Here we go again,” I thought as Pastor Reuben Roundtree Jr. announced that his congregation, for whom I was conducting a short evangelistic series, would experience a week of fasting.
I had not been mistaken for a starving war orphan since I was eight years old. Then, I was so skinny that my mom had to “take up my trousers until the pockets met in the back.” Of course, I needed to fast, but I dreaded enduring (attempting and failing) days without eating during a heavy schedule of preaching, counseling, visiting, and other appointments.
Imagine my delight when Pastor Roundtree explained that merely to cease eating was far too easy and called instead for various spiritually dynamic fasts in areas where we needed to experience practical changes—food (perhaps), but also shopping, television, Internet surfing, mindless reading, credit cards, workaholism, spectator sports, gossip, and argumentative combat.
Imagine my dismay when just as I responded, “Amen! All right!” the pastor added one other fast—“news media overload.” Now that was far too convicting for a news junkie who subscribes to two newspapers plus four major newsweeklies and constantly listens for fresh reports on Cable News Network (CNN). I even have a breaking news alert feature to interrupt my email.
As the pastor defined fasting in reallife practicalities, to have ceased eating would have been far easier than the discipline he advocated. Since then I have contemplated fasting as a spiritual discipline wider than skipping a few meals from time to time.
I have been especially blessed by a new book, Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites, by Lynne Babb,* which I found time to read only because of a ten-hour flight without any fresh-breaking news. As I write, I’m attempting an entire week’s fast from television and news reports assisted by time zone differences from NBC, ABC, or Katie Couric. Here’s what I’m discovering.
Satiated life is still “right there.”In less than a day, I gravitated to a televised news feature like an addict seeking a fresh fi x and found myself eagerly catching up on politics from back home, the latest tragic war report, and the imminent collapse of some business. I even found myself—and I can piously report that I follow no sports—eagerly listening to golf and cricket scores.
Fasting must not derive from an effort to earn meritorious favor. Babb says, “When we fast, we’re not trying to impress God. This is not a performance with the goal of manipulating God. God is not a genie in a lamp that we can rub and ask for things. Fasting helps us get in a place where we can hear God” (p. 127).
What am I making room for?At its core, fasting is not a discipline of withholding. It is a discipline of making space for God. Fasting is far more complex and far more significant than merely abstaining from food on a recurring basis. For example, consider spiritual joy. Jesus says, “ ‘You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God’ ” (Matt. 5:6, The Message).
Scripture does not command fasting. Nowhere does the Bible say, “You must fast.” Jesus assumes that His followers will sometimes fast when He gives instructions about how to—or how not to—fast.
Fasting ought to be secret. The Bible talks about groups—even nations—fasting. But Jesus says, “When you fast, do it in secret and do not appear to be sad and suffering.” While not condemning announcement of a fast, Jesus reminds us not to fl aunt our fasting in order to impress people.
Not everyone should fast. While stressing moderation, Babb warns that some should not attempt food fasts— pregnant or nursing women, anyone with present or past eating disorders, diabetics or people with kidney disease, those who must take medication with food, the frail elderly, or children (who may choose to avoid sugar or a favorite toy for a time).
Balance fasting and feasting.Babb points out that Sabbath and fasting have similarities, affirming that rhythms matter, providing structure for setting aside one thing to embrace another. They address different needs and compulsions. “The sabbath [sic] encourages us to face our addiction to being productive, our need to justify ourselves by what we do” . . . and “teaches grace at a deep and heartfelt place inside us. Because we stop many of our activities on the sabbath [sic], we learn that God loves us apart from what we do” (p. 138).
Why try fasting?Babb quotes John S. Mogabgab: “ ‘Can we hunger for Christ, the Bread of Life, when we are full of dishes enticingly served up on the steam table of a prosperous consumer culture? From what do we need to fast today so we may develop strength of soul tomorrow?’ ” (p. 108).
* Lynne M. Babb, Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).