Fasting has been a part of Christian worship from the beginning. Yet, fasting is an oft neglected discipline at least for much North American Protestantism especially those with an aversion to liturgical calendars.
In Christian circles, we often put those who engage in spiritual disciplines on a pedestal. And yes, we are right to point to those teachers and mentors who worthy of emulation. Yet, in doing so, the “ordinary” Christian can use this lionizing of fellow saints often serves an excuse for our inability to do likewise. Moreover, I think sometimes it causes us to misunderstand the very men and women we are exalting.
This thought occurred to me during a Sunday School class when the topic of fasting came up. As we spoke, I became aware that our common assumption was that great men and women in the history of the Church engaged in fasting in order to pray and commune with God. And there is ample evidence in the texts we have in the tradition to validate and confirm that this assumption that fasting can enhance and lead to deeper prayer. Yet, as I facilitated this discussion, I experienced one of those wonderful paradigm shifts.
In Sunday School, we were working through the book of acts. I wanted to slow us down at Acts chapter 13 and I’m glad I did.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
It was simply the order of the words that caught my attention and a memory of conversation with my eldest son from the day before (and many times before that). “They were worshipping the Lord ———————–and fasting.” I asked myself and then the class, “Did the decision to fast precede their worship or is fasting a natural outcome of being engrossed in worship?” Yes, the practice of fasting during worship seems to have been fairly common practice in the early church and remains so in some traditions. Yes, it has its roots in Jesus own wilderness wanderings. Yet, what if we think of the practice of fasting as being more organically related to our worship of the Lord. What if we immerse ourselves in conversation with God and fellowship that we simply forget to eat or ignore the hole in our stomachs because well being with Christ and his followers is just too damn important and engaging that lunch can wait, and wait, and wait.
What if their prayer isn’t a result of the fasting but their fasting is a result of their prayer? What if the Church were not fasting in order to pray or as an aid to prayer but because they are praying they are too immersed in talking with God by the power of the Spirit that they have no thought of food just like my son ignores basic bodily needs when he is engrossed in XBox activities. Who would stop to eat when you are in the middle of Minecraft build or hanging with Sonic the Hedgehog? Why should I care about the pressure building in my bladder when I am so close to defeating this boss?
I bet we can all think of activities that so fully have our attention that we either forget to eat or knowingly delay gratification simply to stay where we are and doing what we are doing.
My son can forego eating and even ignore his bladder to the point of doing the pee-pee dance when playing on the XBox. Yet, as soon as we ask him to do one of his chores to load the dishwasher or load the washing machine eating or going to the bathroom or almost anything becomes a priority over the simplest chore. How many of us are so committed to our own banal activities that we fast in deference to them? Yet, when our Lord asks us to do something, these activities become priority one.