By Bill Tenny-Brittian
Of all the spiritual disciplines, undoubtedly the most underused and is fasting. I’ll be honest, fasting isn’t one of my “favorite” spiritual disciplines. On the other hand, it has been one of the most powerful spiritual habits I’ve picked up over the years.
There are a couple of traditional reasons for fasting. Initially, fasting was a sign of sorrow. This may have started when someone noticed that people sometimes lose their appetites when they experience grief, so fasting became a sign or a ritual that indicated sorrow. After the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, fasting became an act whereby a Christian could, in some way, share in the suffering that Jesus endured on the cross – fasting became a way to make a connection with Jesus in concrete ways. Others practiced fasting as an indication of repentance or as penance (self-punishment) for their sins. Later, Christians began to fast as a spiritual habit specifically to “tune in” so they could hear from God.
Of course, all of these reasons are valid today. However, the underlying reasoning for all of these fasts is to make a connection with the Divine through time given to prayer.
Fasting for Real People
There are a number of different ways to practice the spiritual habit of fasting. How you fast primarily depends on what you’re planning on giving-up and for how long. However, regardless of which fast you decide to practice, your time should begin with centering prayer and move from there. Whether you’re fasting for an hour or for a week, be intentional during the fast about connecting and reconnecting with the Divine. It’s only by practicing a fast and making the effort to connect with God that our spiritual transformer will generate more energy.
We’ll look at several different kinds of fasts. First, we’ll explore the two kinds of fasts found in the Bible, and then look at a few contemporary fasts that are especially meaningful today.
Abstaining from food (or beverages) is the most commonly practiced fast. Exactly how you do it depends on how long you intend to not eat. If you’ve never fasted before, I don’t suggest fasting for any longer than three days, and you should probably start with a one-day fast. However, you can even start the spiritual habit of fasting by giving-up one meal rather than all of your daily means and snacks. You can also fast by giving-up a some sort of food, such as meat, alcohol, soda, chocolate, and so on (note: giving-up spinach or broccoli might not count as a sacrificial act!).
To fast for a brief period of time, simply make a commitment not to eat for some period of time. Now, most busy people will have no trouble finding something “important” to do to fill up the time they would otherwise be eathing. However, resist the temptation to read another report or make another phone call during your “lunch” break. Instead, devote that time to prayer or to one of the other spiritual habits such as study or intentional worship.
If you’ve opted to fast from a particular food, you may not have that extra ten minutes that you’d have had if you skipped lunch (short lunches are an unfortunate reality for many too-busy people). However, to use this fast as a connection to the Divine Power Grid, whenever you would have indulged yourself, take a few moments, however brief they may be, to practice a centering prayer and remind both yourself and God that you’ve given up this indulgence as an offering to the Divine. The point is not to bask in an attitude of self-acclamation, but of humble quiet – after all, this (or any sacrifice we might make) isn’t really all that much of a sacrifice when compared to the cross. Again, this whole offering might only last ten or fifteen seconds, but humbly and honestly making any sacrifice in the name of the Lord is a pleasing and acceptable gift.
If you decide to practice a full fast, that is, if you give-up all foods, increase your intake of water or other liquids in order to stave off dehydration, since food provides much of our hydration needs. On the other hand, if you choose to fast for a longer period of time, say three or more days, add fruit and vegetable juices to your liquid intake. Again, as you fast, spend the time you would otherwise be eating in prayer or another spiritual habit – and make sure you’re listening to hear the voice of God.
The second biblically mentioned fast is a fast from sexual intimacy. This fast is limited to married couples – abstinence is the expectation for all other Practicing Christians. Paul wrote of this kind of fast when he addressed the church in Corinth. He wrote:
Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self–control. (1 Corinthians 7:1–5 NIV)
Notice the scope of this fast – it is limited in time, mutually agreed upon, and for the purpose of prayer. It is inappropriate to impose this fast on their spouse.
Abstaining from food and intimacy are the two traditional fasts recorded in the Bible; however, a variety of others have since been introduced and adopted. In ancient times, abstaining from food and intimacy served to heighten their awareness on the Presence of the Holy – food and intimacy were the two main “luxuries” in the average person’s life. For most of us in North America, food is almost an afterthought (unless we’re have food addictions). Though giving-up food is undoubtedly a real sacrifice, we might be better off giving-up something else altogether; perhaps something more meaningful and more apt to free our spirit for communing with the Divine. Consider surrendering something a little more challenging: television, work, or leisure.
A friend of mine suggested that the most effective fast we could practice today would be abstinence from the television. Although this might seem somewhat trivial, many find it difficult to turn off the TV for the evening and spend the time in prayer or with another spiritual habit instead. Considering that the average person in the US watches four hours of television each day, this could well be one of the reasons we’re so busy the rest of the time! If missing Monday Night Football or MTV seems like a sacrifice to you, fasting from television may be an excellent spiritual habit to take up. Simply make a commitment to leave the television off and spend it with God instead.
