The Spiritual Tradition of Fasting
and its Implementation into the 21st Century Western Church
and its Implementation into the 21st Century Western Church
SP500: Spiritual Traditions and Practices
Dr. John Bangs
September 14, 2012
Is your life a feast or a famine? The spiritual tradition of fasting is an ancient practice that is incorporated into nearly every religion. Fasting physically from food has traditionally been used as a method of feeding the spirit. The denial of self indulgence is believed to be essential for an awakening of spiritual vitality. Historically, within the context of the Judeo-Christian narrative, the tradition of fasting was practiced regularly for the sake of deepening one’s connection to the Holy Spirit, mourning a loss, and to prepare for trials. Moses fasted atop Mount Sinai for forty days as he communed with God. Nehemiah mourned the destruction of Jerusalem for days. Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert before starting his public ministry. The tradition of fasting can be associated with the season of Lent in many Christian denominations. Outside of the realm of religious practice, fasting is also used in medical treatments as a form of restoring regular function of the body’s systems. An athlete might fast in order to prepare their body for training.
Diogenes Allen writes in his book Spiritual Theology that there is a journey with three stages. The “active life”, the first stage, deals with the realms of practical advice that should invoke behavioral change or praktike (practice) that will help in overcoming evil actions. Theoretike, the “contemplative life” consists of the second and third stage of the journey: physike, the contemplation of nature and theoria, the interaction with God through other creatures. The purpose for spiritual theology is to guide us in the journey of loving God and loving our neighbor.1 It can be asked again, is your life a feast or a famine?
Just as the Bible has several examples of fasting, it also has several food centered metaphors that deal with spiritual growth. The Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 5 in the NIV, says “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Verse 16-17 ends, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.” Galatians chapter 5 verses 22-23 goes into more detail on what the fruit of the Holy Spirit is, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
The practice of fasting is a conduit through which the Holy Spirit tempers desires for wickedness. It is through the denial of the flesh that spiritual fruit is able to grow from mere applied behavior and blossom as instinctual habit. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is the very nature of Jesus, his characteristics that indwell in a person and are made full through their sharing with others the gift that God has given them in new life. Marjorie Thompson writes in her book Soul Feast, “fasting from physical food can scarcely be experienced as spiritual until it is joined to the sense of feasting on God’s gracious love and responding by loving others. Feasting prepares us for authentic service.”2
John chapter 15 invokes a vivid contemplation of a fruit tree, for descriptive sake an apple tree. Jesus Christ is the life giving branch, people are the vines, and Jesus bears the fruit in them. Now what happens to this fruit once it is ripe? Does it simply stay attached to the tree as an ornament, a mark of accomplishment? No, such results would be unnatural to God’s design for fruit. Why would God chose to flaw an analogy where the fruit serves as the primary vessel for sustenance of another creature? When an apple reaches ripeness in the wilderness, it will fall from the tree and be devoured by the ecosystem of life surrounding the tree, henceforth dying to self, and providing the essential bed of soil for the reproductive seed within to grow in optimal circumstances. This contemplation of the natural world evokes a very strong reaction for the Christian. When the Holy Spirit cultivates its fruit in a person’s life, it is not for the enjoyment of the person per say, as they will undoubtably still receive enjoyment from being like Christ, but its primary purpose is for the reproduction of faith in others.
Allen invokes a strong connection between our spiritual journey and the fulfillment of the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 37-40, NIV) Like the fruit that falls from the tree after it has abided in Christ and has been formed in his very likeness, a person is called to die to themselves, surrendering their will, so that the love of God would be reproduced in the communion with others. The Christian must take inventory of their life and understand that when they invite others to commune and share with them in their faith, that they must first be bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit so that what they are inviting outsiders to is not a famine, but a glorious feast! Jesus said that his body was the bread of life and that his blood was the cup of the covenant, a person can only be sustained by him alone. One’s spiritual health depends on their appetite for the nature of Jesus. Do they desire to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit, or to pursue their own wickedness? This is why fasting has proved to be an essential tradition in the Christian faith.
Macrina Wiederkehr, a sister of the blah blah blah order explains the positive value of fasting in her book Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary:
Fasting is cleansing. It cleans out our bodies. It lays bare our souls. It leads us into the arms of that One for whom we hunger. In the Divine Arms we become less demanding and more like the One who holds us. Then we experience new hungers. We hunger and thirst for justice, for goodness and holiness. We hunger for what is right. We hunger to be saints.
Most of us are not nearly hungry enough for the things that really matter. That’s why it is so good for us to feel a gnawing in our guts. Then we remember why we are fasting. We remember all the peoples of the world who have no choice but to go to bed hungry. We remember what poor stewards of the earth we have been. We remember that each of us is called to be bread for the world. Our lives are meant to nourish. Fasting can lead us to the core of our being and make us more nourishing for others.3
The Christian must be very careful warns Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline, “To use good things to our own ends is always the sign of false religion. How easy it is to take something like fasting and try to use it to get God to do what we want. At times there are such stress upon the blessings and benefits of fasting that we would be tempted to believe that with a little fast we could have the world, including God, eating out of our hands. Fasting must forever center on God. It must be God-initiated and God-ordained.”4
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware adds to the conversation, “We do not fast because there is anything in itself unclean about the act of eating and drinking. Food and drink are, on the contrary, God’s gift, from which we are to partake with enjoyment and gratitude. We fast, not because we despise the divine gift–so as to purify our eating and drinking, and to make them, no longer a concession to greed, but a sacrament and means of communication with the Giver.5
Jewish author Abraham Joshua Heschel stresses that the Sabbath is a day of rest and relief. The Sabbath is a day of praise and not petition, and that fasting on such a day is forbidden6. For the Christian, this invokes a wonderful time of contemplation, one in which the imagery of a banquet in heaven is being served. A true feast is awaiting the believer as described in Isaiah 25: 6-8.
