Follow-up on fasting

Last Sunday’s sermon on fasting was informed in part by Richard Foster’s contemporary classic on spiritual formation, Celebration of Discipline. I read it while I was still an impressionable Baptist in college 20 years ago, years before joining the Methodist church, going to seminary, and starting ministry. I revisited the book last week and was amazed at how much I still liked it—how rich, challenging, and relevant it remains.

Foster is aware he’s writing to an audience that doesn’t have much experience fasting, and he gives some practical insights on how to do it. He recommends starting with a partial fast of 24 hours, abstaining from all food and drinking fresh fruit juice. He writes that many people find a lunch-to-lunch fast the easiest—eating lunch, abstaining from dinner and breakfast and then breaking the fast at lunch the next day. In other words, you skip two meals (not to mention all snacking in between!) and drink juice. A “complete” fast means abstaining from food and drinking only water. (And always drink plenty of water while fasting!)

I suspect this might be too ambitious, however, if you’ve never fasted before. That’s why I recommended in my sermon that you start with a one-meal fast, skipping lunch one day a week and committing some of the time you would spend eating to extra prayer and devotional reading.

As I said in my sermon, this would not be like those hectic, stressful days in which you look at your watch and realize that it’s 3:30 and you haven’t eaten all day! As anyone who’s fasted will tell you, it’s far more difficult to fast when you’re intentionally missing meals. Try this one-meal fast for several weeks before moving on to a partial or complete 24-hour fast. As I said in my sermon, let’s not be legalistic. There aren’t any rules—just helpful suggestions. We freely choose to fast and trust that God will use it as a channel of God’s grace.

Foster writes, “In the beginning you will be fascinated with the physical aspects of your experience, but the most important thing to monitor is the inner attitude of the heart. Outwardly you will be performing the regular duties of your day, but inwardly you will be in prayer and adoration, song, and worship. In a new way, cause every task to be a sacred ministry to the Lord.”1

Foster also mentions the caffeine withdrawal headache that accompanies fasting for people (like me) who are caffeine addicts. He says, correctly, that these are normal and temporary. I would add, however, that these headaches can be severe—and fasting is hard enough without an ear-splitting headache to accompany those hunger pangs. You “coffee achievers” who feel ready to move to a 24-hour fast might consider beginning with a partial fast that permits one cup of black coffee in the morning to alleviate headaches. Or drink coffee immediately prior to beginning a fast. Or consider taking an analgesic like Extra Strength Tylenol that has caffeine in it. I’ve read that aspirin also helps. In my experience, ibuprofen does not relieve these withdrawal headaches. I take some comfort in knowing that John Wesley himself, an avid tea-drinker, timed his weekly fast around tea-time.

Foster shares the experience of an individual who committed himself to fasting once a week for two years. This person made journal entries each time he fasted. Here are a few of his insights over the course of those two years:

  • “I felt it a great accomplishment to go a whole day without food. Congratulated myself on the fact that I found it so easy…
  • Began to see that the above was hardly the goal of fasting. Was helped in this by beginning to feel hunger…
  • Began to relate the food fast to other areas of my life where I was more compulsive… I did not have to have a seat on the bus to be contented, or to be cool in the summer and warm when it was cold…
  • Reflected on Christ’s suffering and the suffering of those who are hungry and have hungry babies…”2

1. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 57.

2. Ibid., 58.

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