I've recently had the opportunity to do some reading and have a little conversation about the practice of fasting. It is a time honored, biblically based practice that Jesus seems to assume will happen (Matt.6:16); he offers instruction about how to fast, not when or whether or not to fast. Our Christian tradition has long recommended fasting, especially during Lent, as a means of drawing closer to God. The stories of the saints are full of episodes of fasting. The bottom line is, it seems to work. People who fast often report a combination of results that they find spiritually beneficial. But here's my question: Why does fasting "work"? What kind of work is accomplished? What does fasting say about our image of God and of ourselves? Are we drawing closer to the God of Jesus Christ or are we engaged in an idolatrous practice that makes us feel good about feeling bad? Is fasting a violent or a nonviolent practice? What did fasting mean to Jesus? It's not possible to respond fully to all of that here, but......
First off, let me be very clear about the difference between fasting and starvation. People who are fasting are not starving to death; they are sustaining life with far less food than usual. A healthy fast is estimated to include about 500 calories per day (one small meal) and adequate fluids to maintain healthy body function. Having said that, it is equally true that fasting for more than an occasional day or two is likely to result in weight loss. For many American Christians, this is a side effect to be desired, but it also speaks to a potentially destructive/violent effect on the body. In the ordinary fast, what is induced is the illusion of starving through the experience of greater and more sustained hunger than usual.
Having said that we're NOT talking about literal starvation, just feeling like it, I have to wonder why that's perceived as a good thing. Biblical images of God's favor and God's reign include images of feasting, not fasting. Often the connection between feeling hungry and recognizing one's hunger for God is made. Fasting becomes a living metaphor for our desire for God. Many people make a conscious translation of hunger pains in their gut to their need for God, finding physical hunger to be a good focal point. Many others do not; they know that their physical hunger can be satisfied by a potato, while their hunger for God requires a different kind of nourishment.
The Christian tradition is replete with evidence of the practice of fasting. What is a little less clear is the motivation behind it, especially for modern day people. In reviewing on-line sources, I checked out Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian,Lutheran, Mennonite, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Independent materials about fasting. I wanted to know what people thought they were doing now, regardless of what the saints of old thought. I found two primary idea's behind the practice. The first was that since Jesus seemed to expect it, we should do it because it pleases God. In this category were numerous mentions of fasting as a way to enter into Jesus' suffering as he approached his death. Variations ranged from forty day fasts to the practice of giving something up for Lent (a sort of "mini-fast"). The other idea was that fasting was a form of "works" that influenced God on our behalf, much like prayer. Many of the sites devoted to the first rationale decried the second as being a false fast, a manipulative effort to earn points with God. But even those who advocated fasting in order to get what you want used biblical references. Examples of fasting that result in receiving the object of the fast abound- think Esther.
Then there is personal testimony: it works. It makes people feel cleaner, purer, more in control of themselves. It makes them feel like they are doing a holy thing by going without food for a long time; they are more spiritual because they are less physical; they are being like Jesus through self deprivation. One of the incontrovertible physiologic facts about fasting is that it has an enormous impact on the body. Depending upon the length and severity of the fast, it can even be mind altering, inducing altered states of consciousness much like an hallucinogen. Few people seem to be fasting to this extent or recommending it, but even a modest fast produces changes in brain chemistry that alter perception. This is what is behind the concept of "holy anorexia" that many eating disordered people suffer from. Our bodies adaptation to diminished food results in a natural high that is not dependent upon eating, giving it a spiritual quality. My concern is that any time I hear people using the words "cleaner, purer, more in control of themselves" I worry that we have resorted to violence. Cleaner than what? Purer than who? What is the cost of that self-control? Why is control over the body's need for food a holy undertaking? Christianity is an incarnational experience of relationship with God; what does our fasting incarnate? Is the slightly mind altering effect of the customary fast really a way to be closer to God? Just how does voluntarily depriving oneself of food indicate that we are living like Jesus? It may; but we really need to think through what we're doing.
I want to say that I do believe that there are important ways in which fasting can be a meaningful Christian spiritual discipline- if by discipline we intend the original meaning of learning and not today's use of the word to indicate punishment. Fasting as a discipline would be designed to teach us something, not punish us for our pleasure in life. It would teach us something that is consistent with God as Jesus shows God to us. It would not elevate suffering for it's own sake nor trivialize the real suffering of Jesus by our voluntary dabbling in fasting. Fasting that genuinely draws us closer to the God of Jesus will teach us something about who God is and provide us with an experience that reinforces it. All of which comes back to my question about what fasting meant to Jesus and why he seems to expect it without much special instruction.
For help with this, I refer to The Jewish Way by Rabbi Irving Greenberg. His discussion of fasting as part of the observance of the High Holy Days is illuminating for a faithful understanding that does not cast God in the role of sadist (suffer for me) nor of evil deal maker (starve and I'll give you what you want). On this occasion, fasting is practiced by the community as a way of tasting death voluntarily so that one's faithful reliance on God for life can be expressed in action. Fasting is practiced to highlight reliance on God, and it culminates in feasting and celebration. By deliberately choosing to taste death, (food nurtures/sustains life; it's absence=death) the people affirm God as the source of life. At the conclusion of the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the people break their fast with a festive meal and/or feast.
I know that this is not a complete answer to the issue of fasting for Christians. But if we are to preach peace as Jesus calls us to, it must be with the whole expression of our Christian faith. To engage in traditional practices and disciplines means that we need to examine them from our perspective of gospel peace. As most Christians currently practice and understand fasting, it is in conflict with the God of Jesus. The god that many people fast for is one that requires suffering to acknowledge sincerity of faith or to barter with for our wants and needs. Equally problematic is the effect on people who fast because it makes them feel spiritually superior to others- including themselves in a non-fasting state. To practice fasting as a voluntary taste of death so that we can increase and renew our reliance on God for life, and to break that fast with a feast of celebration in the goodness of God might make the difference between what we say and what we do when it comes to preaching peace and observing the spiritual discipline of fasting for Lent.
There are many more questions about the application of fasting to the spiritual lives of Christians devoted to peace than there is space here to discuss...but I really hope some of you will try them out in the comments section!