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine, the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.
Therefor, if the Christian believer is awaiting such a feast, it is to be anticipated and celebrated in the body as a foreshadow of the glory of God that is to come. As it is tradition during the season of Lent to utilize Sunday as a day to omit the fasting process and to enjoy the fellowship of the body. In such a situation, it is the act of fasting that heightens the enjoyment of the time together. It is more the habit of the modern church to over program event driven times of fellowship that rarely accomplish a heightened sense of fulfillment from being in the body. In the agricultural world, before a seed can be planted, the ground must be tilled, broken apart, allowing for air and water to enter into what was previously dense and compacted. In doing so, the seed is given room to spread roots out and establish a fertile base. Prayer and fasting are the tools that till the soil of a persons heart. Without fasting that is focused in prayer on communing with God, the seed of faith will find it difficult to spread its roots out freely. The living water of the Word, the life giving breath of God and the light of the Lord will have an inadequate system in which to be received. Ultimately, the fruit of the Holy Spirit will be lacking, and the life that was designed to be a banquet for the body, will now serve only as an invitation to a famine.
The current shifting of post-modernism throughout Western Civilization places the church at a fork in the road. During the classical age of the church, spiritual traditions were routinely utilized and were formative to developing social and cultural norms. However, the modernist movement, steeped in the discovery of the unknown and the scientific explanation of things once thought unimaginable, shifted the church from a center of spiritual formation to more of a center of spiritual distribution. The church began the model the new king of the era – the corporate business.
While Catholic, Orthodox, and other liturgically centered denominations were able to retain many of their rich spiritual traditions, other groups of reformed believers sought to model more purely the monastic and apostolic origins. Mass and O’Donnell write about John Wesley’s strong emphasis on individual moral and spiritual accountability. Wesley’s held to a legalistic understanding of the means of grace as: faithfulness in corporate worship, frequent Communion, private and family prayer, daily study of Scripture alongside fasting and abstinence.7 While it is commendable to establish such discipline along a spiritual journey, there is a dangerous snare of allowing pride to enter into the action and practice of discipline, corrupting its God centered nature, and causing the person to center the focus of achievement onto themselves. The same folly as mentioned in Richard Foster case, man can easily lose focus of God initiated discipline and contort it to be a device that man uses to get what he wants.
The twentieth century saw a slow transition away from modernism in the western world. After the horror of the World Wars, the church was mostly silent in the face of such opportunity to right wrongs. The growth of the music industry, developing technologies, and the increased mobility of the family unit all gave great support to the growing post-modern movement. Art, philosophy, and politics have dramatically shifted over the last seventy-five years, large and in part to a growing sense of relativity around the subject matter of truth. No longer is the question being asked, “Is it true?” Instead, the post-modern mind asks, “How do I feel about this?” Churches are adapting to answer the later question, but are also leaving behind cumbersome traditions that don’t easily appeal to the natural senses.
Allen brings fasting back into a post-modern perspective by invoking a paradigm shift, “hunger, toil and solitude are the means of extinguishing the flames of desire.The hunger of fasting is a constant reminder of the sacrifices made for us by God incarnate in his earthly life. Each time we feel hunger or resist the temptation to eat and drink we are reminded of why we are not eating or drinking, namely because we want to become people whose entire heart, mind, soul, and strength are devoted to loving God.” He continues, “One of the most important barriers to the spiritual life is that we tend to regard God as our opponent, not our helper.”8 Sad, but true.
The god that is worshiped in much of post-modern civilization is the god of the self. Fasting is one of the only tools, that when used properly, can realign us into a state of dependance on something larger than ourselves, something that is outside of us, and yet at the same time deep within ourselves. Fasting bridges the gap between the primitive Adam who hunted his food from day to day and our modern refrigerators that provide for us what we want, when we want it, how we want it. Fasting is the denial of self provision and self communion, so that communion with God can be achieved in such abundance that the very presence of God overflows from our vessel into the greater reservoir that is the body.
The individuals corporate spiritual life should not outshine their private spiritual life. There are too many churches that have fallen victim of a modernist movement to slap a logo and slogan on spirituality, write a jingle for it, and promise the masses that it will cure all their problems. In turn, those that have found themselves dissatisfied with the modernist approach have moved away from the truth and have sought after a fulfilling the of the emotional capacities in spirituality. While more organic, unfortunately this approach is a vessel with a leaky crack and requires constant cycles of filling and emptying.
The classical value to spiritual formation was modeled by so many of the patriarchs of our faith and ultimately illustrated by our Lord on the cross. We must fast from this world, loosening its dominion over our desires, and yearn for the true sustaining goodness of Jesus Christ. If we eat of this world, our lives will be a famine to the body around us, but if we fast, the soil of our hearts will thirst for the goodness of God and bring out an upright shoot that will promise to be a feast bearing source of spiritual fruit. It is in dying to self that we find life in the body around us.
- Diogenes Allen, Spiritual Theology (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1997), 9.
- Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1995), 87.
- Macrina Wiederkehr, Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), 53.
- Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (HarperOne, 1988) 49.
- Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995) 116.
- Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005) 30.
- Maas and O’Donnell, Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990) 321.
- Diogenes Allen, Spiritual Theology (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1997), 83.