how the simple act of considering it causes your mind to fill with thoughts of whether you really need to do so such a thing, whether a little food would be so bad, how there's nothing wrong with food. Do you talk yourself out of it before your appetites have led you to insult some random medievals or Roman Catholics? (And of course there's nothing wrong with food. If it were a bad thing, we shouldn't let ourselves think of it as a sacrifice to give it up for a time. It's a false argument, of the "straw man" type, to say that fasting implies there is something wrong with food.)

We can practice these small and safe tests of our self-control with our desire for food -- an appetite that really is necessary to survival. If we can master ourselves for a time with an appetite that is so very necessary, how much more can we master ourselves with appetites where our personal survival does not depend on them. If we can see there is no harm done to ourselves or our appetite by this exercise in self-control, we will be more willing to restrain ourselves in other things, more able to see the line between what is a healthy appetite, and what is self-indulgence trying to masquerade as health.


Aron Wall said...

I think in a lot of Evangelical cultures, the problem is more a lack of guidance about what to do. Liturgical churches tend to encourage people to fast at particular times and in particular ways.

Few Evangelicals would say that fasting is unbiblical (it obviously isn't), but I think may be a hard practice to get into when you have to start by making some seemingly completely arbitrary decisions, with not much guidance about which decisions are better or worse.

I myself have decided to fast for some part of this Lent season (with a delayed start due to the fact that I'm still recovering from an illness) but I have not yet decided what form it should take. So this is an issue which I am pondering at the moment. If you have any helpful thoughts, they would be welcome.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Aron

Wow, that illness is really hanging on. It's been like a month, hasn't it?

It's perfectly normal for fasting to take into account somebody's current health. For instance, pregnant women, young children, or anyone who is struggling with an illness (cough Aron cough) would have a modified fast even in cultures that expect food-abstinence from a fast.

If you've never done a "food fast" I'd recommend having done that at least sometimes. It's an eye-opener about how much the appetites and habits are used to calling the shots. You might want to do something simple like the Catholic's traditional "Meatless Fridays" fast, if you want the experience of fasting without any added complications to your physical recovery. If you're not a vegetarian already, you'll get plenty of practice struggling with wants and habits, but without any hit to your health. (For some reason many protestants do Wednesdays instead of Fridays. I find Wednesdays easier for that kind of thing myself since I have a Friday night routine different from other nights already.)

If "food fast" isn't what you had in mind, consider your spiritual needs -- or, I consider my habitual sins really. Some years I give up arguments and controversies for Lent -- including on-line ones. :) One year I gave up sarcasm ... there's been a lot of variety.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Btw if you ever go for a 24-hour fast (after your health is better), there's a lot to be said for counting the days as sundown-to-sundown. It's natural, it's traditional, and there's less of a health hit / disruption than counting the days some other way. If you have a nice big dinner before sundown the first night, your sleep doesn't get disrupted at all. Also 24-hour fasts are traditionally done when someone has the day off (holiday as opposed to work or school) on the daytime part of the fast.

Some people like to combine that kind of fast with a vigil, retreat, special study, etc. Reading through devotional materials can work for that.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Aron Wall said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I've done vegetarian days before, but I've never done a fast from all food before. As you say, this is not the best time to start with the latter.

My illness (I think it was a flu) was indeed tenacious---I stayed home from work for 3 weeks---but for the past week or so I've been feeling well in most respects. The remaining problem is that there is a bit of a residual cough. Let me reassure you that I wasn't planning to start any serious fasts until my health is back. That's why I haven't started anything yet.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. Interesting, and useful, as always.