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A deeply misunderstood discipline within Christianity has evoked countless debates across the centuries. Despite it's presence in almost every religion throughout history, modern Christians tend to place the practice of fasting on the back-burner at best, or consider it an outdated, legalistic and useless method at worst.
But if almost every religion finds value in fasting, shouldn't we at least consider the source? Shouldn't we investigate whether perhaps it has some merit, even if the practice itself has become perverted from it's original intention and value?
In order to better understand, we look to the pattern and evidence of fasting. While other areas of study may be of use to us, we're only going to discuss two: religious and biological. Further down, we'll break down the prescription and benefits (both biological and religious.)
Religions Do it, So Should You
The “everybody is doing it argument” falls flat when we think about things like drugs, or jumping off bridges. Our parents told us ad nauseam the horrors of following the crowd, and we submitted to their parental wisdom—the crowd of parents all telling us not to follow conventional wisdom. Go figure.
And while your parents were right with some things, we end up taking their advice a little too far...on occasion.
When we study ancient civilizations, cultures and religions, certain things pop up over and over again. We see practices, attitudes, and social movement happen in similar fashion, and to such a point that we get sayings like, “Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The truth still sits at the bottom of the idea—certain things become true about humans, not just society groups. History repeats itself precisely because we're human and certain truths will show up...whether we like them or not.
Looking at religion through such a lens, you pick up certain practices that just seem to happen time and time again. So much so, that archaeologists and historians will attempt to trace the origin of the practice, and claim that anybody who came after, stole it from the OG religion.
Things like animal sacrifices, astronomy and divination (discerning through omens or specially selected people) are a constant among the various religions. Fasting is certainly one of those practices. Before you shrug it off and say, “Yeah, so someone borrowed it, thought it was a good idea, so it went from there,” let's explore another theory.
Let's just say God is real. In some way, shape or form, a God exists who created everything. If you're an atheist, just hang with me. That God creates humans, and humans spread across the earth. We're shown from the biblical account that humans quickly begin changing things and creating different gods. From a christian perspective, this is the process of darkening the mind. Read Romans 1, and you'll see the process. As humans give up God, they quickly replace Him and worship created things, as opposed to the Creator Himself.
However, if your culture has warped the image of God, you would most likely still retain the very concrete, very useful practices that the collective conscience of your people know brought them closer to God at one time. Things like animal sacrifices, praying, worship, fasting and discerning. These pillar practices may get modified in some way, but the basics remain the same. We put our own twists on them, but they are still recognizable.
Suddenly, it makes sense why they sacrificed goats, bulls and sheep to Zeus. Its understandable that discerning the stars shows up across the world. Genesis 1:14 states, “Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years.” Don't forget, Christ Himself said the sun, moon and stars would signify the times.
And most important to our discussion, many religions and faiths use fasting as a powerful tool. If we find the commonality among them, then perhaps it has a consistency among them for a reason (much like the myth of a flood shows up across most civilizations...pointing to a truth at the bottom of it.)
But It's Healthy for You
I need to put a disclaimer. I don't feel like fighting some dimwit in court because they just blindly follow every single thing they're told, yet don't have enough sense to figure out how to do it correctly.
DISCLAIMER: You need to talk to a doctor before trying a fast. I'm not a medical professional, I don't pretend to be one, I've never played one on television, and I never stayed at a Holiday Inn Express (for you older folks.) I'm giving commentary, thoughts, opinion and personal anecdote. That's it.
So, now that you've talked to your doctor; I want to discuss the biological reasons for fasting. The discipline itself, from an evolutionary standpoint, has some strong origins in how we developed as animals. I'm not calling you an animal, but consider it a term to differentiate the religious from the biological.
Purely from the natural standpoint, humans were, for a long time, hunter-gatherers. The time frame of the great switch to an agricultural society can be argued about by people nerdier than me. I don't have time. But, nevertheless, a body accustomed to a hunter-gather lifestyle needs to run optimally on periodic fasts. Consider the lion.
A zoo found that replacing their lion's diets with a fasting/gorge process as opposed to daily feedings produced amazing results. The lions became more energetic, stalked more, paced less, and seemed happier. And the reasoning makes sense.
Out in nature, a lion is not guaranteed a meal every couple of hours. They may go several days before they eat again. So when the lion catches a kill, they gorge and eat as much as they can, rest to let it all digest, and then when they're ready, they'll go out again. During that fasted period, their body rests, repairs and prepares.
Some predators may go weeks between kills, meaning their body must be able to operate efficiently even without constant nourishment.
Looking at our bodies tells us that we seem to be set up for the same process. When a person has good metabolic flexibility, they can switch easily between burning carbs and fats for energy. Fat is a pure energy source, and we carry fat on our body (some of us more than others) to ensure a supply of energy for those lean times. When we gorge on food, we use carbs for energy and store the excess. This ensures that if we go through a lean period again, we've got energy stores.
