Over the years, I have tried to practice the spiritual discipline of fasting from time to time. For whatever reason, the physical part of fasting really isn’t that big a deal for me. I can generally handle the feelings of an emptier stomach or even the dull headache that comes when I go without eating for a while. What’s a bigger deal for me is the emotional part of fasting and handling the feelings of impatience, selfishness, and even anger. Here’s what I mean.
First, for those not familiar with the practice of fasting, it might be simply defined as “abstaining from food for spiritual purposes.” For a period of time–perhaps 24 hours–we go without eating to heighten our focus on God and to intensify our prayers and devotions. So, it’s not a diet plan or a way to manage your weight or get some other physical benefit. The idea is that, by forgoing our food, we are better able to feast on the sustaining presence and power of God. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. But the last time I fasted, I just got angry.
Not at first. At first I’m just hungry. But, with a little effort I can stare down those hunger pangs and come out feeling pretty self-righteous. “Lookit me, God,” my heart says. “Aren’t you impressed with me? I’m fasting! I bet you’ll be showing me some deep spiritual truths in no time.” But the thing is, God is not so easily manipulated. And so my hunger grows–not just a hunger for food but my hunger for results. Afterall, if I’m going to do this “abstaining from food for spiritual purposes,” I want to get something out of it. I want to feel more spiritual. I want to feel closer to God. I want to be a saintly superstar. And I want it all now. Yet God won’t play along.
And that’s when it starts: first irritation, then agitation, and finally flat-out anger. I’m angry with God that this fast of mine isn’t producing instant intimacy and holiness. I don’t feel closer to God; I just feel hungry and angry. I’m not getting my “deep spiritual truth” that I’m after; I’m just getting upset.
And then it hits me. That’s the “deep spiritual truth” that God wants me to see. I’ve got a bit of an anger issue, especially when I don’t get what I want when I want it. Fasting makes me confront my selfishness and my spirit’s demanding of immediate results. Not only is the desire for food delayed, but my desire for instant spiritual results must also be denied. In spite of me, God is working to shape my character after the image of Jesus.
I’m reminded of words recorded in the ancient book of Isaiah in which the Lord God recounts an interaction with his people:
“We have fasted before you!” they say.
“Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
and you don’t even notice it!”
“I will tell you why!” I respond.
“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves….
This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me.”
Prayer: O Lord God, forgive me for fasting of my food but not of my selfishness. Thank you for being patient with me and giving me want I need rather than what I always want. Teach me patience that I might endure not only inconveniences but also true hardships and sufferings.