As part of our theme this year on practicing the spiritual disciplines, we took some time as a community to practice the discipline of fasting throughout the months of February and March. I agree with Phillis Tickle when she says that “fasting is far and away the most misunderstood, maligned, and misused” spiritual discipline. To bring some clarity, we have been blogging over the last couple of months on why we fast. You can catch up by following the links below:
The History of Israel and Fasting
Fasting Is An Act of Whole Body Worship
Fasting As A Practice Against Broken Desires
Fasting As A Response To A Grievous Moment
Fasting Creates A Greater Awareness of God
Now that we’ve covered some of this ground and seen some really good reasons why we fast, I want to take a minute and share what could be the most important reason why every Jesus follower should consider fasting regularly.
To set the stage, the best place to look is at Jesus’ words in Mark 2.
In the opening chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus declared that “the kingdom of God has come near” and it seems that by the time we get to Mark 2 his ministry is gaining momentum. Because fasting was a thing in Judaism—with most pious Jews fasting a couple of times a week—a group of people come to Jesus and question why his disciples are not fasting like John’s disciples or the Pharisees. So Jesus, knowing he’s Israel’s messiah and wanting to show that history is moving towards the changing of epochs, responds by saying, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast” (Mat 2:19-20).
In reality, Jesus is simply saying that the time for his disciples to fast is when he is not with them in flesh and blood.
So Israel throughout the Old Testament scripture, in anticipating a messiah, fasted as they longed for the day when he would arrive. And when Jesus was incarnate and among humanity, it is clear that he believed this was not the time to fast. Actually, to Jesus, it was the opposite—this was a time to party and celebrate.
Yet, Jesus also knew in Mark 2, that even though he had inaugurated the kingdom of God, a day was coming when he would leave in flesh and blood and this would be a time when his disciples, in his absence, would fast again.
Here’s the point.
Jesus believed that his disciples would fast in his absence because it was a common rhythm where they would long for the kingdom of God to be fully consummated—fully realized. Fasting is a way that we are regularly drawn into the drama of God and ultimately a way that we long for the kingdom of heaven to come in its fullness.
Well, I know Jesus says that we shouldn’t show others that we are fasting like the hypocrites (Matthew 6), but I think for illustration sake, I could share a bit of my journey. Fasting is something that I have only started to practice recently and it has changed my life.
So, it’s pretty simple. Wednesday evenings our house is filled with people and we have a meal together. People rush from work and school, they bring their best dish, and honestly we pig out. It’s the best meal of the week and we have so much fun in community eating and reflecting together. These meals are a real time of orientation. Everything, for the most part, is good and right. By the end I’m full, filled with great relationships and celebrating life.
Then, as the sun goes down, I begin to fast. The next morning I’m usually busy trying to get the little humans that live with me out the door to school. I’m distracted, so missing a meal is not consciously felt.
But then lunchtime comes around and things change. I’m hungry. Actually, I’m hangry, if you know what I mean. I can feel the pain, the longing for something to eat, especially after a huge meal the night before when I was fully satisfied.
Now here’s the thing. I could look at these hunger pains as simply the cause and effect of not eating. But, because I’m entering into a practice that is shaped around a story, every hunger pain I feel during this time is actually a deeper sign of disorientation. Every hunger pain is a reminder that everything is not right in this present age—things are not as they should be. Just like Jesus believed fasting would be a longing for his kingdom, I’m drawn into this story of disorientation. I’m reminded that I live in a world where there is brokeness, violence and injustice. Yes, Jesus, through his teaching, life, death and resurrection began a good work in the world, and I still hold on to the hope that he is going to one day bring heaven to earth in totality.
Throughout the day I feel this pain and now, after practicing for a period of time, I’m actually trained to reflect on this disorientation. The pain, in the story, has a purpose.
But… it only lasts a little while.
Thursday evening I rush home from work, I arrive, and we prepare! The last number of weeks we have intentionally tried to make a meal together (though I’m pretty useless and lean on Heather’s incredible cooking skills). Often we make a meal that can be prepared in parts and throughout the whole process, though I’m tempted, I don’t cheat. No sneaking guacamole or chips and hummus. I help prepare, but I patiently wait.
Now this may seem lame, and I get it, but this patience has a purpose. The Jesus community has always been marked by a sense of delayed gratification and the wait to take this first bite is a reminder, in the story, that we wait patiently for the kingdom to come. Sure I could take a bite of something before we sit down. I’m not under law to abstain from food—nobody is forcing me to do this. But, this patience corresponds with the age in which we live. Everything that we see today is not all that there is and there is a sense of hope that better is coming.
And then we sit. Our nightly routine of asking, “Who wants to pray?” is met with the anticipation that it must be quick—I’ve got to eat! And when the prayer concludes I quickly grab what is in front of me and take that first bite—a sign in the story that someday, amongst all the pain, fear and tears, the kingdom will be fully realized.
Now you may or may not buy this, but truth is the story of God is a story of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. One of the things short fasts do is let us feel and experience this cycle. God created this world good and in rhythm, humans mess it up and bring pain, and God, through Jesus, will reconcile heaven and earth back together in the end. Fasting leads us into a time where we are satisfied, dissatisfied and re-satisfied—a sign of what God has done and is doing in the world.
So amongst all the reasons to fast—and there are some really good ones—I think regular participation in the drama of God is something that shapes us over time. This story leaves us longing for a better day—like that first bite after abstaining from food—a day when everything is made right.