Jan 26, 2015

More than Food (Part II)

by Derek Spink

“In a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of place and out of step with the times.” - Richard Foster

Many people in both the sacred and secular communities may be confused by why Christians would fast, what fasting is, and what fasting is not.  Let’s look at a quick breakdown of these questions:

Why fast?
-          To enjoy intimacy with the presence of Jesus today (Mark 2:19-20)
-          Jesus modeled it (Matthew 4:2)
-          A long history to stand on (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23, plus the Patristics and later spiritual giants)
-          For physical health (even secular physicians commend its benefits)
-          For spiritual breakthrough (I Corinthians 6:12; 9:27; “When you take control of your physical appetite, you develop strength to take control of your other appetites.” – Elmer Towns)
-          For the benefit others (we intercede on others’ behalf—Ezra 8:21, and our deprivation develops within us a new, acute awareness for others’ needs and hurts to which we can respond tangibly)

What is fasting?
-          An act of worship (Luke 2:36-37)
-          An act of humility (John 4:32; we place ourselves in a vulnerable position before God, trusting he will nourish us with spiritual food)
-          A gift from God to strengthen our spiritual vitality and victory
-          An opportunity for us to become more attentive to God (we recognize our inadequacies and his adequacy)

What is fasting not?
-          A legalistic adherence to ritual (Isaiah 58:3-5)
-          A way of ‘fixing’ problems in my life or convincing God (God will not be manipulated or cajoled)
-          A way to demonstrate piety/spirituality (not a public exhibition, as Jesus taught in Matthew 6)
-          Mandatory/compulsory (especially for salvation)

Having a healthier understanding of those basics, we can now embrace two natural questions as follow-up:

What is a proper fast?
Biblically, we have no specific guidelines as to what a ‘proper fast’ should look like, which makes sense because we see such a variety of fasts throughout scripture, each it seems with their own purpose.  Jesus gave only one qualifier/rule for his followers: Don’t be like the Pharisees.  In other words, don’t do it for show; don’t just put on a false spiritual veneer.  Do it unto God, not to impress others.  For both prayer and fasting, Jesus instructs us not to make a scene (Matthew 6:5-6, 16-18).

How can I fast?
-          A ‘normal’ fast—no food; just water/juice
-          An ‘absolute’ fast—nothing ingested at all; intended to be short-term, very serious health risks possible
-          A ‘partial’ fast—certain foods or certain times of day
-          A ‘non-food’ fast—giving up time with Facebook, TV, other habits, etc.

Remember: whether we forego food or entertainment, we must replace it with something else.  So, instead of eating or playing a game or following social media, we spend time in prayer/meditation, scripture reading, or even serving the needs of others.

Food fasts are not for everyone.  Depriving the body of food for any extended period can have serious health risks for some people (e.g., expectant mothers, those with diabetes, or others with a medical history).  If that is you, then you should consult with your doctor before beginning a food-fast.  Even though fasting is healthful to many, God’s nature and character would never command a physical exercise that would harm people either physically or emotionally.  But, even if you are one for whom fasting may not be physically possible, you can still enter into the spirit of fasting even while remaining on your essential diets (as evidenced by the various types of fasts described above).

Jan 12, 2015

More than Food (Part 1)

by Derek Spink

“In a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of place and out of step with the times.” - Richard Foster

Online and within churches, you can find people asking why Christians don’t seem to fast anymore (not a new question, by the way…although the motivation behind it is different now than in Jesus’ day—see Matthew 9/Mark 2/Luke 5). Richard Foster, in his Celebration of Discipline, argued that fasting appears to be a lost discipline. According to Foster, there are two culprits:

1. Feel-good religion We simply don’t want to be bothered with talk of self-denial or sacrifice. Our ‘get-all’ social mentality has convinced us that we are entitled to satisfying our urges—whether related to food, sexuality, money, etc. This consumerist mindset has also taken over our spiritual disciplines to such a degree that even in church circles we become focused, for example, on evangelism and outreach (and rightly so—that was Jesus’ model and command), yet we can forget the spiritual factors behind church growth. Slick marketing campaigns may have their place, but we mustn’t forget what Jesus said to his disciples—their greatest work could only be accomplished by their constant connection to God (along with, in some translations, its companion: fasting {Mark 9:29}). Self-denial has lost its place in many current church circles.

2. Misuse History, unfortunately, demonstrates an oft-wrong example. We have an image of monks and others who have ventured into unbalanced emphasis here. Gnosticism is a heresy that arose in the early days of the Christian church that separated physical matter from the spiritual realities. As a result, the body and all things physical were evil, which led to people living all kinds of licentious lifestyles; for, if the body was evil, it didn’t matter what I did with my body. As a result, some monks and mystics fell into a trap, and by their extreme fasting, they were saying, “Look, I’m not giving in to the evil, fleshly, material world!” What resulted was a misguided approach, completely unbiblical in thinking and completely unbalanced in practice. Self-flagellation/mutilation developed (even if unintentionally) into works-righteousness, attempting to earn God’s blessings and favour. We still see its residual effects on perceptions of fasting today (maybe most significantly during Lent).

Fasting Today

In 2012, a posting on an internet forum in the UK asked the question, “Why don’t Christians fast?” A “liked” response from the group was, “Because there’s food to eat. These age-old traditions came from practicality as much as anything else. Fasting is a good way to save food if there is little to eat.” While this is likely not the reason behind many Christians’ lack of practicing the fasting discipline, the reality remains that many in our churches don’t understand the importance of fasting for their spiritual lives. Many people are confused by why Christians would fast, what fasting is, and what fasting is not. Stay tuned for Part II where we will look at a quick breakdown of these questions and more!

Do you agree with Richard Foster’s assessment that fasting seems to be a lost discipline for Christians? Please feel free to take a moment and share your thoughts.