28 May 2018

Moreover, When Ye Fast...

...or, as in my case, when you don't.

I had a new occasion to ponder my lack of self-denial in this area upon receiving some news from my home church in Connecticut. They've held periods of collective fasting and prayer for quite some time now about a particularly serious issue affecting several of their families. Recently, their prayers were answered in spectacular fashion and they decided it was apropos to celebrate with a feast, much the same way the father of the prodigal son celebrated his homecoming.

My first thought upon hearing of this was, What a great idea! My second thought was that if I still attended there, I'm not sure I'd feel free to participate since I most likely wouldn't have taken part in the fast. No fasting, no feasting -- isn't that how it works? Well, I hope not. But I'm not sure.

I've always prided myself on having a workable, commonsense philosophy for... well, pretty much everything. More and more often, though, I'm realizing that this was perhaps the pride that goes before a fall. I don't really have an answer for everything. I don't have one for discontentment. And, I realized, I don't have one for the "to fast or not to fast" question, either.

I'm familiar with other people's answers, of course. But they all seem sort of hollow to me. Here's my trouble with them:

Claim #1: Jesus said "When you fast", not "If you fast", so we know He wants fasting to be one of the spiritual disciplines we practice regularly. Not that I'm attempting to rationalize (I totally am), but this seems to me an awful lot is hanging on one small dependent clause: when you fast. If you think about it, the "when" is ambiguous: Is it a command? or an acknowledgment of a preexisting reality? Is it possible that fasting was already a part of the audience's normal practice and so Jesus' saying "When you fast" meant "Since I know this is something you're doing because you choose to, here's how to go about it"? If He had meant to prescribe fasting as normative, might He not have said so outright? (I haven't studied this at all, so this is an off-the-top-of-my-head speculation.)

In either case, right about now is when I pull out Ecclesiastes 2:24: "There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God." Because hey, if we're going to proof text, two can play that game, right?

Claim #2: A "fast" doesn't necessarily have to be a fast from food. You've heard it before. "Oh, don't worry; you don't have to fast from food! You can fast from anything! How about fasting from music/TV/the computer/social media?"

As someone who desperately hates going without food, I sort of understand the appeal of this approach. But it still seems lame to me. I mean, entertainment technology -- in the variety of forms we have it now -- was basically nonexistent just thirty to fifty years ago. Yet somehow or other, humanity has managed to make it this far without any of it. So try as I might, I can't manage to make myself feel magnanimous for denying myself of something that isn't necessary for survival. Besides -- if what they say is true about how TV and smartphones are making us dumber -- I'd be better off without it anyway!

Claim #3: Fasting gets your mind off distractions so you can concentrate totally on seeking God. I must be doing it wrong, because this doesn't work for me. When I go without food for more than 6-8 hours, I get weak and shaky, have headaches, and feel sick to my stomach. All of this tends to be... well, distracting. I find it harder, not easier, to pray while in this condition. In fact, if I really wanted to be able to concentrate on praying, I would eat first so that I don't have to feel like I'm coming down with the flu!

I suspect I have some blood sugar issues contributing to this problem, but no matter. Knowing that the early Christians were torn apart by lions for their faith makes me feel less confident in begging off on skipping a few meals because I get dizzy. Could a doctor's note exempt me from a "spiritual discipline" anyway? I'm not sure. All I know for sure is, I feel guilty whenever I think about it. So naturally, I try not to think about it.

(As a side note, if the main objective of fasting is really to eliminate distractions, I guess this would lend some credibility to the idea of "fasting" from technology.)

Now, I will say that the preparation of food and clean-up afterward are absolutely a distraction! If I could eliminate those from my life, of course I'd have more time for prayer! So there, it's settled. I shall order takeout and eat off paper plates every day.

Claim #4: Fasting shows God that you're serious about what you're asking for. If you probe into this one a little bit, the reasoning behind it is unsettling to say the least.

First of all, the assumption being sneaked in with "showing God I'm serious" is that God is lacking information that He's depending on me to supply. That's problem number one. Then we have to ask how does fasting show God I'm serious? Well, because I'm giving up something I want. Giving up something I want means I'm suffering, even if only in a small way. And suffering means that God will take me more seriously than He normally would, because He'll be impressed that I'm voluntarily making myself uncomfortable on His behalf. I wouldn't be doing this otherwise, you know.

None of this is actually said aloud, of course. But I do still think this reasoning is going on just beneath the surface of our consciousness. We view God's intervention as something we earn through self-affliction -- not something freely received as grace.

So this idea doesn't sit well with me. In fact, it smacks of the "prophets of Baal" approach, and you remember what they did in an effort to get their god's attention. ("Look at me, God! Look at how much I'm suffering! Now do You care enough to listen to me?")

Can some things only be accomplished by fasting? I suppose I'd have to say yes -- after all, there is Jesus' statement about certain varieties of demons that only come out by prayer and fasting (Matt. 17:21). But I can't speak to any personal experience with this. I haven't tried to perform any exorcisms lately, and the chthonic netherworld represents a whole sphere of knowledge with which I am utterly unfamiliar.

Now, I could be wrong about any or all of this. In fact, I feel fairly certain that I am. It wouldn't surprise me in the least.

I'll have to think about it some more.

Over lunch, of course.

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