My first real experience with fasting took place in college. I was assigned a three day detox fast as a requirement for yoga. Yes, I took yoga for college credit. College can be a beautiful thing. Don’t judge me. I had tight hamstrings. We had two options for this detox fast: three days only drinking water, mixed with apple cider vinegar, lemon, and cayenne pepper. Or, three days of only eating fruit. It was not a difficult decision. The first option, honestly, sounds disgusting. I went to Piggly Wiggly and cleared out the fruit aisle. For three days, I ate heaping mounds of fruit—baking apples for appetizers and mushing up bananas and freezing them for desert. The point of a detox fast is to clear your system out. The detox worked, well, because of fiber. Fruit has a lot of fiber. I’ve already said too much.
This is something I have never done since. I was generally really hungry. I, like most folks, am much happier when my stomach is sated with ice cream and pork. Bill Clinton says that if someone is acting like a jerk you should ask if they’re hungry. That’s usually the problem. Kids call it being ‘hangry.’ And then, I only thought about bread—sourdough bread. I craved it. When the clock reached 72 hours, I went to straight to Panera. The hard part about fasting is that when you abstain from something, you want it more. That’s psychology 101. And the reason why I always want Chick-Fil-A on Sunday.
Why would anyone want to fast? Why would anyone not immediately satisfy cravings? It goes against every impulse in my body. Most fasts feel that way. I love food. I love eating. I plan my days around when and what I’m going to eat next. If I fast, I get it done in between meals (see what I did there).
We are an anti-fasting people. We live in a culture of immediacy—fast food and google and Amazon Prime. John Ortberg calls it the Cookie Monster philosophy: “See cookie. Want cookie. Eat cookie.” We live in a culture of overconsumption. On the Fourth of July, no one holds a fasting competition. We have hot dog eating competitions. Nothing screams, “America” like fifty hot dogs. When there’s a crisis in my life, or in the country, that worries me, I overindulge. Give me that extra drink, an entire pizza for myself, whatever.
The problem is that Jesus says “when you fast,” not if you fast. Jesus assumes that his followers are going to do this. Turns out that this isn’t something only done by the Catholics. Open your Bibles: Moses fasted. So did David, Elijah, other prophets like Zechariah, Amos. Esther fasted before confronting the King of Persia. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, all Jews fast for twenty five hours from food and drink. That’s just the Old Testament. Paul fasted with the members of the early church. It was a central discipline throughout the Middle Ages. John Wesley, who is the founder of the Methodist movement, fasted at least every Friday and sometimes more often. Hard to find any serious follower of Christ who did not fast.
Every Lent, I faithfully participate for 40 days. One year I swore off coffee. I had to avoid coffee shops at all cost. Know that smell of freshly ground beans? It’s wrong. 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 never enjoy it. Not once. But here’s the thing: when I’m done with the fast, I come out different. Stronger. A better heart. A better Christian.
Jesus was hurled into the wilderness to fast at the start of his ministry. The Spirit, not Satan, violently throws Jesus the wilderness. 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. There is something central and irreplaceable about the wilderness for the people of God. God often uses the wilderness to prepare, or reform, or educate his people. That should sound familiar if you’ve spent some time in the Old Testament. Noah’s ark floated on the waters for forty days and forty nights. The Israelites escape Pharaoh through water, only to wander for 40 years. Here’s the point that Matthew is making: Jesus is Israel and God is preparing him for something big.
Satan, which means the enemy or the adversary, is there waiting in the wilderness with three temptations: turn these stones to bread, skydive from the pinnacle of the Temple, worship evil. Today, we’re only going to think about the first. Satan is so easy to caricature. Red suit, pitchfork, horns. But evil doesn’t look like that. The devil is more like the nagging the voice of reason inside your head: “Hey, you’re hungry; that’s ok. Turn the stone into bread. No one will ever know.” Sneak in that sourdough, your teacher will never find out. He’s got a good point. There’s nothing wrong with food. God wants us to enjoy food; we have five or six taste buds that prove it. Jesus multiplies five loaves to feed five thousand and he breaks bread at the table and calls it his body. The Lord teaches us to pray for our daily bread. Fasting doesn’t mean that food is bad.
I’ve heard someone say that this is temptation isn’t about eating. The real temptation is to be full, or to never lack. You’re entitled to that happiness. Get that new car-you've been working so hard. It’s the temptation to be a slave to our bellies and to always have each desire met. When you’re always fully satisfied, you might be fooled into thinking you don’t need any help. This whole story is meant to sound like Eden. Remember Adam and Eve? There they are in the garden and they have everything they need. Then, here comes this serpent that 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. ” We are just a collection of appetites to be satisfied. There’s always more to consume, but we’ll never feel full. It’s like an episode of the Twilight Zone.
Jesus knows this. He cites Deuteronomy, “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 releases feel-good 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. This harkens forward to something that Jesus will say later in John’ Gospel: “I am the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” This is fasting to feast on God.
Matthew says, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, [Jesus] was hungry.” Now this sounds simplistic, but the point of fasting is hunger. What are we hungry for?
Are we hungry for Jesus?
Saint Augustine said it like this: “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.” Are we giving our hearts to all the wrong things—things that can’t feed us?
In college, that fruit fast was meant to clear me out. I later learned that spiritual fasting does the same thing—it reveals the things that control us. One jewish fasting manual says that fasting works because it actually makes our bodies slow down and our synapses will not click, our brains will not process quite as quickly (Lauren Winner talks about this in Mudhouse Sabbath). We move slower and look at our lives and realize that there is another food that nourishes you. Desires have to be disciplined or they become our gods. You’ll notice your addictions and see whats beneath the surface of your heart. Give up the morning coffee reveals the powerful control of caffeine. Or, giving up meat allows us to realize that you can actually live on plants. And in the process, you might think more about others who are forced to fast, simply because there is not enough food. If you give up Instagram, then you might realize that your worth is not based upon the number of people who ‘like’ a photograph. Your worth is that you are Beloved, created in God’s image.
One last thing: In the first Scripture, Jesus says, “Your Father who sees [your fasting] in secret will reward you.” What’s the reward? Fasting is not meaningless suffering or martyrdom. The reward is a transformed heart. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, 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. It doesn’t just keep you alive; it’s who you are. What comes out of you proceeds from the heart—all of your actions and intentions are born in your inner life. But we have to clean our hearts and train them to beat to another rhythm. This is the purpose of spiritual disciplines. Put your hearts in rhythm with God’s. Fast. Be more mindful of God’s presence. Mindful of those who are hungry. More grateful for God’s provision. More hungry for God.