Is That What You Call a Fast?

English: Place setting with red charger.

Just so you know, I am terrible at fasting, even the Catholic version, which from what I hear is so much wussier than the version in Judaism or Islam. Catholics are allowed one full meal on a fast day and two snacks that don’t add up to a second meal. Now, of course, children, pregnant women, and those with medical conditions are completely exempt from fasting. But I’m pretty sure feeling tired and cranky without ingesting something every two hours doesn’t count as a medical condition. Several hours into the fast I always realize just what a hostage I am to my body, how clueless it is about the fact that this is not an actual survival situation, just a drill.

“Hey,” whispers my totally intact lizard brain. “You know what you do if you don’t eat? You die. So get on that.”

“Look,” I try to tell it, “Remember how we live a ridiculously privileged life in a nation that is at this moment one of the wealthiest in the world? We can eat as much as we want again tomorrow.”

“There is no tomorrow,” it hisses. “There is only right now. Put something in your mouth this instant or we’ll see what happens to these fancy philosophical thought processes of yours.”

After several hours of this, I often get worn down. My entire being is concentrated on when I’ll get to eat that one meal of the day and whether I can reschedule it to the next five minutes. But I don’t want to be needlessly mean to my body. It’s a perfectly good body, and the excellent survival instincts encoded into it are no doubt a large part of why my ancestors survived and I’m here today. My mind can play tricks on me too when I’m fasting, and actually they’re a lot sneakier. They tend to hit if I’ve successfully ignored my body’s nagging for a few hours.

“Good for you,” says my mind silkily. “Look at you, fasting and not even complaining at all, even though it’s so hard for you! This is a lost art, you know! Don’t worry about how you snapped at that person earlier. It’s totally understandable – you’re hungry! Look what a sacrifice you’re making.”

Any other matters get labeled a nuisance, messing up my lovely holy experiment. Surely I would be getting so much more out of this whole fasting thing if I didn’t have to do the dishes or answer call after call at work.

This is why I love reading the Bible (well, one reason, anyway). People think the Bible is supposed to be full of great role models for us all, and then they’re all shocked at how absolutely packed the Bible is with everything bad from whining to murder (except, of course, for Jesus, whose most violent action is probably kicking a fig tree). Conversely, I love the Bible because it gives me great comfort to know I’m not the only one who’s completely messed up. Any mistake I’ve made has already been done, possibly thousands of years ago.

Case in point:

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? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Isaiah 58:4-12 (NIV)

As with most things, if I can’t fast with the right attitude I might as well not do it at all. If I just want to feel like I’m so good at mind over matter, or if my main motivation is to kick my sugar cravings, or if I smugly imagine I’m securing myself a place in the Spiritual Olympics, forget it. If my stomach is on empty and I let my patience follow, if I use being hungry as an excuse to be lazy, if I feel like I’ve “done enough” for the day, forget it. Empty fasting, like empty feasting, just causes me to focus on myself, rather than deepening my commitment to share my food, shelter, clothing, love.

But hunger pangs can be an invitation to hasten the coming of God’s kingdom. Pouring myself out in true love, I can participate in the work of breaking chains and building houses, giving up my own desires in a true fast. And when I break through to this kingdom, even for a moment, the light can touch me too, heal me, break my chains, and fill me like never before.

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4 thoughts on “Is That What You Call a Fast?

  1. This is interesting to me because fasting is the one area of religion that bothers me most. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had issues with eating in the past, and not eating terrifies me. Perhaps it’s because I tend to get very weak when I don’t eat. I kind of resent the month because I really can’t get my body to cooperate; two hours late with a meal, and it gets shaky.

    It’s one thing to understand with one’s head, I guess, and another to understand with the heart.

    • I’m glad you found this post interesting, Saira. I also hope I didn’t come across as judging people who are unable to fast for whatever reason. For me, although I definitely feel the effects of fasting in my body and mind, ultimately I find it helpful. I know that’s not the case for everyone. I believe fasting can take many forms, but as you say, the attitude of the heart is the most important thing.

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