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Fasting and our bodies

Lynne Baab • Thursday October 3 2019

Fasting and our bodies

My body and I have a checkered relationship. As a teenager I was quite athletic and physically active. As an adult, I have exercised three times a week, almost every week, for decades. Exercise calms my rioting thoughts and emotions, helps me sleep better, and gets me out in nature. Throughout my adult life and even now, in my 60s, I haven’t been super athletic, but neither am I completely sedentary. I’d love to exercise a bit more, but what I do works well for me.

My eating, however, is another story. In my teen years, my mother and I engaged in food wars. She wanted me to be thinner, and she hid cookies, monitored what I ate at meals, and sadly (because this not what she intended) took away my ability to pay attention to what my body was telling me about food, appetite and fullness. As a result, I became unmoored from my body’s needs in the area of food.

I became a committed Christian at 19, and have prayed so many times about food, weight, eating, and appetite. I’ve received a lot of personal support for my eating struggles, but very little helpful teaching.  I can’t remember a sermon on how to honor God with our bodies except in the area of sexuality, and I’ve heard very few of those. My experience is not unique. Christians have too often been disconnected from their physical bodies.

The renewed interest in fasting helps address what some people call discarnate Christianity. “Discarnate” means not having a body, which of course is an overstatement related to human life. Obviously we all have bodies. But we pay so little attention to them theologically and in relationship to ministry that sometimes I think we might as well not have them.

We might also consider “discarnate” to be the opposite of “incarnate.” We talk so much about Jesus’ incarnation, the fact that he took on flesh, and then we focus on human flesh so seldom, and mostly related to sexuality.

The word “discarnate” is used a lot these days when talking about technology. Prophetic voices tell us that the constant use of cellphones is creating a discarnate world. I mentioned last week that fasting from technology will be a significant spiritual practice in the years to come. One result of fasting from technology can be getting in closer touch with the created world by getting outside without ear buds shutting out the birds and wind. Turning off technology can help us be physically present in our place. All of this can help us live more solidly in our own bodies.

Fasting from food can accomplish some of the same goals. Of course, fasting from food is the earliest form of fasting in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Fasts in the Bible and early Christian history could be from:

  • food and water (practiced by Muslims during the day during Ramadan, but not recommended by any Christians that I’ve read)
  • from all food
  • from some foods, such as meat, all animal products, rich foods, sweet foods, or wine.

Fasting from food is one way to feel connected to our bodies as we experience hunger and use the hunger feelings to turn to God in prayer.

Ironically for people like me who have had a troubled relationship with food, most experts recommend avoiding fasting from food in any form for anyone who has ever had an eating disorder. Despite that advice, I have fasted from all food several times and from some foods many times. I do go into those fasts with a spiritual intention, and I always pray more during those fasts, but fasting is always blurred by my desire to lose weight.

I can see that those experts are right. Fasting from food is simply not a great way for me to get more in touch with my body and appetite. And for people with a history of anorexia or bulimia, fasting from food in any form can trigger a new episode. If you promote fasting in your church or other setting, always give non-food options and always say something about people with a history of eating disorders.

Those of us with a history of a disordered relationship with food can still fast from other things, especially various forms of technology, which will help us center ourselves in our bodies. All of us can  work on living as a being made in the image of a God who became incarnate. And I can still pray and ponder what it means to honor God with my eating, while trying to live joyfully in this body God gave me.

(Next week: a fast from noise and words. Illustration by Dave Baab: jogging at Aramoana, New Zealand. I welcome new subscribers who receive an email when I post on this blog. Sign up below.)

Some links for you:
     My book on fasting
     Article: Following Jesus Each Day
     Article: The Compassion and Empathy of Jesus

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