A few years ago, a friend of mine told me about his own personal tradition of fasting during the Lenten season leading up to the celebration of Easter. He said that the impact the experience had on him the first year he attempted it was powerful and had led him to continue the practice every year since. He didn’t tell me what he meant by “powerful” but he challenged me to give it a try.
Coincidentally, I had been considering doing exactly that, though on a much smaller scale than he suggested. My friend had researched the issue and found that the original practice of the monks who instituted Lenten fasting was to fast every day except Sunday for the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday. The monks apparently believed that Sunday, being a day of rest, should also include resting from the practice of fasting. So, though he was not in any way Catholic, my friend had decided to do the same thing. He suggested that instead of going directly to a full-blown fast, I should wean my way into it by eating only fruits and vegetables for the first week. He told me this on the day before Lent began.
The next morning (after breakfast), I decided that instead of just teaching and talking about the spiritual disciplines (you will find a good summary of what they are in a blog series by Ken Boa here: Spiritual Disciplines, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), I might actually try putting them into practice. And so, almost on a whim, I vowed to give it a shot. I had no idea what I had signed up for.
Before I go any further, please understand that I realize the whole subject of the “spiritual disciplines” can be controversial. There are some who attribute these practices to eastern religious influences, to the occult, or to a works-based view of spirituality. These can include unbiblical ideas like “learning to hear God’s voice,” adopting Gnostic concepts, or succumbing to the false notion of Catholic asceticism and the like. I understand and agree with those concerns. I am not addressing those here. My only goal during this whole ordeal was to use fasting as a tool to recognize my own self-centeredness and to redirect the energy I usually spend thinking about me to instead think about the God who sustains me.
I took my friend’s advice to institute a purely fruit and vegetable diet … well, except for the nuts I added to the list because I was a wimp. It was only a matter of hours before the effects were obvious — mostly when I had to drag myself kicking and screaming out of the pantry I visit all too often. This was the first lesson I drew from what came to be an eye-opening, 40-day excursion into self-discipline and prayer. It is not about what you fast from or how far you go with your commitment. It is all about making the commitment in the first place. I found that when I put the brakes on my self-indulgent nature and forced myself to focus upward or to say a prayer — no matter how short or un-flowery — my propensity for the former gradually morphed into my practice of the latter. After a couple of weeks the practice took less and less effort.
Fasting is not meant to make us “better” or more “spiritual.” It goes without saying that it should never be used as a self-serving method of impressing other people with the awesomeness of your own humility (see: Matthew 6:16). It seems to me that anyone who really understands the purpose of fasting also understands that doing it with the right intention means that no one will ever know you are doing it … until you write about it on your blog, of course.
In other words, I found out what my friend meant when he described his fasting experiences as “powerful.” The power in this or any other spiritual discipline comes in recognizing just how much we don’t think about what we should be thinking about. The power comes in recognizing that we are powerless in every way that really matters. The power comes in the tangible realization that the most impactful aspects of this life we are living are the ones that are intangible.
When you recognize the Source of that power and recognize that it does not reside in your own head, you can go revert to your old ways of doing things, but you never go all the way back. You can’t.
And that’s the point.