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Fasting and the Spiritual Dimension of Food

Sometimes one’s teaching has more of an impact than anticipated, and the results may be a little dismaying.  Let me tell you what happened this past couple of weeks.

fasting3A couple of weeks ago, to mark the beginning of Lent, I gave a talk on fasting to our community at The Well.  I spoke about how fasting in the Scripture was always about food, and not just about general self-denial, or giving up pet sins like gossip.  Fasting in the Bible was also not just for seriously holy people or those possessed of an ascetic calling and propensity, but for everybody.  (We noted that Jesus says in Matthew 6, “When you fast…”, not, “If you fast…”)

I think that for me in researching this topic, this was the most surprising aspect.   I too had always considered fasting as something mostly super-spiritual people or monks do on a regular basis.  As I began to see that in fact fasting is a rather commonplace spiritual practice in Scripture, my heroic renunciation of sugar in my tea during the last few seasons of Lent began to seem a little insipid and perhaps embarrassing.  (But perhaps one should not be embarrassed about small beginnings…)

So why should fasting be normal, when it is so evidently not normal to go without one of our most basic necessities – one that God has provided for us in so many ways?  After all, as Ephesians 5:29 points out, “No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it” (NASB).

The fact is that food has a spiritual dimension in our lives that is often overlooked.  It is expressive not only of our most basic need for sustenance, but of pleasure, and of community (as we most satisfyingly eat in company).  Therefore, when we voluntarily renounce food, we are demonstrating that:

  • There is a deeper need still, which mere food could never meet, that is met only in God himself;
  • There is a higher source of pleasure than in all food’s myriad flavors, that is found in tasting the goodness of God (Psalm 34:8);
  • There is a foundational sense of communion with our Maker that sets the scene for any fellowship we might have with others.

In denying this most basic need for food, we acknowledge that God is really our most basic need, and the source of provision for all of our other needs.  This is why fasting from gossip or some other pet sin is not really a fast – it is letting go something that is bad for us, and not a need.  (This should be called obedience, not fasting!)  But it is also why it might be appropriate to fast from things that feel like they have become necessary to our lives and well-being, like technology or TV or even sugar in the tea.  (Maybe one day I’ll even fast from tea itself…?)

Not to eat is disruptive of the natural order of our lives.  Fasting is meant to be a disrupter of the normal, and an expression of times when disruption has occurred, as when Esther fasted over her mission to save her people.  But it is also a prophetic sign of hope that the Source of all needs is himself all we need in the midst of the disruption.  We fast not only because we long for restoration, but because we are assured that it will come.*

We fast because we look forward to feasting.   With gratitude and joy.  In His presence.

At the end of my talk, I gave people the opportunity to think about how they might fast in the season of Lent, how they might use fasting to facilitate their communion with God and express their dependence on him.

Then, the very next weekend, I threw a 50th birthday party for my husband.  The dismay referred to above came into play as various guests responded like this:

  • “No thanks, no champagne for me – I’m fasting from alcohol.”
  • “I won’t take any cake – I’m fasting from dessert.”
  • “Do you have a vegetarian/vegan option? I’m fasting from meat.”

To my chagrin, almost all of our community had taken the challenge seriously!  Something I hadn’t taken into account when planning a feast during Lent…

So what about you – what part does fasting play in this season?  In your life?

*I found the following resource very insightful and helpful in all of this: Christian Fasting: A Theological Approach by Kent Berghuis.  

Categories: Practical Theology

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shanonio

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