You Are What You (Don’t) Eat Fasting helps us let go of our attachments and cravings Photo: © iStockphoto.com/olegkalina
BY MAJOR DAVID IVANY
he new year is traditionally a time when health clubs pitch their services, hoping to capitalize on the consciences of those who sat idle or overindulged during the holiday season. You usually won’t find elite athletes in that target group. Being able to resist temptations such as unhealthy fare and second helpings is easy when they focus on their goals, recognizing that self-denial is a key to maximizing performance. Self-denial and fasting are not positive concepts. They are subjects guaranteed to stifle conversation at any gathering. Even theologian Richard Foster, when researching fasting, had difficulty finding recent literature on the subject. While the excessive practices of self-mortification and flagellation, as seen in the Middle Ages, have repulsed many, we seem to have gone to the other extreme—totally disregarding a subject on which Jesus taught and which is a part of most religions. To fast is to let go of an appetite in order to seek God on matters of deep concern for others, ourselves and the world. A fast is the self-denial of normal necessities in order to intentionally attend to God in prayer. Bringing attachments and cravings to the surface opens a place for prayer. This physical awareness of emptiness is a reminder to turn to Jesus who alone can satisfy. This process is not meant to discourage, but to help us recognize we need
God and that he is inviting us to himself. It provides opportunity for solidarity with brothers and sisters around the world who do not have the resources with which we are blessed. In the Old Testament, fasting was prominent during times of national mourning and repentance, when people needed strength or mercy to persevere, and when they wanted a word from the Lord. Jesus practised fasting at the outset of his ministry in the desert. While not strict with his disciples about fasting, he did speak of certain healings requiring prayer and fasting. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encouraged his disciples by telling them how to fast. He didn’t want them to make a show of it, but to fast secretly. God would notice this and it would deepen their relationship with God, which was the goal. Fasting was not about earning points with God or obligating him in any way. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, it was not the Pharisee who fasted twice a week and tithed who was commended, but the tax collector who humbly pleaded for mercy (see Luke 18:9-14). While we usually associate fasting with food and drink, such as giving up chocolate or coffee, we could also consider limiting our media consumption, such as TV, music, computer games, Facebook and texting. We could also think of habits or comforts and the
things we take for granted—elevators, reading, sports and shopping. Changing our routine makes us uncomfortable, but it can help us to see in new ways and get us out of spiritual ruts. However, in the area of physical fasting, great care needs to be taken. The idea of fasting is not to make us ill or ill-tempered. It is to create awareness of our own need and to create space for God. Everyone is unique and needs to consider what is best for themselves. It is wise to share with a trusted friend or spiritual companion when considering fasting. Ultimately, spiritual disciplines are about opening ourselves to God’s best for us. They are not about an “outside job,” but an inner transformation. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes: “Our world is hungry for genuinely changed people—everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing themselves. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. Let us be among those who believe that the inner transformation of our lives is a goal worthy of our best effort.” “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23 ESV). Major David Ivany is a certified spiritual director who serves with the pastoral services team at Canada and Bermuda’s territorial headquarters. He and his wife are the corps officers at Regent Park’s Corps 614 in Toronto.
Time to Reflect
• When you feel empty or restless, what do you do to try to fill the emptiness? What does this tell you about your heart? • When has self-denial brought you something good? • Do you operate from an entitlement mentality? Do you feel the world owes you something? How can you wean yourself from this way of thinking? • Make two lists: one of needs, the other of wants. Ask God to show you where to fast from some of your wants. Offer to God the time you would have spent desiring your wants. Salvationist • March 2014 • 29