With Lent right around the corner, I’ve been thinking that now would be a good time to rummage through my old attic of spiritual disciplines, pull out an oft-forgotten item, dust it off, and put it to use again. So I fasted yesterday.
CONFESSION – You will be hard-pressed to find a Christian leader of any stripe who is worse at fasting than I am. Indeed, you may be hard-pressed to find any Christian anywhere who is worse at fasting than I am.
I heard stories growing up (and continue to hear stories, for apparently people still do this) of people – both Christian leaders and the so-called “laity” – fasting for extraordinary lengths of time. Weeks on end. The mythical 40 day fast loomed and continues to loom large in my mind.
I honestly don’t know how these people do it. Two years ago, this kid from our church, Jake, decided to go on a fast. 43 days later, he broke it and then went on a missions trip to Japan. As elated as I was for him, I was also embarrassed for myself. “Good Lord,” I thought, “this kid just fasted longer than JESUS, and I’m supposed to be his pastor? Me – who can hardly go without food for more than an hour without getting whiny?”
It’s actually as sad as it is comical for me. On Sunday night, after church, Mandi and I grabbed some Taco Bell. I ate two chicken soft tacos and some weird cheese-covered potato things. Then we went to bed. I woke up yesterday morning knowing that I was at that point officially “fasting”, which had an immediate impact on my morning prayers at 7:30ish. I definitely felt more spiritual because I was doing without food, until it occurred to me that on a normal morning, I don’t usually eat anything until 9:00 anyway. I promptly followed up feeling really spiritual by making up some excuse as to why Monday actually wasn’t a good day to fast.
Like I said… I am pretty terrible at fasting. It is a completely harrowing experience for me. I hate not eating. I’ve never understood these people who can say outrageous things like, “Yeah at 2:00 this afternoon it occurred to me that I hadn’t eaten anything ALL DAY.” Seriously. Food is the first thing I think about in the morning, and I don’t stop thinking about it until I go to bed. And even then it’s a challenge to stop thinking about it. So when I fast I find myself vacillating wildly between being absurdly self-congratulating for my moral stamina and trying to find defensible reasons to quit.
Be all of that as it may (now that I’ve totally outed myself), fasting is really good for me. And here’s why:
1) It reminds me how human I am. I am really uncomfortable being human. I’d like to be a demi-god. Deep down, I believe in perfection, and most of my days are spent trying to attain it. I would like to have no weaknesses, no obvious shortcomings. Instead, the truth is that I have many more than I would like. Fasting reminds me of that, and invites me to know God’s love for me AS A PILE OF DUST (see Genesis 2, Psalm 103, etc etc) – something I have a really hard time accepting.
What’s funny is, that impulse to try to rise up beyond my “dustiness” manifests itself even in my fasting. I found myself at various points yesterday saying, “I am going to get better at this!” and then devising elaborate plans to become an expert faster. When I realized what I was doing, I had a good laugh at myself. I need to just be okay with not being awesome, learning to accept myself as dust just as the Lord accepts me.
I do think that this is connected, in some mysterious way, to the primal sin of Adam and Eve. I read the story of Genesis 3 to my kids this morning at breakfast, and while I was teaching it to them, I couldn’t help but be amazed again at how the Tempter says, “If you eat this you will be LIKE GOD…”
But they were ALREADY “the image and likeness of God” – clumps of dirt with God-breath in them. They could not be any more “the image and likeness” than they already were. But the Tempter deceived them into believing that they had a deficiency in their “likeness”, and it was this that led to their disastrous failure (a failure, I might add, that was connected to eating… hmmm).
Why do I have such a hard time believing that I am ALREADY made in the image and likeness? That – clump of dirt that I am – I am ALREADY beloved and approved of and safe? I don’t know. But to dwell on it, even for a moment, is to perceive an honor that like the rising of the sun on a summer morning, evaporates all my striving. I have nothing to prove. Fasting helps me remember that.
2) In similar fashion, it reminds me how dependent I am. Here again, this is something that I constantly try to deny. The self-sufficient, world-beating champ, the self-made man who needs nothing and no one, who’s got it all figured out… all of that miserable illusion goes up in smoke when I fast. I remember how painfully dependent I am on things outside of myself for my survival. Therefore, it puts me in a good place with God. A place I always ought to be anyway – “As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master…so our eyes look to the Lord our God” (Ps 123). I need God. I need people. I AM poor, whether I like to admit it or not (see Mt 5:3).
3) Finally, fasting helps me remember that narrative-free appetites ruin me. For whenever our appetites divorce themselves from their God-given narratives, the “end” for which they were made, they will invariably create their own narratives, and autonomous appetites are cruel tyrants. Our appetites for food, pleasure, sex, money, power, safety… divorce any of them from their God-given narrative context, set them up as little blind lords, and they will assuredly plunge your life, and probably the lives of those around you, into pain. When I fast, I am saying to my appetites, “You need to submit to God”, and there, in that moment, the redemption of the world is underway.
Actually, in his book Great Lent, Father Alexander Schmemann describes how for the Eastern Orthodox, fasting is central for exactly the reason I described above. The fateful step into chaos began with an appetite gone awry (Gen 3). Redemption consists in our appetites, our desires, being restored to God, which is why the Eucharist is so central for the Orthodox – it is the Meal that leads us back to communion with God, to Paradise. That is why fasting is so important. It helps us remember that “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Do you see it? Jesus is the Bread-Word. When we feast on him, we live.
So there you have it. I suck at fasting. But it is good for me. So I’m gonna do it a bit more I think. I’m just not going to try to “get better” at it 🙂