But what's even more interesting is that our body seems to improve functions during a fast. A lot of scientific evidence points to the connection between ghrelin, a hormone that tells us to eat, and brain activity. A study with mice found that those mice who fasted had raised ghrelin, which correlated with new brain cells being created at a faster rate within the hippocampus. Mice who didn't fast saw no uptick, and mice who had no ghrelin in a fasted state also didn't see any brain cell creation in the hippocampus.
What's more, that section of the brain is devoted to things like emotions, learning and memory.
Couple this with exercise, which is connected to increasing the production of neurons, and you find that exercise and periodic fasting can be beneficial for the brain.
The jury is still out, but the evidence from periodic fasts seems to point to increases in memory, cognition/thinking skills, brain cell production, cell renewal, lower risk factors for things cancer and heart disease, and energy utilization.
Some studies are even showing that mice with Alzheimer's disease tend to live 2 ½ years longer when fasting regularly.
The Truth About the Biological
We are far away from a natural environment, and this allows us to run amok with how we treat our bodies. For most of us, the thought of missing a day of eating, let alone a meal sends shivers down our spines. I want you to truthfully ask yourself: when was the last time you went a day without eating? The average american would probably answer “Years,” if not “Never.”
Never allowing our body to settle from all the nutrients is running our bodies ragged. Plenty of evidence exists that people who fast periodically lead happier, healthier, longer livers. Imagine what your body could do if it was free from the onslaught of acidic sugars, massive carbohydrates, thick goopy fats and poisons galore for a few days? Taking a day or two off once in a while gives the body a chance to cleanse, repair and rebuild. It offers the body a chance of complete rest.
Unfortunately, our bodies scream and cry bloody murder if we go a few hours without something sitting in our stomach. But as for that...we'll get to that later.
It's time to put on my pastor hat and begin teaching the spiritual benefits of fasting. Not many in today's western Christianity give heed to fasting, and unfortunately we've missed out on a very useful practice because of our shortsightedness. Whether it comes from ignorance, misunderstanding or down right heresy; the truth is that we don't discuss it enough.
Perhaps such an attitude results from our view of the body. We consider the body/flesh to be sinful and wicked, destined for destruction, and therefore we pay it no mind. We shove it aside and focus more on the soul and spirit, because after all, those are useful. And it means we can eat our ice cream and feel like, “Well, body, you deserve to be destroyed by sugar. You're wicked.”
Okay, maybe spite doesn't run that deeply through us, but sometimes one wonders. Either way, our spiritual conversations tend to leave out physical disciplines. The problem is, so much of the flesh wrapped up in the body/soul controls our spiritual health.
When we become distracted or desire something, we have a choice: follow what the flesh says and compromise on the spiritual, or follow the spiritual and ignore the flesh. If we follow the spiritual, then we must learn how to make the flesh submit to the will, which is then inline with the spiritual.
And frankly, when was the last time you TRULY did battle with your flesh? Or did you kinda hem and haw, and then tell yourself, “Well, God gives grace. And this temptation is just so tough, so He understands?”
Our flesh is a spoiled, greedy, five year-old brat.
The flesh says, “Feed me,” so you jump right up and grab a snack.
The flesh says, “I'm bored,” so you immediately grab your phone, a screen or a book.
The flesh says, “I'm lusting,” and so you seek out sexual “satisfaction” through your wife or some less honorable means.
Our flesh consumes at an unbelievable rate, and we sit with the massive spoon, dishing it down the throat of little, lovely baby wants-everything, because we're too afraid to say, “No.” We're afraid of the discomfort of hunger. We attempt to avoid boredom at all costs. We cannot possibly fathom staying awake an extra couple hours to pray.
Our flesh cries bloody murder, and we believe it. Yet, the human body can do some absolutely amazing feats of pushing itself. People survive going 40 days without food, yet our body cries “foul” when we skip three meals.
At some point, we associated discomfort with wickedness. It's a compromise of the biggest form. We compromise our spiritual position because when the flesh kicks up a little, we submit and coax it right away. Your stomach yells a little because you didn't eat for half the day? You give in. Because it owns you. And then your soul gets in on the 2-on-1, because it also doesn't want to hear the body give a little hissy-fit. Imagine your five year-old on the ground in the store, screaming because you're evil and won't let them have a candy bar. It's the same dang thing, but you just won't admit it to yourself.
Christ chastised His disciples in the garden of Gethsemane, for falling asleep while He prayed about His crucifixion happening the next day. He says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Your flesh is weak, and fasting is a discipline to force it to submit. The more regularly you fast, the more the biological will benefit you, and the more the spiritual benefits will show themselves.
Imagine trying to hear someone talk to you softly while your child screamed bloody-murder for some pancakes. Imagine they're screaming so loud that it's reverberating inside your head. Would you focus on what the person whipsers to you, or would you ignore them, feed the kid, then try to come back and talk to the person?
Now, imagine turning to the child, and in your most parental, wise, kind, and understanding way, you tell them, “Shut up or I will put you in the microwave!” Their eyes go wide, their jaw drops a little, and for at least a short amount of time, they're quiet.
