Monday, January 18, 2010

Challenges of Fasting

Of all the spiritual disciplines, fasting must certainly be the most difficult and challenging. The other disciplines face their challenges, for sure. Bible reading faces the challenge of our busyness and distraction, prayer the challenge of our self-sufficiency. In my desire to add to my life fasting as a spiritual discipline, I knew it would be difficult. Being hungry is no fun. This particular desire (need) of the flesh is powerful. Controlling the craving for food when it is right there in the refrigerator or cupboard places high demands on your self-control. It does remind you to ask God for help, however. It also reminds you to pray about other things.

I was surprised, however, to find that experiencing hunger was actually the easiest part of fasting (at least at the level I’ve so far practiced). I found a much greater challenge to fasting than hunger. In fact, two challenges. The first is similar to the challenge to the other spiritual disciplines: our busy lifestyle. It is hard to fast when you are busy with so many other things. It takes energy to maintain a busy life. Besides, if we are so busy that we have little time to pray, read and meditate on Scripture, or worship God fasting kind of loses some of its purpose. I’m not suggesting you cannot fast while you are busy serving God and living life. On the contrary, Jesus suggested that when you fast you should go about your daily business as if everything was normal, so that no one would know you are fasting (Mt 6.16-18). Nonetheless, biblical references to fasting are most often connected with prayer, suggesting that there ought to be some quiet time associated with fasting.

The greatest challenge I found to fasting, however, was neither the hunger nor the busyness, but simply being around other people who are not fasting. I’m not referring to the torment of watching them eat while you abstain. That might be difficult. But rather, it is the desire to be sociable that sometimes makes fasting difficult. Eating with others is a way of showing love, building bonds of friendship, sharing intimacy, or simply being courteous. If my wife is having a meal, I want to have it with her. Perhaps this is a good reason for husbands and wives to fast together. But if you spend much time with people, fasting can be hard. Perhaps this is one reason Jesus and his disciples did not practice fasting during Jesus’ earthly ministry. He was always with people—eating with the tax-gatherers and sinners, eating with his disciples, going to banquets—so much so that they called him a glutton and drunkard (Mt 11.19). These were false charges, of course. But they were based on the fact that Jesus was always sharing meals with people. To be alone he had to go up on a mountain and spend the night. Perhaps this explains why fasting is often associated with monasteries and the lifestyle of a monk. It is inconvenient and perhaps even rude to fast when you are around others.

This latter challenge is not necessarily bad. On the contrary, Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Lk 19.10), and that’s how he spent his time. We are to be about the same business. But the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it was in the midst of fasting that the Holy Spirit revealed to the Christians in Antioch to send some of them out to seek the lost (Acts 13.1-3). Perhaps we would seek and save more lost souls if we spent a little time in fasting and praying about it.