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The surprise of fasting

Lynne Baab • Friday September 20 2019

The surprise of fasting

Two conversations helped me understand why the surprise of fasting matters. The first was with a couple who had decided not to have a pet. They said they were committed to saving the money the pet would cost – food, vet bills, etc – so they could give the money away to help people in need. They got a great deal of satisfaction from their choice.

I had a similar conversation with someone who had decided to become a vegan in order to place the smallest possible amount of stress on God’s creation. She said her choice gave her a great deal of satisfaction.

The couple without a pet and the woman who was a vegan approached me when they heard that I was writing a book about fasting. Both of them enthusiastically shared their stories and used the language of fasting. “We fast from having a pet.” “I fast from all animal foods.”

When I wrote about my fast from reading two weeks ago, I gave the definition of a Christian fast that I used in my book: the voluntary denial of something for a specific time, for a spiritual purpose, by an individual, family, community or nation.

A fast lasts for a specific period of time. A decision not to have a pet or not to eat animal products is a lifestyle decision, not a fast. Lifestyle decisions, as well as fasts, can bring significant spiritual benefits. And sometimes a fast can lead to a lifestyle decision. One of my interviewees decided to fast from the newspaper at breakfast. Instead, she read the Bible. She had made the commitment to do this during Lent, but she found it so satisfying that she continued to do it after Lent ended.

Fasting almost always has an element of surprise. Yes, our lifestyle choices can sometimes have that element, but generally they have some component of routine to them. They become habits. Fasting breaks up habits to let us see our lives in new ways or to enable us to pray at new times or in new ways. Because we are stopping something for a finite period of time, there’s an unfamiliarity and discomfort to it that can be very instructive, open up time for prayer, and draw us closer to God.

The element of surprise in fasting comes from two choices: the choice to fast and the choice of what to do in place of whatever we are fasting from. I wrote two weeks ago that when I had my involuntary fast from reading, I looked out the window when I ate instead of reading the newspaper. I tried to look at the trees and bushes, created by God, and thank God for them. And one evening, when I craved reading a novel, I prayed for people who can’t read or who don’t have anything to read.

One of the interviewees for my book on fasting told me about the two forty-day fasts from food that she had undertaken. She did the fasts as a part of a focus on praying for the Gospel to spread all around the world. For the first one, she went to her car at lunch time to pray. She found the lunchtime prayer times very rich, and experienced a deep connection with God.

The second time she fasted for forty days, she worked through lunch. That fast had a very different feel, more of an endurance test to make it forty days. Going to her car to pray at lunchtime was something different, something fresh and new. Working through lunch was just more work. No surprise there.

No one who has ever had an eating disorder should undertake a fast from food. That’s a lot of people. How wonderful that God can teach us things, draw us into prayer, and help us grow in intimacy with God when we fast from ordinary components of our everyday lives, like newspapers at breakfast, shopping, movies, social media, or even all reading. The surprise of eliminating something habitual for a finite period of time has great potential to give us insight and help us encounter God, if we replace that habitual activity with something intentional.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of routine and habits to help us grow in faith – consistent time in the Bible and prayer, other habitual spiritual practices. But also, don’t underestimate the value of the surprise that comes from fasting.

Next week: Turning off your phone – a fast or a Sabbath? Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below or in the right hand column of the webpage (for laptops).

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