Then you'd turn to the person, and ask, “Now, what were you saying?”
We need to do this with our bodies. Your flesh WILL fall into subjection. It just doesn't want to, and it knows that you're weak enough to give up if it fights a little. But if you can get past that initial argument, the body will subject, and suddenly, your eyes and ears will be open to hearing the Holy Spirit.
When the body comes under subjection, and you focus on the Lord, a whole new spiritual world opens up to you. You begin to hear the Holy Spirit clearer, things start happening at faster rates, and you understand the proper position of the body in this whole mess. The flesh should be subject to the will of the Lord, not the other way around.
So How Do You Do It?
From Isaiah 58:3-7: ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
Isaiah gives us a pretty good prescription that has the stamp of God on it. Fasting is about your relationship with the Lord and with your neighbor. While the people during Isaiah's time were fasting and going about their normal selfish, sinful business, God points out to them the proper heart position of the fast. Praying and fasting about things like, “Loosing the chains of injustice” and “sharing your food with the hungry” are others-centered.
This heart position sounds strangely familiar. God's conditions in Isaiah seem to fall under the category of the two greatest commandments (as defined by Christ), “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and body, and love your neighbor as yourself. In these things, the law and the prophets are fulfilled.”
Fasting with a heart and mission for others, in a selfless state, produces more spiritual worth than continuing in sinful, selfish practices and hoping the fast will get you what you think you need. The Israelites weren't fasting with humility, but with pride fully intact.
The prophet Joel prescribes that when you need to return to the Lord, fast, pray and weep, which shows the heart position of humility and repentance.
Christ, who most likely is top candidate for knowing how to do it properly, tells us not to fast and show off. The last thing a believer should do is wear a fast as a spiritual medal pinned to the chest. Groaning and crawling like you're going to die from your oh-so-spiritual-and-long fast does not bend the heart of the Lord towards you. The fast is for the soul/heart/flesh, not for others to see.
So Christ basically says, “Clean yourself up, walk normally, and focus on the inner value.” When someone asks you out to lunch, don't swoon and crumple, crying out, “But I'm fasting for the Lord. My God, My Savior has thus commanded me, no unclean thing shall touch my lips!” Instead, maybe just say, “I'd love to, but I can't today. Tomorrow?”
Allow your fast to be between you and the Lord. Spend your time focusing on the internal, not the external show.
If you can approach the fast with the proper heart position, then you'll discover a true, intimate, deep relationship with the Lord. Combining fasting with prayer and worship develops the communion state with the Lord, and brings you into deep relation with our Creator.
But Which One
The time frame is truly up to you and the Lord. He may put it on your heart to fast for a meal, or a day, or perhaps a week or more. A humble heart, growing in how to hear from the Lord, recognizes the time to begin and the time to end.
However, do not approach the fast in pride and competition. Deciding you're going to be the most holy on earth and fast for 40 days nets you very little, whereas a fast for a couple of days with a completely humble and submitted heart is more likely to build the connection you need with the Lord.
Fasting is extremely valuable, and while fasts from other things are good, food is the most important item to cancel off your list. Some people decide to fast from social media, and while this is helpful to clear the mind, it's merely peanuts compared to a fast from all food. Our “fasts” from television or social media are more akin to denying ourselves a pleasure for a time period, than providing us time away from something we actually truly need.
Other times, people will decide to fast from something like ice cream, or decide to go on the Daniel fast. I may irritate some faithful believers, but here me out: I don't believe the Daniel fast is in fact a fast.
Daniel determined to not eat the rich food of the king, which was actually a spiritual declaration. That action showed that Daniel would not consume his nourishment from the world, and could not be placated and brought into a lazy comfort by the riches the world had to offer. God blessed Daniel eating vegetables to prove that we're sustained by God, not by the nourishment and “bread” of the world.
But what people don't realize, is that the Daniel fast is just an adjustment of what you're eating. It's a denial of pleasure, more so than denial of complete nourishment. The body still works to break the items down, and those items then nourish the body.
While it can be useful, I want to ask this: do you find yourself just adjusting what you're eating when you're on the Daniel fast? Do you still attempt to quiet the hunger pains in your stomach by eating something?
The “Daniel fast” is more akin to a restricted diet than a fast, and I believe we as Christians would be better served to approach fasting in the most real sense possible: no food. Others go farther and go without food or water. That's a conversation topic between you and the Lord.
Learn to have the hunger pains, and grow in forcing the body to submit. After some complaining, it will quiet down, and you'll find yourself feeling energetic, uplifted, focused and spiritually aware.
It's not just faith...it's science.
People consider the fast a dead spiritual practice, but when we look into the specifics of the discipline, we find extreme value. Countless practitioners of different religions seek God, whether accurately or inaccurately, and so many have used the fast to heighten spiritual awareness, quiet of the flesh, and a humble heart. Fast for the needy and the oppressed, and the Lord will raise you up. He said it. Not me.