Fasting is essentially a way of living into that identity which is most true of us—the identity which God created in us and which is restored to us in Christ through baptism. It is a way of “stripping away what is false in us” (Thompson, page 88). What happens to us, as we develop our routines and go from day to day in our sporadic but familiar patterns, is we begin to freeze up and become hard. A layer of false identity blankets us and covers the truth about us. We begin to accept, even if subconsciously, the cultural seduction which would have us believe that “we can have it all, do it all, and (even more preposterous!) that we deserve it all” (Thompson, page 80). Our patterns become our habits and our habits shape us until they embed themselves into our hearts.
Fasting creates a space, an intentional space outside of our routines, a space in which we are invited to refrain from taking things for granted, a space in which we can de-thaw so that we might be softened and made sensitive to the touch of God on our hearts.
Often we think too hard about what disciplines such as fasting mean to us and not nearly hard enough about what they do to us. We feel like we need to understand what it’s all about before we even venture to try. Indeed, when we are fasting, we might not always feel a sense of spiritual awakening. It’s not magic! Brian McLaren once said, “when I fast I don’t feel closer to God, I feel closer to donuts.” But the truth of the matter is that the discipline shapes us. The habitual breaking of the routine and embracing of something alternative to the messages of dominant society actually does something to us. It changes us.
Fasting should not be something we do so that we can simply go back to the way things were when we could eat whatever we wanted (a luxury only enjoyed by the affluent). It is not an “inconvenience… during which we somehow please God with voluntary if minor suffering” (Thompson, page 78). We should not go into fasting so that we can come out just as we were before. We should go into it with the intention of being renewed, with the intention of truly embracing that which God says about us, namely that we are his beloved and that apart from God we can do nothing. “Fasting brings us face to face with how we put the material world ahead of its spiritual Source” (Thompson, page 77).
Fasting opens us up and opens space within us for God to be present. By refusing to trivialize and take for granted something upon which our bodies are so dependent, something so very real and basic to human life—by refusing even to eat apart from God—we invite God to meet us even at our most basic and fundamental level. We allow God to become more than just another part of our life—another necessity alongside air and food. We allow God to transcend and fill all things including our eating and our drinking. By being reminded of our dependence, by being intentional about that which our culture takes for granted, we can be shaped to reflect God’s image into the world. James Earl Massey said, “Fasting is not a renunciation of life; it is a means by which new life is released within us” (Thompson, page 80).
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