Should I Fear Fasting?

empty plate with fork and spoon crossed

During the season of Lent, there can be many calls to use fasting as a spiritual discipline.

  • no red meat on fridays
  • stay off social media
  • pick one thing you really love and give it up for the season

In most Christian circles you will rarely hear fasting mentioned, and few will have read anything about it. And yet it’s mentioned in Scripture more times than even something as important as baptism (about seventy-seven times for fasting to seventy-five for baptism).

Donald S. Whitney
“Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life”


 

I was afraid to fast.

I grew up in a home where disordered eating played as a background playlist on loop. To this day, my mother will evaluate my food intake. Anxiety, an honored guest, typically joins my mother and me for every meal we share. Am I eating enough? Have I ordered something that meets her approval? If we go out to a restaurant, I can expect her to suggest I help her eat the food on her plate because surely it is too much for her. I must help finish what she can’t see wasting.

Second, only to my mother’s food anxiety, comes my mother’s health anxiety. Let’s just say, I may have been raised with the idea that my body lacked certain abilities to deal with everyday stresses. My blood sugar was far too unstable. My coordination and physical strength were things I simply couldn’t expect to have. I could easily get hurt doing normal things. So, skipping a meal or two was far too risky. Ironically, it was during a time when I was preparing for surgery that I discovered I could miss a meal or two or three without passing out or experiencing some other dire consequences.

To be clear fasting is not only about giving up food. God may call His followers to give up any number of things. In this piece, I will be focusing on fasting from food, but there are many other ways to fast.

For years, fasting food, as a spiritual discipline, was not available to me.  Recently, God made it clear that He wanted me to learn to trust Him in this area. He gently called me out of a toxic dependence on avoiding fasting out of fear.

Unhooking toxic disordered eating patterns from the invitation to fast from food challenged me to even greater dependence upon God. Asking the Holy Spirit to examine my heart and check my motivations became essential.  I am continuing to disconnect fasting from becoming a weight-loss tool for me. The struggle is indeed real for many believers caught up in diet culture as I was for decades.

“Fasting from any nourishment, activity, involvement or pursuit—for any season—sets the stage for God to appear. Fasting is not a tool to pry wisdom out of God’s hands or to force needed insight about a decision. Fasting is not a tool for gaining discipline or developing piety (whatever that might be). Instead, fasting is the bulimic act of ridding ourselves of our fullness to attune our senses to the mysteries that swirl in and around us.”

Dan B. Allender, PHD

As Dr. Dan Allender explains, what I gained from fasting was an opportunity to attune my heart to God’s heart.  

Saul, David’s mortal enemy, pursued him for decades. In Psalm 35, David cries out to God for help and support.

1 Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me.
2 Take up shield and armor; arise and come to my aid.
3 Brandish spear and javelin against those who pursue me. Say to me, “I am your salvation.”

4 May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin
    be turned back in dismay.
5 May they be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them away;
6 may their path be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.

7 Since they hid their net for me without cause and without cause dug a pit for me,
8 may ruin overtake them by surprise—may the net they hid entangle them, may they fall into the pit, to their ruin.
9 Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord and delight in his salvation.
10 My whole being will exclaim, “Who is like you, Lord? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.”
Psalm 35:1-10 NIV

David found himself fully relying on God’s ability to rescue him. His desperation draws him closer and closer to God.

11 Ruthless witnesses come forward; they question me on things I know nothing about.
12 They repay me evil for good and leave me like one bereaved.
13 Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting. When my prayers returned to me unanswered,
14 I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother. I bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother.
15 But when I stumbled, they gathered in glee; assailants gathered against me without my knowledge. They slandered me without ceasing.
16 Like the ungodly they maliciously mocked; they gnashed their teeth at me.

Psalm 35:11-16 NIV

In verse 13, David talks about how fasting brings about humility and causes a heart shift. Fasting attunes hearts to what God cares about. The enemies remain, and David continues his lament and mourning. However, David feels his heart shift from anger to empathy. He begins to mourn and weep for his enemies. Only God could bring such a change.

While David’s attitude toward his enemies shifts in profound way, his enemies continue along the same path of vengeance. They mock and slander him when he stumbles.

17 How long, Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my precious life from these lions.
18 I will give you thanks in the great assembly; among the throngs I will praise you.
19 Do not let those gloat over me who are my enemies without cause; do not let those who hate me without reason maliciously wink the eye.
20 They do not speak peaceably, but devise false accusations against those who live quietly in the land.
21 They sneer at me and say, “Aha! Aha! With our own eyes we have seen it.”
Psalm 35:17-21 NIV

David’s enemies are relentless in their bad behavior. Somewhere between these verses, David chooses a different response from what surrounds him. He promises to praise God. Even after he declares this he continues to be surrounded by false accusations and sneering. His promise to praise reveals a spark of hope being fanned into a flame of passion.  

22 LORD, you have seen this; do not be silent. Do not be far from me, Lord.
23 Awake, and rise to my defense! Contend for me, my God and Lord.
24 Vindicate me in your righteousness, LORD my God; do not let them gloat over me.
25 Do not let them think, “Aha, just what we wanted!” or say, “We have swallowed him up.”
26 May all who gloat over my distress be put to shame and confusion; may all who exalt themselves over me be clothed with shame and disgrace.
27 May those who delight in my vindication shout for joy and gladness; may they always say, “The LORD be exalted, who delights in the well-being of his servant.”
28 My tongue will proclaim your righteousness, your praises all day long.

Psalm 35:22-28 NIV

David praises God amid pain and offers these praises all day long. In Psalm 35 David moves from lamenting his hopeless situation to proclaiming God’s righteousness and praising Him all day.

Choosing to fast can powerfully propel me into a closeness with God’s heart and His desires for me. In this position of dependence, I become more attuned to what God delights in despite my circumstances. The Lord begins to allow me to catch a glimpse of some of the mysteries that swirl inside. My empathy grows for others and bonds me even more closely with God and His heart for all He created. Fasting is both a tool and a gift from my heavenly father. He knows exactly what I need.

What experience do you have with fasting food as a spiritual tool? What questions do you have about fasting? Have you chosen to fast from something this Lent?

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