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27.2.14

Do something radical this Lent: Fast

This Lent everyone seems to be doing everything - except fasting. A few months ago I adopted a 5:2 pattern of fasting, for both spiritual and health reasons. The truth be told I haven't lost much from around the waist - but I have begun to notice some spiritual effects. A deepened awareness of God and His plans in particular.

Lent is at heart the story of Jesus in the desert, and our journey with him. And although it is good to lots of positive things in Lent, unless we fast then we miss the season's intention - and its spiritual blessing.

So here is something I have published before on fasting

There's hidden sweetness in the stomach's emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less.
If the soundbox is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and belly
are burning clean with fasting,
every moment a new song
comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and new energy makes you
run up the steps in front of you.
Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.
Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen.
Jelaluddin Rumi


Paul writes:
For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Romans 14:17
And yet we fast.





What do we understand by fasting? Do we think of going without food for 40 days and 40 nights, or do we start a little smaller? Fasting has always been part of the Christian life. The Didache, a Christian book from the first century, states:
Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but rather fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.
The Didache
Did the early Christians go without food two days a week? No, the nature of such fasting is likely to have been like Daniel’s fast, who refrained from meat, wine and rich foods for 21 days. It was a partial fast, common to Judaism in the first century. It was also part of the early Christian’s pattern of rhythm of life.

The physical effects of such a fast would have been minimal. So it makes sense that Jesus taught:
And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and dishevelled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.
Matthew 6:16 
Skipping meat for the day will not lead to dishevelment, yet the hypocrites’ chose to make a spiritual mountain out of a very simple devotion.

Jesus continues:
But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.
In other words, when you fast please wash & carry on as normal – there is no such thing as fasting from washing!

I suspect that when writers in the New Testament talk about fasting in general terms this is what they mean, general fasting, going without luxuries and rich food, but on a regular basis, as part of every Christian’s pattern and rhythm of life and worship. Jesus doesn’t say if you fast, but rather when - So fasting is for all of us – little and often.

The bible also speaks of deeper fasts, of Paul’s three day fast after his conversion, of Mordechai's and the Persian Jews fasting for three days in the book of Esther, of David’s fast for Bathsheba’s child. Then deeper still - what of Moses’ two forty day fasts, and of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness?

Jesus’ fast in the wilderness was not part of a regular pattern of prayer; he was led, driven even, by the Spirit into the wilderness. The wilderness, a place of emptiness, a place of repentance, a place of wandering, a place of temptation and trial - when we fast we eat a little of the wilderness.

When we fast we create an emptiness within ourselves that is physical but also spiritual.

If you look at Proverbs in a literal translation we find
The spirit of man is the candle of the LORD, searching all the inward parts of the belly.
Proverbs 20:27 KJV
The inward parts of the belly is a literal translation of the Hebrew, other translations render it heart or inmost being, the spirit here being literally breath. We may talk about God being in our head, renewing our minds; we speak of God being in our heart, but the Jewish way of saying where our deepest being is would have been our stomach.

There are links here that could be explored with Old Testament dietary laws and how they taught purity of the soul; links that could be made with Jesus as the bread of heaven and how important communion was to the first Christians. But for now we shall say this: Our innermost being, spirit and soul are described in terms of organs - lungs and stomach - that can be filled, that can be empty, and that can hunger.

When we fast we feel that hunger, that lack of something we long for, we eat of the wilderness. That hunger may by physical but it must also be spiritual. It is a strange principle but it is true:

When we offer our physical hunger to God, God takes that and in return can refill our spiritual emptiness.

The Kingdom may not be a matter of food and drink but we can offer our physical limitations to God, for our own wellbeing and for others. May we all as we explore the call to fasting be open to Him, ready to be filled, living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.