Growing up in a holiness tradition, there was no discipline I held in as high regard as I did fasting. Fasting seemed like the most serious, sacrificial thing could do without going overseas to be a missionary. Fasting was the top of the mountain for people who were really serious about following God.
Admittedly, this perspective may have been colored by being a growing teenage boy. Regardless, it did seem super-spiritual to me at the time.
After High School I got filled with God’s Spirit and called to ministry. Fasting became a discipline that I integrated into my life and training for ministry. It bore good and deep fruit in me and through the years I have encouraged others to integrate fasting into their spiritual disciplines.
I began to lose my confidence in fasting early on in youth ministry. In my first year at a new church, the annual 30-Hour Famine came up on the calendar and all of the youth groups in town participated with gusto. It was a really big deal. I had never heard of it before but we planned the all-nighter events, did the fund raising, and got the supplies for the morning’s pig-out breakfast for when it was all over.
Sometimes you need an extreme example of something along the continuum to expose the flaws you could not perceive when things were more moderate or manageable. The 30 Hour Famine was that event for me.
I have kept track over the 18 years since that event and here are the 5 reasons that I am leery to recommend fasting as a spiritual discipline in the 21st century:
1. We have both an Anorexia and an Obesity epidemic in this country. Both at the same time! This is especially true in our youth. This signals to me that we have an serious food issue that fasting would only serve to inflame.
2. Most of us are disconnected from our food supply and the land it is produced on. We have a brand-new-in-history level of separation from where our food comes from. What has happened to farming in the past century added to our consumer habits in the West and you have an epic case of dis-location.
3. We have image issues. We see our reflection in mirrors so many times a day that it would make the saints of century’s past head’s spin! We have security cameras, fashion magazines and selfies on Facebook. Our kids are videotaped nearly non-stop – including when napping! We think about ourselves and how we look A) all the time B) in ways that folks from centuries past did not even know was possible. Fasting is not helpful in that scenario. It is just fuel on the fire.
4. We are aware of other people around the world more than ever before. Between the nightly news, social media, and visits from missionaries presenting their pictures and stories we have unprecedented access to the lives and living conditions of people around the world. I’m not sure how fasting works in that context when other people are starving.
5. In a capitalist structure, I’m not sure having kids fast as a fund-raiser for 30 hours, then gorge themselves on pancakes, eggs and sausage at Denny’s is sending the right message.
SO when you put this all together, I’m not sure fasting has a place in such a chaotic environment. It seems like one of those things that worked in the past – especially in agrarian societies where you could look out the window and see crops and you knew the name of the person who harvested what was sitting on your table that evening.
I would love to hear your thoughts – whether you agree or not. -Bo
This post in part of an ongoing series on reclaiming spiritual disciplines for the 21st century. You can read the Ancient-Future Faith one here.