Reflections on Fasting
I have a confession to make: I’ve never liked the idea of fasting. The practice of denying oneself food for a period of time has never sat well with me. The common rhetoric in the church about this practice sometimes verges on magical thinking. Some theologians seem to suggest that serious fasting can force God’s hand. Devotees of the spiritual discipline of fasting sometimes veer from our Wesleyan roots and into works righteousness – as if fasting might secure one’s salvation. Since I am particularly prone to cynicism, I tend to default to these critiques of the practice and need help focusing on other perspectives. Given all of this, it’s particularly amusing to me that the Holy Spirit brought a required class on fasting from Duke Divinity into my life right now as our movement focuses on prayer and renewal in the Virginia Annual Conference.
If I’m being honest though, my hesitation with fasting is really about something deeper in me than the theological critiques in which I wrap my fragile ego. My battle with my weight and body image began in middle school and continued clear through early adulthood. At my largest, I found myself in the morbidly obese category. Prior to my weight loss, voluntary eating restrictions in my life were reserved for fad diets and intermittent bouts of self-control. Fasting triggers my insecurities like no other spiritual discipline possibly could because it leads me to face my past and to confront the silent ways food has a grip on me even today. Fasting prompts me to go back to that place – the place of denial, the place of shame in my body, the place of desperation. And yet, we’ve seen through this movement that the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing in our midst – calling people from shame to liberation, from desperation into hope. Perhaps fasting during this season can be a thing that leads me into further reliance on Jesus.
Fasting as a spiritual discipline, in connection with prayer, can be found all over the Old and New Testaments. The early church adopted some of the Jewish practices of established fast days, following the example of Jesus Himself who fasted for 40 days following His baptism by John (Matthew 4:2). John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached on the practice extoling its virtues and cautioning against the pitfalls inherent in the discipline. In particular, Wesley notes, and rejects, my objections by stating unequivocally, “Those have spoken of it, as if it were all in all; if not the end itself, yet infallibly connected with it…It is not all, nor yet is it nothing.” It seems that even Wesley struggled with the practice and concluded that it remained worthwhile.
It should come as no surprise that Wesley embedded some instructions in his sermon about how to go about fasting. Wesley unequivocally states that to fast is to not eat for a prescribed amount of time. He goes on to say that some may not be capable of this due to their health and so allows for the possibility of partial fasts (of an item, for example) or fasts from indulgent foods. He also allows for the possibility that a fast may take the form of consuming smaller quantities of food. What is quite clear, though, is the purpose of the fast: to refocus the congregant on the Lord.
Fasting as a spiritual discipline is something that should draw us into deeper relationship with God. When we fast, we set aside consuming food for a set period of time so that we can rededicate that time to prayer. The other thing that fasting allows is for us to stand in radical solidarity with the hungry. With every stomach gurgle, we are reminded that there are those who live this reality day by day. Further, we are reminded that Jesus gave His disciples – and us – clear instructions to feed His sheep (John 21). While the hunger that some are feeling is surely physical, still others are feeling a spiritual hunger for full inclusion in the life of their church. As we continue to discern next steps for our movement in the Virginia Annual Conference, it seems right to stand in solidarity with the hungry yearning for full bellies, hearts, and spirits. While I’ve never liked fasting, I’m coming to the conclusion that I definitely need it.
Josh Blakely hasn't always been a Methodist but when he fell in love with a Deacon, he also fell in love with Wesley. Since then, he has heard God's call to ministry more clearly through the loving affirmation of his faith community and the experience of justice in his work with higher education. Josh is currently on the ordination path as a Deacon, completing his theological degree work at Duke Divinity School while working full-time and trying to be the best partner he can to his wife and two children.