Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fasting and Feasting


'Fasting is medicine', wrote the fourth - century pastor John Chrysostom in his Homilies on the Statues. But many Christians today have little idea exactly how this age - old discipline improves spiritual health. In fact, some have attempted forgoing certain, or all, foods for a time only to find themselves more irritable, angry, or sinful than before. After experiences like these, it's easy to feel that fasting is counterproductive to the Christian life. Why give up food when partaking seems to help one be more patient, loving, and peaceful? Yet it's precisely such experiences that prove Chrysostom's saying: fasting is the type of medicine that draws out the parts of ourselves that need healing by our merciful Savior. But how?

We live in a culture that revels in feasting and not just on holidays. With so many food options available at all times, whether through grocery stores or the multitude of restaurants, it's rare that the average American (or the middle class Filipino) experiences true hunger. Studies have shown that more than 66 percent of all Americans are overweight, indicating that most of us are having our fill - and then some.

Food is a gift from God. But what we fail to realize is that eating is a spiritual act. Living with full bellies, in nearly constant state of satiety, can lead us to a false sense of contentment and a habit of indulgence that bleeds into our spiritual lives. The more we indulge our physical appetite, the weaker our ability to say no becomes. The end result is often a heart that strayed from the Lord without our realizing - one too filled by the bounty of this world to hunger for spiritual food.

It has long been known by Christians who practice fasting that as our bodies weaken from lack of food, we come into contact with our brokenness and all the places within us where compromise has wounded the soul. Mysteriously, as we long for physical food, we discover another desire beneath the surface: the longing for God - our true Source - and the feast of His love. This is why fasting remains one of the most popular tools we have for restoring us to a proper, balanced relationship with God and the world. 

But before we can discuss how to fast, we need to understand some fundamental truths:

FASTING IS EVERYONE. the goal of fasting is to help us grow in love for God and to know Him better. Regardless of who you are, your age, or physical limitations, it's possible to practice this discipline in some shape or form. Luke 5:34-35 tells us that when a group of scribes asked Jesus why His disciples weren't fasting, He explained that it was something to be done in His absence - not that it was unnecessary. Though we experience the Lord through the Holy Spirit now, we eagerly anticipate being boldly reunited with Him. Fasting amplifies the fruitfulness of our waiting for His return.

FASTING IS PART OF REPENTANCE. The parable of the prodigal son presents us with a beautiful metaphor for the Christian life - of a wayward son who returns home after trading his father's love for the pleasures of a distant land. (Luke 15: 11-32). In some ways, you and I are always coming home from the distant country of our sin. Though we have received Him as Savior, we continue to turn away from Christ in small and big ways, rather than remain content in the household of the Father.  Even as we bring parts of our lives into submission to Him, there are some things we choose to withhold or have not yet realized belong to life in the distant country. Fasting, with prayer, helps us make the journey to the center of God's will for us, which is communion with Him, unhindered by sin. And so, fasting is also an occasion to spend more time in prayer, confessing our sins as the Holy Spirit reveals them.

FASTING MUST BE DONE IN THE RIGHT SPIRIT. Jesus said, "Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as hypocrites do... so that they will be noticed by men... But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men... and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you"(Matt 6:16-18). Fasting is the affirmation of God as our true Source and of our love for Him - that we desire Him more than earthly food - and should be undertaken with joy. We could read the passage above as, "When you fast, anoint your head with joy, and wash your face with joy, so that your fasting will not be noticed by men". Without this emphasis, giving up food is an empty exercise that leads to legalism and pride.

FASTING IS A FIGHT FOR THE BODY, NOT AGAINST IT. Far from punishing the body, the purpose of fasting is to set it free from ungodly attachments. God has blessed us with the fruits of the earth, but if not kept in check by periodic abstinence, food can lure our hearts into worshipping the stomach. "I often told you," wrote the apostle Paul to the Philippians,"... that [some] are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite" (3:18-19). By contrast, Christians should live soberly and see food as a gift from God, given for the purpose of growing in oneness with Him. Fasting produces in us the spiritual agility, or lightness, we need to "run the race" set before us (1 Cor. 9:24-26).

FASTING TEACHES US HOW TO DIE TO OURSELVES. As we limit our intake of food, we will inevitably feel tempted to eat outside the bounds of our chosen fast. This is a good and important part of the process because it strengthens the portion of our minds and hearts that deal with the temptations such as anger, lust, gossip, envy, judging our neighbors, and other sinful passions. Chances are, the same reasoning we use to prematurely break a fast is at the heart of our justification of habitual sins. Fasting helps us reorient our lives to the central calling of the Christian's existence: to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ (Luke 9:23)
from Intouch magazine, October 2011 issue

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