Now, although there are lots of great reasons for turning off the television and doing something else, remember that the purpose of a fast is to enhance your connection with the Divine. Claiming that you’re fasting from television one night a week, but then spending the evening with the family or reading a good book may result in an improved life, but it’s not going to result in a deeper, more vibrant spirituality. So, instead, turn the TV off two nights a week. Spend one of them with your loved ones and spend the other one in prayer. You’ll improve you’re whole life that way.
By the way, if you really want to engage in this fast as a meaningful sacrifice, schedule your fast for the evening you would normally watch your favorite show. And then don’t record it. That would be an opportunity to actually give something up rather than deferring a luxury or desire to another time.
Chris Black is the Publisher of a mid-sized publishing company. I’ve known him for several years and I would characterize him as one of the “busy” people. He is also a Practicing Christian and I had an opportunity to chat with him one afternoon. He was explaining what he does for a living and the hours he puts in.
I don’t keep excessive hours. A typical week I’m in the office at eight and out of the office by five. On the other hand, the nature of what I do means that I’m always at work. I’m in a position that is entrepreneurial, that is based on innovation and creativity, so I’m thinking about things all the time.
His confession that he’s “always at work” may ring true with many reading this book. As an entrepreneurial pastor and a writer, I can relate to the “always at work” syndrome. From the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, to the CEO of a household of kids, some of us don’t seem to ever get a break. For some, homework didn’t end with high school, college, or grad school. Briefs or proposals need to be written or customers give us a jingle on our cell phones while we’re at home. For others, it’s not the homework that gets us, it’s the brain that never quite shuts off from work, sort of like what Chris described.
Now, as I said, Chris is a Practicing Christian and he’s learned a few things about being “on” all the time. In fact, he’s learned to shut it off.
To take Sabbath from work and thinking about work, to step away from that, is a discipline in itself. It’s setting aside some time to be present to whatever I’m doing. So, when I’m with my wife, I’m present to her and not thinking about something that’s going on at work or on some new development I want to do. When I’m with my daughter, then I’m present with my daughter. I’m beginning to find that to be useful in every sense – of being present to where I am and the people I am with at that time.
Time off is all but a vanishing luxury in our busy lives. USAmericans work more hours per week than those in any other affluent nation. Though there are many reasons for this, including the near-insatiable appetite for more Stuff, the result is we have less time for family, for leisure, and for God. Fasting from work is an idea whose time has come.
However, unless you’re working more than one job, you probably already get a day or two off each week. Now, I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find my “day off” is less relaxing than being at work. There’s always something that needs to be done, especially if you’re a home-owner. The yard needs attention, the fence needs to be painted, and there’s a never-ending mound of laundry, dishes, or clutter that demands our time.
And that’s why God decreed a Sabbath. You may remember that no one was allowed to work on the Sabbath, and that included doing yard work, home repairs, or running errands (all of which tend to claim my days off). At the risk of being redundant, fasting from work is an idea whose time has come.
Remember, you don’t practice this spiritual habit so you’ll have more time for golf. Fasting is a spiritual habit; and though you’ll want to apply what Chris said about being present to your family, time at the circus with the kids isn’t going to connect you to the Divine Power Grid.
Fasting from work takes a bit of planning and a bit of discipline – if it doesn’t happen in your life now, it probably isn’t going to start on its own. First, you’ll need to schedule it. Even if you intend to adopt this spiritual habit on a weekly basis, putting it on your calendar needs to be a priority. There’s no reason you have to schedule a full day for this fast. You can schedule it for a Saturday afternoon, an evening after work, or an hour in the morning. Anytime you set aside for prayer or another spiritual habit that you would have normally given to work is a fast.
Second, you’ll need to disconnect. As I write this chapter, I’m in a hotel room overlooking the Rocky Mountains in Denver. Though I’m nearly fourteen hundred miles from home, in some ways it’s like I’ve never left. My cell phone is on and I’m getting email notes every ten minutes. As a busy person, I develop anxiety if I’m not wired and available. Which, when I think about it, is just plain silly. I’m not irreplaceable or indispensable, and there’s no need to be available 24/7. And most likely, either are you. When you’re going to fast from work, take your phone off the hook, turn off the cell phone (putting it on vibrate doesn’t count – we both know that just because it doesn’t ring doesn’t mean you won’t check the number when it buzzes, just in case), and turn off your computer.
Third, go somewhere you won’t be interrupted. That may mean you have to leave your kids in the care of your spouse or a babysitter. Go ahead and do it. It may mean you have to leave home – it generally does for me. Take a walk, a ride, or a drive to some secluded spot (someone’s empty office, a park, the woods, the beach, or your own backyard) so you can find some solitude.
And finally, spend the time in prayer or another spiritual discipline. Remember, this is a fast. It means giving-up something in order to connect with God. If you are going to take a whole day, a weekend, or even longer, you will want to read chapter 9, The Spiritual Habit of Retreating.