Fasting and Freedom

(published in Alive Now. November/December 2014, 35-37)

A group of high school students decides to spend a weekend without any electronic devices. One of them discovers birdsong in her back yard, and another enjoys playing board games with his sisters. They experience a glimpse of unexpected freedom as they fast from iPods, tablets, laptops and cellphones.

Christians have been fasting for centuries as a way to experience freedom in Christ. For most of the last twenty centuries, fasting usually involved abstaining from all food or from certain foods like meat or sugar. In the last few decades, with the rise of consumerism and overabundance in so many areas of life, Christians have been experimenting with fasting from all kinds of things in addition to food: shopping, news media, various forms of entertainment, as well as electronic devices.

What makes a fast uniquely Christian? Christian fasting is the voluntary denial of something for a specific time, for a spiritual purpose, by an individual, family, community or nation.

The spiritual purpose in a fast sets a Christian fast apart from other kinds of fasts. Most Christians who fast have particular needs they want to pray for during the fast or a desire to draw near to God in new ways during the time freed up by fasting. Some Christians fast from food, entertainment, expensive coffee drinks or other treats in order to raise money to help people in need.

A fast creates space in our lives, and that space gives us the freedom to pray more intensely, read the Bible more deliberately, and ponder the pattern and fabric of our lives. A weekend without electronic devices is a wonderful exercise, whether the participants have a faith commitment or not. Christians, however, would have a spiritual motive for the fast, perhaps coupling the denial of electronic devices with targeted prayer. Perhaps that prayer focuses on a friend with cancer or a desire for God’s guidance regarding a career decision. Perhaps that prayer centers on asking for God’s help to rebalance everyday life and give electronic devices their proper place and no more.

The impact of fasting comes from the unexpectedness of the experience. Choosing not to own a car or never to eat sugar can be a wonderful lifestyle choice, but those kinds of choices are not a fast. Fasting involves voluntary denial of something for a specific period of time, perhaps a day, a week, the four weeks of Advent or the six weeks of Lent. Almost everyone who fasts talks about the surprise of fasting. Eliminating an aspect of everyday life for a period of time usually results in something unexpected. Choosing freedom from habitual actions makes space for God to act in unforeseen, profound and sometimes amusing ways.

Fasting can help us embrace Jesus’ invitation to enter into the year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee, by helping us experience surprising aspects of freedom. Fasting can help us step out of the predictable and ordinary, and experience God in new ways.

How to design a fast:

1. Consider who you might fast with or who might pray for you. Fasting is much richer when it’s experienced in community.

2. Consider what you would like to fast from.

  • Would you like to have more time for prayer and reading the Bible? If so, spend some time pondering the pattern of your life or ask a friend or family member to talk with you about it. What activity takes up a lot of time that might be freed up for prayer and reading the Bible?
  • Do you have something in your life that feels like an addiction or that borders on being addictive? If so, consider giving it up for a period of time in order to pray about the place of that activity in your life.
  • Would you like to be able to give money to someone in need? If so, consider fasting from expensive food treats, coffee drinks, shopping or paid entertainment for a period of time. Give away the money saved and spend time praying for the person in need.
  • Are you diabetic, do you take medications with meals, or do you have a medical condition that requires you to eat? Then consider fasting from one food item, such as coffee, meat or sugar, or consider fasting from something other than food such as media, shopping, electronic devices, etc.
  • Have you ever had an eating disorder? If so, then do not fast from food in any way. Instead, consider fasting from something like media, shopping, electronic devices, etc.

3. Consider how long to fast. For electronic devices, a few hours might be a good place to start. Other fasts typically last 1, 2, or 3 days, a week, the four weeks of Advent or the six weeks of Lent.

4. Make plans for what you will do before the fast to prepare for it, perhaps pray, journal, or talk with a friend about your hopes. Do some dreaming and planning about how you will use the time or energy freed up by the fast. In what new ways would you like to draw near to God?

5. Plan ahead for what you will do after the fast to get the maximum benefit from it. Perhaps add in some extra prayer, journaling or reflection time for the first few days afterwards. If you have fasted from all food, do not have a huge meal after the fast. Instead, celebrate the end of the fast with a lovely, but small, meal.