In case you haven’t heard there’s a lot of talk about fasting this month. It’s Ramadan, but Muslims aren’t the only ones who fast.
Recently a friend of mine asked me if I would fast with her and pray for some friends, pray for her work, and pray about the “stuff” of life.
“Sure!” I said on the outside. “ugh… “ I said on this inside. And so, like the angels and demons I’d seen on peoples’ shoulders in the cartoons of my youth – my internal war began – again.
Fasting gives me a headache. A serious, throbbing, cannot-ignore-it sort of headache. I feel grumpy and distracted and completely out of sorts. I can’t believe how much I think about eating when I’m fasting! It’s astounding to me that I can spend so much time thinking about what I could be eating – when my goal is to forget about eating!
Have you tried it? Have you struggled? Have you quit in the middle and said, “This is STUPID!!”? I have. I hate to have to admit it, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has had to come face to face with how weak and distractable and cowardly I really am.
But that is precisely the point. It is because each and every one of us is weak and selfish and filled up to the brim with lies that we believe about our own abilities that we need to fast. Contrary to what many believe:
We do not fast to make ourselves clean before God.
We do not fast because it somehow convinces God to accept us.
We do not fast to pay for the wrong things we’ve done.
We do not fast to atone for the wrong thoughts we’ve had.
We do not fast to in any way clean up our act, straighten ourselves out, or try in some way to “get things right with the Man Upstairs” (as some of my childhood friends explained their fasting during Lent).
Fasting will show you how woefully short you fall of being in any way clean before the Lord.
Fasting will show you how prone you are to pleasing yourself rather than God.
Fasting will reveal to you how many more wrong things you do than you ever wanted to admit.
Fasting will kick up the settled dust of wrong thinking, and show you just how prone you are to thinking about ridiculous things that don’t matter – at the very least – if it doesn’t also reveal to you how prejudiced, sneaky, snarky, and just downright mean you can be.
By now you might be saying, “Um, and why is this a good thing?” It’s good because we need to know these things about ourselves. We need to know our sinfulness more and more completely, because doing so reveals to us the beauty of the cross and the glory of our Savior in ways that we can’t comprehend without it.
How else can the sacrifice of a perfect lamb become truly precious to us if we don’t understand that Christ died for us while we were swimming around in a sewage-filled ocean of our own making? How else will we treasure the gifts of redemption and adoption if we never realize how far we have alienated ourselves from God and chosen instead to dirty ourselves by continuing to wallow around in and fill up our ocean with more and more insanity? We lie to ourselves about ourselves far too easily. We need disciplines like fasting to shake us awake to reality and remind us why we needed a Savior in the first place. As it turns out, quietly sitting next to Jesus for any length of time will make you want to slither away from Him rather than present your “cleaned up” life to him, because we all know what it’s like to try to clean ourselves up from that kind of mess with a hanky that we’ve had in our pockets the whole time – it’s impossible.
And that is why we fast.
When we get to the place where we realize the very best we might possibly hope for is to sneak away unnoticed by the brilliant Son of God, it is then that we can see clearly that He is coming after us – pursuing us with gentleness and love and forgiveness that we know we don’t deserve. And yet, he brings us to stand there in His presence and accept His thorough cleansing from top to bottom, inside and out.
Do you know that He loves you this way? Do you want to know? Come and fast with me.
There’s no formula – you will likely need to experience some failures and successes on your own in this because that is part of the discipline. But we all need someone to disciple us. It will become painfully clear to you – within about the first 20 minutes or so – that this is going to be harder than you thought. But here are some practical things that have helped me keep my focus through the struggle to fast.
Hunger Pangs: Saying “no” to food shows us how much we need to say yes to hungering and thirsting after righteousness (Matthew 5). Hunger is a powerful drive that God has given us. He has intended it for our survival, but He has also intended it to teach us to hunger and thirst for Him. When I’m fasting and I want to eat something, I pray, “Lord, help me to hunger and thirst after you even more than food. Help me to know you in such a way that you fill me up and I am satisfied, no matter my circumstance, no matter if my belly is full or empty. Lord show me what you want me to learn about you through this fast and help me to see you clearly.” In practical terms though, I have to steer clear of the kitchen and keep my fast elsewhere.
