Fasting From Yourself


Matt Williams

iStock_000008248793XSmallWhen I hear the word fasting, I immediately think “No Food”.  I also think about the times I have fasted: preparing for Ash Wednesday or other church holy day; cleansing for a medical procedure; and, participating in the 30 (or 40) Hour Famine.  And, if I am completely honest about it, I “manage” my fasts to make them a little more comfortable.  I enjoy a hearty “last meal” before the fast so I am able to go longer before the hunger pangs start.  And I know I am not alone.  The fact that so many churches hold traditional Shrove Tuesday Pancake Suppers shows that people have been “carbo-loading” in advance of fasts for a very long time.  Managing the fast and my hunger was something I had been taught to do, and I happily rolled along with it.

That is, until my Bible reached out and smacked me.

I am sure you have experienced it.  You are there, happily reading the Good Word, when all of a sudden, WHAM!, you are metaphorically slapped upside the head by what you discover.  Sometimes it is a happy thing, like gaining some new insight into God’s desperate love for his people.  Other times it is a mind-blowing thing, like finding new meaning in scripture you thought you already completely understood.  But sometimes, it is an uncomfortable thing, like realizing maybe you are missing the mark God set for you.

This Bible smack-down was all three kinds in one.

First came the uncomfortable part, as I was reading Isaiah chapter 58.  In this chapter, the prophet Isaiah shares the words of God about the true nature of fasting.  The scripture compares what the people were doing during their fasts to what God is seeking from their fasts.  See, Isaiah points out that the people had this habit of thinking of their fast as a checklist item.  So they would go without food for a day, but they were not letting the fast change their hearts or behavior or attitude.  Hmmm… sounds a lot like my “managed fasting” where I did what I wanted so I could make it easier on myself.  Sure, I did the fast, but I did it my way.  I was pretty uncomfortable as I read verse 5: “Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

But then came the mind-blowing part.  Isaiah goes on to describe the type of fast God is seeking.  And it really has nothing to do with food!  Throughout the rest of the chapter, Isaiah talks about the thing from which God truly wants us to abstain.  Get this…God wants us to fast from ourselves!  It is not about me being hungry…it is about me doing something about hunger.  It is not about me sleeping in a box one night…it is about me providing shelter for the homeless.  It is not about God hearing my cries…it is about me hearing the cries of God’s people in need.  It is not about doing what I want…it is about letting God do what he wants with me.  A true fast is about surrendering my selfishness and self-centeredness, so God can work in and through me.  Mind blown.

And then came the happy parts.  First, I was happy that I was not alone in being wrong!  There is a bit of comfort in knowing that God’s people were missing the point about fasts back in Isaiah’s time, so I was glad to know I had company.  But second, I was happy that the words of scripture smacked me…even if the message was “Check yourself before you wreck yourself!”  In that moment God was very present, very real, and very powerful.  I am so thankful I had that unexpected time with God where he could teach me what He wanted.

Needless to say, my understanding of fasting is now radically different from what it has been.  And when I next “do the Famine”, it will be much more about letting go of my needs and desires so I can hold on to what God wants for me.  How about you?  Are you ready to fast from yourself?