For a long time, I thought the concept of fasting was just a cruel joke for those of us who love food and have less than exemplary will power when it comes to certain foods. For the first 20 years of my life, I knew three things about fasting: I knew that we, as Christians, were supposed to. I knew that it was difficult in any form, but could vary depending on the severity and length of the fast you were doing. I knew I didn’t like it, because I really like food and I had never managed to do it without failing.
I had this idea in my head of what a perfect fast would look like, and for some unthinkable reason (probably, I’d surmised, because I suck) I had never been able to reach that holy grail fast experience in the handful of days I’d spent attempting fasts. And, if I’m being honest with myself, I was afraid that I’d take on this big, holy thing, and discover just how small and unholy I am.
God and I were not under any illusions that I was perfect, but did we really need tangible proof?
Thanks, but no thanks.
And then, in the end of 2013, I felt like I was supposed to start the new year with a fast. I had been home for Christmas and attending a young adult group at a friend’s church in Bakersfield, and they had decided and announced that they were going to do a corporate 21 Day Daniel Fast. My initial reaction was immediate gratitude that I’d be back in Davis, and that I’d get to miss out on yet another fast I didn’t want to do in the first place. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I dreamt about it, it kept coming up in completely unrelated conversations, and I kept feeling like I needed to pray about it. Finally, waving my white flag and with no small amount of dread, I signed up to do it.
I failed spectacularly.
Seriously, I lived on bananas and fresh peanut butter, I physically couldn’t eat enough beans to stay full, I missed coffee like a phantom limb, and I cheated more times than I care to remember. I was a hangry, hangry mess for most of those 21 days. I think I had catastrophized it to the point that it was not nearly as bad as I was anticipating, but I wanted to do fasting perfectly, and I most definitely did not attain perfection. There was spiritual attack, I felt incredibly isolated because everyone else doing that fast was 300 miles away, several things that had looked really promising leading up to those few weeks completely fell apart, and it seemed like I was worse off for having tried. I limped across the finish line, and swore I’d never go back.
Fast forward to mid-December 2014, and I felt the pull to fast again. I immediately shut that down, given all of the chaos that had happened last time. The rest of that year had been really difficult, so I certainly wasn’t signing up for anything else to not go my way. And still, the feeling that I needed to be faithful, even in the midst of assured failure, lingered. So I begrudgingly fasted again. While it went better than the year before, it certainly wasn’t easy and didn’t go perfectly. I patted myself on the back for a job well done, and for relatively little having fallen apart, and prepared to tuck the fasting urge away for another year. Except that once the fast ended in January, I felt like I was supposed to fast for lent. Sun up to Sun down, nothing but liquid.
I was not on board.
My birthday is in the Lenten season, and no food during the day was insane. Jesus was getting out of hand with this fasting business. Add to that, the week before lent started, I started a long term position teaching the Foods and Cooking class at the school I worked at. I spent 5 periods a day teaching kids to cook various foods, and then helping them do it, and I couldn’t have any of it. I resigned myself to a long 40 days, and set out. Maybe, I’d eventually get one of these things done perfectly. I made it 2 weeks to the end without breaking the fast parameters, and one of my students offered me some of one of the dishes they’d made, and I accepted without even thinking. I was three bites in when I realized what I’d just done, and that yet again, I’d failed at a fast.
I went home and cried.
Was I never going to reach a point where I was good at fasting?
I’m pretty routinely good at things, even if it takes me a couple of tries, but the fact that I had failed in my third consecutive fast seemed like the final nail in the coffin. I wanted to quit. I’d been so close, so close to doing the fast in a way that didn’t require grace. Doing the fast in a way that highlighted my self-control. Doing the fast in a way that showed God that I could hold my own in the things He had asked of me.
I’m still not sure how I had managed to make it that long thinking that was what God wanted from me when He asked me to fast. Stubborn tenacity and an incredible ability to miss what is staring me in the face, perhaps. Fasting does not require perfection. Not anything remotely close to it.
Fasting requires trust in the Lord, and a willingness to be faithful, even in the face of potentially the worst parts of yourself.
It is such an intimate practice, and I can’t stop myself from cringing whenever I hear anyone try to guilt or peer pressure people into fasting to stay in this “ideal Christian” mold. Fasting, at least in the middle of it, will not make you feel like a good Christian. According to Matthew 6 it isn’t supposed to be something used to laud your skill and merit as a believer at all.
It is a difficult thing to commit too, certainly, but it is also it’s own kind of beautiful.
I never enjoy the fact that I’m hungry, and having to constantly check myself to make sure that I’m not letting the way I interact with people be influenced because of the hanger. But it’s also such a time of closeness and communion with God. I let myself need Him so much more when I’m fasting.
I invite Him to invade so much more of my day when I’m fasting.
I see Him so much more readily when I’m fasting. All things that I should be doing every day, regardless of how much or what kind of food is being consumed, but I am often easily distracted by all of the things in life loudly clamoring for my attention, and fasting provides an opportunity to turn down the volume.
I don’t think that any two fast experiences look the same, even if it’s the same person fasting on two separate occasions, so there isn’t any one way to do it exactly right. It requires so much grace, and a willingness to fail and continue to show up. It is difficult, precious, ugly, sacred, growing and a thousand other conflicting things all at once. I won’t begrudge you for choosing to not fast, or try to tell you that you need to do so to be a better follower of Christ. You are never more loved and adored by our Creator than this very moment, and your works don’t improve or decrease that at all. I will invite and encourage you, however, to be receptive if the Spirit nudges you to fasting.
Whether you’ve never attempted it before, or you’re a seasoned pro at this whole business, following the Lord where He leads (even when that leading is into a period of fasting) always ends up giving back more than it asks of us.
If I had to sum up the advice I would give to those who are thinking and planning on embarking on a fast it would be this: Don’t get caught up in legalism and shame. Let yourself need the grace that is so, so abundant throughout the process and trust that God can and will work in this space regardless of how well you stick to the plan.