The Christian Disciplines: Fasting

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Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it (John Wesley).

At the risk of breaking Jesus’ injunction to keep schtum about one’s fasting habits, I am pretty good at fasting. I generally fast twice a week, meaning 2×24 hours without food, and began this year with a two-day fasting (non-)binge. I do this for health reasons, because I simply cannot do moderation — I cannot eat moderately, it is either all or nothing. For five days a week it is all, for two it is nothing. This way I am able to keep my weight down. It works.

So when Foster talks about epic multi-week fasts I think I could do it. I am a faster. Hooray!

Except, I also hate it. Feeling hungry makes me feel miserable, and even when the hunger pains go away, I still think about food. This, fundamentally, is what I do not get about fasting. We are supposed to do it so we can inwardly “be in prayer and adoration, song, and worship,” but I am more likely to do that if my mind is off my stomach, which it isn’t when I am fasting. In other words, fasting has the opposite effect on me — it tends to make me feel less spiritual. Asceticism is misery, not liberation. I have the will power to be an ascetic, I just don’t like it.

As is the case throughout his book, Foster warns against excessive legalism. Mormon tendencies to give fasting a specific day (“Fast Sunday”) or our worrying about details such as 24 hours vs. two meals or whether we should drink water (we should, I think), run that risk. On the more positive side, the coupling of fasting with a financial offering is very much in line with Isaiah 58:1-7 and is something of which Mormons should be proud (but we should keep quiet about that: Matthew 6:18!). What Foster says may be true: “Perhaps in our affluent society fasting involves a far larger sacrifice than the giving of money.” Certainly the little bit of money we may give to fast offering often feels less of a sacrifice than going without food, given our fortunate experience in the West of very rarely being involuntarily hungry. It is the sympathy that fasting ought to invoke for the hungry that may its greatest value today.

I really like Foster’s suggestions for other fasts: from people (the discipline of solitude), from the media, from the telephone (/internet), from billboards (i.e. advertising), and from “our gluttonous consumer culture.” I think I shall give this a go, certainly for Lent and Advent, but perhaps weekly. A digital fast especially may be fasting’s most important modern iteration.

How is fasting as a spiritual discipline for you? And what is Mormon fasting all about?

Comments

  1. melodynew says:

    Forgive the long comment. Since my on-line begging produced no takers for the offer to meet in person, this is where I’ll chat . . .Everything Foster wrote about fasting made sense to me – from the idea of fasting from food, but still drinking water (which I typically do on fast Sundays) to extended fasts (which I have yet to attempt), and other sorts of “fasting.”

    When I was pregnant and nursing I began to alter my definition of fasting. At the time, I discovered this scripture: D&C 59: 13 – “And on this day thou shalt do none other thing, only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full. 14 – Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer.” This introduced the concept of joyful, grateful eating and food preparation when I wasn’t physically able to fast. I’ve kept this model in my mind and heart when I fast and on those fast Sundays when, for whatever reason, I chose not to fast.

    Also, at some point I thought about how the work of digestion uses a monumental amount of energy. I’m a nurse, so I think about these things. . . anyway, when we allow our bodies to rest from the work of digestion, we free that energy for spiritual work. It’s like we “make room” in our bodies for the energy of the spirit. I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone else, but it totally fits for me. It feels true. Foster uses other words to describe this. But this idea more than any other has helped me with what you describe in your post – hunger distraction. It’s not a perfect fix, but it has made a difference for me. “I give this digestive energy to you, Lord. Please fill that space in my body and soul with energy only you can provide.” This feels like the essence of spiritual fasting for me.

    I’m a lazy faster. If January is the month to experiment with fasting concepts from the book, I may fail. But I aspire to continue working on it.

    Lastly, I agree with Foster about our affluence. We are a population of gluttons and I include myself in this group, but I want to do better. A few lines from a poem I wrote express how I feel about what has happened to us.

    “Wisdom of want escapes us.
    We do not savor the sanctity of an empty bowl
    or see roundness in fish bones on black stones
    of an ancient lake bed. . . ”

    These images came while I was in the midst of a month-long minimalist vegetarian-ish diet/menu plan. I found myself feeling hungry during the day. It was an emotional challenge as well as a physical challenge. I realized that I often felt hungry as a child, when I had less control over when/where/how much I ate. As you say above, we never have to go hungry if we don’t want to. And I agree, holy hunger, adult hunger via a fast, can be a powerful thing. It can take us out of “the world” and remind us of our shared vulnerability as human beings.

    Thanks again for this project and for introducing the book.

  2. Jeffrey Richardson says:

    Just some general thoughts…. I read how AFTER 24 hours is when our psyche tricks us into thinking we can go for longer periods of time without food. With that in mind, one man I know will begin his fast Sat morning, that way when he goes to Church on Sunday he is not worried about food, etc and can benefit more from hearing testimonies and feeling the Spirit.

    Fasting to me is like asking for something in our prayers- sometimes we get results, sometimes we dont. However, they’re both for our personal development and progression, therefore the results of both are dependent on our faith and Gods timing. When we empty our selves physically, God can fill us spiritually !

  3. melodynew,
    I really like the idea of grateful eating as a fast.

    Jeffrey,
    On the practicalities of fasting, I usually go from lunch to lunch. It is the first evening that hurts. The next morning is fine.

  4. RJH, for similar reasons I don’t like fasting — I find hunger distracting rather than focusing. However, in the past I have fasted for 48 hours on occasion and also had periods of several weeks when I have fasted every week. Those are periods of my life that I look back on as more spiritual than normal, when the gap to God seemed shorter.

  5. Weird. As I said in the OP, I have been pretty good at fasting but this month — the month of fasting! — has been a disaster. The will to do it has almost disappeared!

  6. That’s the hibernating bear talking. Eat rich foods and sleep deeply, my grizzly friend.

  7. Trouble is, I’m doing a sportive in April. Can’t haul my fat 100 miles and 9000ft.

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