By Lynne M. Baab
Published in Vital Theology, July 2009
The Statue of Liberty’s stern and austere face has always spoken to me. She tells me that freedom is costly and requires discipline, sacrifice and commitment.
We live in a culture obsessed with liberty and freedom, but our version has become soft, indulgent and self-focused. We have become so enmeshed with consumerism and materialism that we have habituated ourselves into bondage, all the while thinking we are pursuing freedom.
Christians who are concerned about this trend can respond in a variety of ways. We can moan and complain about the insidious power of consumerism. I do that a lot. We can write, teach and preach about the seductive lure of materialism. We can make lifestyle choices that affirm simplicity, generosity, and restraint. We can pray for God’s Spirit to sweep through the Church and the world, bringing renewal and true freedom in Christ.
We can fast and encourage others to fast.
Fasting played a significant role in the Bible and in the first nineteen centuries of church history, yet it virtually disappeared in the twentieth century. Its decline coincided with the steep rise in material wealth in the Western world. Yes, there were excesses in the practice of fasting in the medieval world that needed to be addressed, but the disappearance of fasting happened long after the medieval period ended. Fasting fell into disfavor because so many Christians ceased to believe that lack, hunger and self-denial can shape us and draw us nearer to God.
Now, with the flowering of interest in historic Christian spiritual disciplines, Christians are rediscovering fasting and reshaping the practice to fit our time.
A group of teenagers decided to fast for a week from portable electronic devices like cellphones and ipods. They found the first day or two to be very difficult. But a few days into the experiment, one of the teens noticed the sound of birds and crickets. One of them talked to people on the bus because she wasn’t listening to her ipod, and she found the conversations surprisingly enjoyable. Several of them read books more often.
They were shocked at the way the fast revealed their dependence on their favorite electronic devices. One of the teens reflected at the end of the fast that she didn’t think she would ever become as dependent on her cellphone and ipod as she had been. She had learned how addicted she was.
Throughout most of church history, fasting meant abstaining from food, and many Christians still fast from food in a variety of ways. In addition, Christians today fast from shopping, email, surfing the internet, novels, movies, television, music, news media, lattes, and makeup. Any common aspect of daily life can become the target of fasting, and abstaining from that activity or object for a finite period of time can open up new vistas in our lives.
Fasting makes space for prayer and reflection. It helps us listen to God’s voice. Fasting reveals habits and addictions. Fasting calls us to confession because we come face to face with our own idolatry and the strategies we use to defend ourselves against our need for God. Many forms of fasting can free up money to give away. Christians in Western countries desperately need the gifts that fasting brings, in part because we need to reshape our understanding of freedom.
One of the central components of the Christian life is freedom. Jesus Christ has redeemed us – freed us – from the power of sin and death. Jesus says to his disciples, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 NRSV). The apostle Paul echoes Jesus’ words: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:2 NRSV).
For what purpose has Christ set us free? To love and serve God and our neighbor. Healthy discipline and sacrifice, prerequisites for loving and serving, flow from the freedom Christ gives us.
The stern and austere face of Lady Liberty links freedom with discipline, self-control, and restraint. Those characteristics come from freedom in Christ, and they also help us grow more deeply into true freedom. In a small but significant way, fasting can help us create space for God so we can experience that reality.