Distractions: It’s usually about half-way through that prayer that I find myself thinking about other things! It’s as if my heart says, “Fine, if you’re not going to give in on the food front how about we talk about the laundry that needs to get done, or the dishes, or …that stinkin’ kid didn’t take the trash out… again!” Maybe for you it will be your boss, or the incompetent drivers on the road, or your classmate’s weird outfit, or your coworker’s bad breath, or… you get the idea. I can be distracted by anything when it comes time to pray. I have to have a plan. I have found that writing out my prayers is enormously helpful, and writing out what I want to pray about first, so that my “prayers” don’t become a rambling stream of consciousness instead, is almost critical. (go ahead, laugh, but you know it’s true…)
Sometimes sitting and praying close to electronics is too distracting. I use prayers written on index cards that I can take into another room or into the car or on a walk or anywhere that I won’t be tempted to “just check real quick.”
Boredom: Yeah, I know – we shouldn’t get bored when we’re trying to talk to God. But since I’ve already been brutally honest, I figure I might as well go all the way. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve run out of things to talk with God about. I get bored with the whole idea of focusing on Him and I just want to do something mindless and easy. This, too, can lead me to pray, “Lord – teach me to want you!” And if that doesn’t spark some other requests, then simply spending some time doing ordinary tasks and then thanking and praising Him for them is unbelievably helpful. “Lord, thank you for this laundry to do for it means you have blessed me with clothing to keep me warm and covered. Thank you for the family members who wear these things and forgive me for grumbling about serving them. Thank you for ordering the world in such a way that families are your design that we can learn to trust and grow and know you. I praise you Lord for you have formed me and each of these whom I love so dearly in wonderful ways. I praise you Lord for you have created beauty and goodness and truth that surrounds us everywhere. Help me, Lord, to point others to you so that they, too, can worship you in Spirit and in Truth.” Sometimes it’s helpful to simply keep your hands busy while your mind is refocusing on why you’re fasting.
Sleepiness: Yes, it’s tempting to just go and take a nap rather than try to keep alert and focused – especially when everything is warring against that. Sometimes I have to absolutely command myself not to give in, but because I am doing most of my work at home, my bed or that comfy chair can be really tempting. If you’re working somewhere else, you might not have this trouble during your work hours, but when you get home you will. When it happens, you’ll need a plan: take a walk, put on some worship music, clean the bathroom if you have to, and commit to talking with your Heavenly Father while you’re doing them.
Headache: Yes, I really do get whopper headaches when I fast. Sometimes I push through them, and ask God to use them to draw me closer to Him. If they’re helping me do that, I deal with the headache. But sometimes, I take some pain reliever. It’s not about the headache – it’s about my heart’s cry. Sometimes the headaches helps me to cry out to God, sometimes it really is a distraction. Talk to God about that, too, and ask him for wisdom to discern which it is.
The key to all of this is that we see how much we need Jesus. Fasting confronts us with our utter incapability of doing all that God requires of us – and realizing that we are hopelessly trapped in that condition is the first step on the journey of sweet, satisfying communion with God for eternity.
Come and fast with me as I hunger and thirst after the righteousness that only Jesus can supply. Come fast with me as I seek to put to death all the loves in my life that keep me from loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. Come fast with me as I ask for wisdom to know what those things are and look for ways to be thankful and joyful right where God has me now. Come fast with me as I ache to be reminded of the One who loves me enough to rescue me from my own willful wickedness. And come fast with me to rejoice in a salvation that is complete and glorious and free – for we have been loved with an everlasting love and fasting helps us know it.
Let me know how you have learned how to fast – or what you’re struggling with. Let’s encourage one another as we walk this journey of faith together.
(image credit: https://www.magnoliabox.com/search?q=sad&type=product)