The largest number of calories I have ever consumed in one day was 11,310. The fewest is 0. And you know what? Both days sucked. But, I had very different motivations on both of those days. The former was the result of a room full of college men discussing some “cool ideas” a little too late at night. The latter was an attempt to grow in my relationship with God. But how does that work exactly?
The Bible doesn’t discuss fasting much. At one point, when Jesus brings it up (Matthew 6:16-18), he says to his disciples,“When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face…” When you fast? Not if you fast, but when you fast? Is Jesus assuming that anyone who follows him is going to fast? Does this mean that Jesus expects us to fast? I think so. But that begs the question, what’s the point? I like food! Food is good. Why do I have to starve myself?
Consider this: it is actually possible for good things to hinder our relationship with God. Mark Driscoll describes idols as good things which become God things. So when something, food for example, takes first place in your heart (above God), it becomes an idol. Fasting is one way we can intentionally seek to put God back onto the throne of our heart. Fasting is a way of declaring to our stubborn flesh that food does not own us, God does. In fact, I think fasting can be from more than just food. I believe we can fast from anything that seeks to supplant God from the throne of our hearts.
So when should we fast? And how should we fast? Well, like most things in the Christian life, it depends. But let me suggest the following quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship:
As soon as a Christian recognizes…..that all his joy in God has vanished and that his capacity for prayer has quite gone, it is high time for him to launch an assault upon the flesh, and prepare for better service by fasting and prayer.” What I think Bonhoeffer is saying here is that fasting is a way we can respond to those dry times in our lives that all Christians seem to inevitably experience – a way for us to remind our flesh that God is greater than we are and is what truly sustains us.
When I was younger, I learned to use fasting as a way to prepare for big decisions, or because of its physical/health benefits. I think these (and others) can be legitimate purposes for fasting, but I also think that the purpose of fasting can be as simple as (again from Bonhoeffer) “only so the flesh can learn the painful lesson that it has no rights of its own.” That is a lesson that I am often –scratch that – always in need of learning.
How about you? What are your beliefs and experiences concerning the purpose of fasting?
– Sean McVenes