In college, I was assigned a three day detox fast as an assignment for my yoga course. Don’t judge me; I had tight hamstrings and a lot of stress. Detoxing is something spiritual people to do get rid of harmful toxins in the body. I still don't know what a toxin is, except that it must ultimately cause cancer and premature death. We had two options for this detox: three days of water mixed with apple cider vinegar, lemon, and cayenne pepper. Or, three days of ingesting fruit. I went to Piggly Wiggly and cleared out the fruit aisle. I ate mounds of fruit—baked apples for appetizers and frozen bananas for desert. The detox worked, well, because of fiber. Fruit has a lot of fiber.
I’ve not detoxed since because I was miserable without pork and ice-cream. I craved bread—sourdough with a thick crust and tangy chew. And I went to straight to Panera when the clock struck the seventy-second hour. Fasting is difficult because desire arises from abstinence. Prohibition creates longing, which is psychology 101 and the reason why I want Chick-Fil-A on Sunday.
Why would anyone fast? Why would anyone voluntarily suffer? It goes against every impulse in my body. I love food. I plan my days around when I’m going to eat. Fasting is best placed in between meals.
We are an anti-fasting people living in a culture of fast food and Google and Amazon Prime. John Ortberg calls it the Cookie Monster philosophy: “See cookie. Want cookie. Eat cookie.” We also live in a culture of overconsumption. On the Fourth of July, no one holds a fasting competition. We have hot dog eating competitions because nothing screams, “America” like fifty hot dogs. When there’s a crisis in my life, or in the church, I overindulge.
It never works.
This is why Lent is so necessary, and also difficult and rewarding. For forty days we become like the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for forty years waiting on their daily deliverance of manna before they finally arrived at the land of milk and honey. Lent helps us realize that we become healthier by becoming dependent, vulnerable, and needy. It's a deeply un-American season.
Christians typically begin the season by remembering that Jesus was hurled into the wilderness to fast at the start of his ministry by the Spirit (not Satan). If I’m going to fast, then the Spirit better hurl me into the wilderness, too.
In the larger narrative, Jesus was just baptized. Now, he’s in the desert. It’s not punishment; it’s preparation. Water and wilderness go together. Think of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea into the desert or Noah wading on the waves of the wilderness. God often uses scarcity to prepare, or reform, or educate his people. The point is that Jesus is in the wilderness, like Israel before him, and God is shaping his heart for something important.
Satan, which means the Enemy or the Adversary, is there waiting in the wilderness with temptations. Satan is easy to caricature: red suit, pitchfork, horns. But evil doesn’t look like that. The Adversary is the nagging the voice of reason inside your head: “Hey, you’re hungry; that’s a good thing. Turn the stone into bread. No one will ever know.” He’s got a good point. There’s nothing wrong with food; we have five or six taste buds that prove it. Let me get another piece of that sourdough.
Self-deception is so easy.
I’ve heard it said that Jesus’ first temptation isn’t about eating. The real temptation is to be full, or to never lack. It’s the temptation to be a slave to our appetites and to have every desire met. Think of the voice that tells you that you’re entitled to whatever you want: happiness, another five dollar coffee, a better job because you've been working so hard. Everything exists for your pleasure—especially the five dollar coffee.
Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is meant to sound like Eden. Remember Adam and Eve? They are in the garden with everything they need. Then, this conniving serpent says, “You know what? You can actually have more. There is one thing that God is hiding from you. Go for it. Take a bite.” You know what? He's right. A little more won’t hurt. Until it does. When you’re always fully satisfied, you may fool yourself into thinking you can actually save yourself. You will never die. You can be a god. Then again, good luck digging yourself out of a grave.
Jesus knows this and so he cites Scripture, “The human being is not nourished by bread only, but by every word that comes out of God’s mouth.” The truth is that we’ll never be full, unless God becomes our bread. Buying new clothes secretes endorphins in our brains, but it doesn’t satiate our souls. Jesus realizes that if he had bread, he’d be hungry the next day. If he had a beer, he’d be thirsty again. But learning to be satiated with the word of God, learning to feed on the bread of heaven, means he’ll never be hungry again. Jesus’ fasting foreshadows something that he will say later in John’s Gospel: “I am the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”
Here’s the point: “After fasting forty days and forty nights, [Jesus] was hungry” (Matthew 4:2).
If the point of fasting is hunger, then what are we hungry for?
Are we hungry for Jesus?
In college, that fruit fast was meant as a detox, to clear me out. Spiritual fasting operates the same way—it clears us out and reveals the things that control us. We are more than a collection of appetites to be satisfied and our desires have to be disciplined or they become our gods. Saint Augustine put it like this: “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”i
I faithfully participate in some fast for 40 days ever Lent. One year I swore off coffee. Know that smell of freshly ground beans? It’s the smell of Satan. Other times I’ve given up Facebook or social media. I’ve fasted from food on Fridays with the Catholics and become a vegetarian for forty days. I've never enjoyed it. Not once. But here’s the silver lining: when I’m done with the fast, I come out different. Stronger. Prayerful. A better heart. Others have said that we fast to feast on God.
Jesus tells his people this in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Your Father who sees [your fasting] in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-18)
When you fast you might drop a size in your jeans and more importantly, become holy. Each time your stomach rumbles, your heart rumbles, too. Self-denial draws us out of ourselves into God and others. Think of the others who are forced to fast, simply because there is not enough food. Why do we have so much, after all? If you give up Instagram, then you might notice that your worth is not based upon the number of people who ‘like’ a photograph. Rather, your worth is that you are Beloved, created in God’s image.
Fasting is not meaningless suffering or martyrdom. The reward is a transformed heart. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is not only worried about your actions, what you do, but he’s also concerned about your inner life. The heart is the center of your being. What comes out of you proceeds from the heart—all of your actions and intentions. Change the rhythm of your heart and you will also change your life.
One Jewish manual says that fasting works because it makes our bodies slow down so that our synapses will not click and our brains will not process quite as quickly.ii We physically force ourselves to move slower and to draw our eyes inward to the things that truly nourish. Notice what controls you. Be more mindful of God’s presence. Pay attention to those who are hungry and be grateful for God’s provision.
In other words, become hungry for God.
i.Augustine City of God
ii. Lauren Winner Mudhouse Sabbath