Fasting (Spiritual Disciplines Part 4)

You're not you when you're hungry. In 2010, Snickers began running a series of hilarious ads featuring notoriously grumpy celebrities like Betty White, Joe Pesci, Roseanne Barr, and Willem Dafoe in which the characters’ irritable disposition is remedied by eating a Snickers bar. In my house, we refer to this cantankerous mood as being “hangry,” a less than virtuous tendency that characterizes me more often than I’d like to admit, and also one that my children have apparently inherited.

What is it about the pangs of first world “hunger” that can cause us to behave in uncharacteristically unbecoming behavior? And can we use this tendency to reorient our desires toward the one who really satisfies us? The Bible actually prescribes the intentional short-term self-deprivation of food as an edifying spiritual discipline known as fasting:

"But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." 

-Matthew 6:17–18 (ESV)

Notice Jesus says “when you fast,” presuming this is a spiritual discipline believers are expected to do. But why? Well, in the same passage, Jesus tells us that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” showing an inexplicable link between fasting and finding our satisfaction in God. John Piper echoes this purpose:

“When you give a gift to Christ like [fasting], it's a way of saying, ‘The joy that I pursue is not the hope of getting rich with things from you...By giving to you what you do not need, and what I might enjoy, I am saying more earnestly and more authentically, 'You are my treasure, not these things.’’”

Jesus is the provider of all we need, and the satisfier of the longings of our souls. It can take a while to learn this, and honestly I’m still learning it. In 2015, when Lindsey and I were considering her quitting her full-time job as a teacher to stay home to teach our kids, I was really anxious about such a huge household pay cut. So I fasted and prayed, and God led me to Matthew 6 where Jesus says “look at the birds...do they worry about what they will eat? Look at the lilies...do they worry about what they will wear?” “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

Through fasting and prayer, we remembered that God’s provision is good, and it is enough. As I have come to realize the sufficiency of God’s provision, my prayers have changed from “Give us this day our daily bread” to “God I know your provision is good and timely and perfect, so help me to trust in your provision, to believe that your grace is new every morning, and to have absolute faith that I can trust your provision.”

Fasting is meant to be a reorientation of our hungers that points us towards the kinds of desires that actually need satisfying. Ironically, fasting often feels more like slowing, because it gives us time to reflect upon and change our perspective on what we think we need. Something about the hungry feeling of temporarily low blood sugar can point us to the spiritual reality of being blood-bought by Christ, the only one who grants absolutely every provision.

This series draws from Mike Cosper’s Recapturing the Wonder.

Solitude (Spiritual Disciplines Part 1)

Photo:  klndonnelly
This series draws from Mike Cosper’s Recapturing the Wonder, which examines spiritual disciplines as pathways to reawakening our sense of awe in God’s work around us and His presence in us.

The trees along the Pearl River are still mostly bare in early March, but what beauty they lack in color is made up for by the stillness they guard.  I walked for a while one day, mandolin slung over my shoulder, along a trail that winds its way through puddles and fallen leaves to a tiny clearing at a bend in the river.  This little patch would be submerged later in the spring, but on this grey afternoon, it was the perfect spot for me to be alone and search for a song.  I strummed for a while at the water’s edge but found I didn’t have much to say, so I thumbed through my notebook to an old hymn text I’d scribbled down that morning.  As I sang that prayer over the water, the noise in my head quieted, and for a few minutes, my soul drank in the elusive joy of solitude.

Solitude is difficult to come by for me these days.  Between work and laundry and twin babies on the verge of toddlerhood (and...Netflix and Twitter), making time to be alone with God is a hard habit to cultivate.  Yet it’s something Jesus modeled for us time and again.  He’d teach and heal and give of himself and then quietly slip away from the bustle to be alone with his Father.  It was his way of reorienting himself, of calling to mind the reality that he was in the world but not of it.

In a world that is increasingly restless and constantly busy, Christians must create space daily for stillness with God.  Notice that I didn’t say “find time.”  Everyone is busy, and if we allow ourselves this excuse, we’ll never actually find time.  In Recapturing the Wonder, Mike Cosper recounts his experience on a retreat at a small monastery in Kentucky.  The monks there have built their daily life around times of prayer and worship, signaled by the ringing of bells throughout the day.  Similarly, our days (and weeks and years) should be intentionally framed by times of worship, not as a means of pleasing God but of resting in Christ’s work on our behalf.

Time alone with God should anchor our daily routine, and we don't have to take a monastic vow or a long walk in the woods to make it happen.  Some people wake early for half an hour of prayer and Scripture study.  Some use their lunch breaks, and some end the day with a time of quiet stillness.  It’s looked different for me in each season of life, but right now, my times of solitude revolve around my twins.  Every morning, I sit between them for 15-20 minutes to feed them their bottles, so I use this time to pray (with this great app as a purposeful, Scripture-soaked guide).  My evening prayer is similar.  This practice has been life-giving.  

Creating this kind of space isn’t just limited to 30 minutes of quiet.  Throughout the day, we can take moments to pause, say a brief prayer, or recite a verse of Scripture (more on this in part two!).  Mealtimes are perfect for this, as well as trips to the restroom and daily commutes.  A little intentionality goes a long way in reminding yourself of the reality of the Gospel.  The result of these “reorientations” is a heightened awareness of God’s presence in and purpose for our lives.

As our series continues, we’ll examine what we do with our solitude (prayer and Scripture study) as well as fasting, feasting, and generosity.  Stay tuned for part two!