Luke 4:1-2 (CEV)
1When Jesus returned from the Jordan River, the power of the Holy Spirit was with him, and the Spirit led him into the desert. 2 For forty days Jesus was tested by the devil, and during that time he went without eating. When it was all over, he was hungry.
(Trigger Warning: This piece contains material that may be challenging to those who struggle or have struggled in the past with Eating Disorders. Reader Discretion is advised.)
When I think about the word ‘fasting’ I have to admit that it doesn’t fill me with much in the way of excitement.
My experiences of fasting are actually kind of limited. I grew up in a family where food was very important, and so the idea of missing a meal seemed almost morally wrong.
When I was 21, though, I get it into my head that fasting was a good spiritual idea, and so, (with admittedly incredibly mixed motives, since I was also still dealing with post-pregnancy weight I wanted to lose) I decided to fast one day a week through Lent. In case you’re wondering, fasting is not a long-term strategy for weight loss! Usually your body’s response to fasting is to lose weight while it’s happening, but after the fact put back on all the weight you lost and more. Just saying. But it was also not a particularly effective spiritual practice. I got very grumpy, incredibly frustrated, and completely failed to have any “spiritual” experiences over the six weeks I did it.
When, several years later, the youth group I was helping with did a 30 Hour Famine, I again tried fasting. And if the point of fasting is to expose our weaknesses, then I guess you could say it was a success. It certainly exposed my propensity to be ‘hangry’!
Jesus’ fast is something I am nowhere near ready for. I still can’t get through more than a day’s fast without giving up and giving in. Maybe this will happen at some point for me, but what Jesus does here is pretty remarkable! And I think when I was younger I assumed that He could do this because He was God. But theologian Tom Wright tells us that this passage is very much about highlighting Jesus’ humanity. He had a real body that really experienced hunger, and loneliness, and temptation.
But it turns out that fasting from food isn’t the only form of fasting. Last year for Lent I tried a different approach – I decided to fast from fear. This was very different from other fasts I’ve done. First of all, I was really struggling with fear, and God had made it clear that this was an area He wanted to bring freedom to me in, so it felt very much God directed. Secondly, the only way to get rid of fear is with God’s perfect love (see 1 John 4:18) so I knew that I would be completely dependent on God to achieve this. And actually, over the course of the six weeks I saw a noticeable change in how much of my life was being ruled by fear.
But possibly my most profound experience of fasting was one I never even set out to have as a fast. This past summer, Trevor and I had a week with no kids(!!!!!) And I did have this sense that we should spend it out on an outtrip. And so we went to Algonquin, and paddled 80 km and portaged 7 km through the wilderness over four days. We ate only the most basic amount of calories, and only the simplest of food – we had to carry it all, after all! We paddled in almost total silence, simply enjoying the rhythm of the stroke. We set up camp quietly, sat and watched the water from the rocks of the campsites, and stretched in silence together before watching the sunset, the occasional rainbow, and going to bed early. We fasted from social media, from the constant effort of caring for our kids, from the dependence on our modern conveniences for our survival and from the noise and buzz of our world. And it was a profound spiritual experience. We came back changed, renewed, able to take a significantly different approach to challenges we’d been banging our heads against for months, more connected to each other, and more deeply convinced that God cared about us right in the midst of our circumstances.
We’re going to spend the next few days talking about the temptations that Jesus faced during his fast, but for today I wanted to focus on fasting, because it might be that God is calling you to take a fast. Here are some basic tips for fasting in a healthy, spiritually wise way:
- The ultimate point of fasting is to help us to reorient our perspective – to see more clearly that we are not ultimately in control, God is – and to help us to live more fully in that reality. Fasting shows us that we are weak, that we are powerless, and this helps us to learn to depend increasingly on God.
- Some of the additional benefits of fasting include an opportunity to give more deeply or connect more fully with community, to help us to gain a more accurate perspective of our circumstances, or to encounter God in a unique way.
- Our motivations matter. In our culture of body shaming, our culture of self-improvement, it’s easy to conceive of the idea that this will fix a body shape problem, another area of concern in our life, or maybe just be “enough” to “convince” God to do that thing we want. But fasting doesn’t work that way. I think for fasting to be effective in reorienting our perspective and living more fully the life God wants us to live, we need to fast in response to God’s prompting (which means your fast will by definition look different from my fast) and for the purpose of hearing more deeply from God (which means not only taking something out of our life, but making extra time to listen to God during this time). Fasting is not about gaining spiritual merit points – it’s about submitting ourselves to God’s work of transformation in our lives.
If you feel like you know the Old Testament pretty well, I encourage you to take some time to find four or five people listed in the genealogy above and write out why they are important.
- What does it tell you about Jesus to know that these people were his ancestors?
- What do their wives or moms tell you about Jesus’ ancestry? (Hint: you might want to check Matthew’s Genealogy as well over in Matthew 1:1 …)
If you feel like you don’t know the Old Testament very well – or maybe not at all, I’ve got four ideas for you:
- Contact Roy and join our Alpha Course. It started on Thursday, but it’s not too late to join, and learn some more about all of this.
- If you like quick, simple explanations about things, try the videos here or here for an overview of the Old Testament and an overview of the Messiah.
- If you’re willing to watch a few more videos and want to go through the Old Testament, but aren’t much of a reader, then there’s a youTube channel just for you called ‘The Bible Project’ which has little five minute videos explaining each book of the Bible, starting at Genesis and going through the Old Testament to Malachi.
- If you’re a reader, and you’ve been meaning to read the Old Testament for ages, this might just be the time to pick it up and start reading! Some people find “Through the Bible in a Year” plans helpful, and others just get started. Some read a few chapters a day, and others try to clear larger chunks of time and read a book all in one setting. Either way, if God’s been bugging you to do this, it might be time.