Starving Your Demons

August 28th, 2009

My Unlikeliest Hobby

I thought this morning it might be interesting to ask about people’s experiences with fasting.

Fasting is a necessary part of Christian life. The New Testament makes it clear over and over. I cannot say I am thrilled about it. Anyone who has been reading my writing for more than six months knows I like food. After all, I wrote the world’s unhealthiest cookbook. In the minds of many Christians, whether or not they acknowledge it, overeating is the one physical pleasure God doesn’t restrict, so they cram the food in with both hands. And many of us fast pretty badly. We do things like going a whole day eating only nuts. That’s not much of a fast. Nuts are little packages of fat and carbs. If you want to eat something higher in calories than nuts, you pretty much have to chew sticks of butter.

I have also heard of people fasting with regard to certain foods, like meat or soft drinks. Again, not very impressive. I can go a day without meat and eat like a king. Cheese pizza has no meat in it. Neither does apple pie. Now I’m making myself hungry, and all I have in front of me is oatmeal.

I guess I cite Perry Stone a lot these days. I can’t help it. I really enjoy his work. His take on halfhearted fasting is that God notices it, but that real fasting is better. I guess that must be right. The Bible is full of things that could be considered partial fasts. Samson could not drink wine. The Jews have kashrut. And Jews have all sorts of temporary dietary and behavioral restrictions they observe during the year. I can’t say a partial fast is a bad thing, but surely, when you want real results, you’re better off doing it right.

The Jews don’t even drink water during their fasts. That’s pretty tough. The Bible says Jesus went forty days. Did that include refusing water? If so, wow. I just checked a survival site which lists 10 days as a likely estimate of the time it takes to die from thirst.

I fast on occasion, although I drink water, and sometimes I permit myself unsweetened, no-calorie liquids. While many people talk about how fasting makes them feel close to God, I find that it makes me feel farther away. My head hurts. I don’t think well. I get depressed and anxious. When I pray, I feel alone. The first day is the worst. The second day is not fun. I can’t remember what the third day is like, because it has been a very long time since I went three days. They say things get better once your body adjusts.

Am I the only one who feels this way? They say fasting is a method of afflicting yourself, so I suppose it would make sense. I find that I don’t feel like praying when I fast, because the effort of concentration is too unpleasant. I try to force myself. I often do a poor job.

My best guess about fasting is that there are two types. First, maintenance fasting. You fast once in a while, even when things are going well, just because you should. Second, fasting in order to get help with a problem. Maybe someone gets sick or your business is in trouble or you can’t get along with your wife. You fast and pray to get God to fix it. Maybe the type of fasting Jesus did is a third type. Fasting to change your character permanently and make you a better person.

I don’t like to talk about things I do which could be considered pious or righteous, except in a general way. If I do something good, I want to be sure I didn’t do it so people would hear about it and tell me how great I am. But I think that sometimes it’s okay to mention things, if I think it can help other people.

I fasted recently, and now that it’s over, I have a surprising result. I don’t feel like the same person. There are certain bad things I feel much less inclined to do, and I don’t understand it. Here’s a funny example. At the end of the fast, I got myself some ice cream, because I was very eager to put the fast behind me, feel normal again, and have a little reward. But I didn’t finish the ice cream. I ended up throwing out part of it. I don’t know if you can understand how odd it is for me to buy a pint of ice cream and not finish it. Especially after a fast. But it happened.

I feel more relaxed. More certain about the future. Less concerned about fulfilling my earthly desires. Less angry. This is the first time I’ve ever noticed any difference in me after a fast. Is this the reward we should be shooting for when we fast, or am I just having a temporary change in mood?

From reading the Bible, I get the impression that fasting is supposed to purify us. Not just fasting, but periods of deprivation, generally. For example, the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years, and when they emerged, they had been cleansed of the individuals who offended God by refusing to trust him. Jesus emerged from his forty-day fast in the desert (preceded by his baptism with water and the Holy Spirit) with new power. He started working miracles and teaching with authority. Maybe fasting is supposed to rid us of inclinations (whether our own or imposed by hostile spirits) that drive us to sin.

I’m not saying I’m totally repaired now, but I can see a difference in myself, and it’s significant. I almost hate to say this, but for the first time in my life, I find myself somewhat eager to fast again, to see what else I can get out of it. I don’t like to think about unpleasant duties, because I’m always afraid God will start urging me to do them. When I consider fasting, I find myself hoping God won’t get on board and motivate me to do it, because it’s so unpleasant. But if I can expect it to change me like this, it will be hard to resist.

As for my infatuation with food, I’m starting to wonder if stuffing myself is like getting drunk. It’s okay to have a beer. Drunkenness is a sin. Maybe food works the same way. I hope not! But it probably does. The Bible condemns gluttony over and over. The book of Proverbs says it leads to poverty.

Gluttony is a tough thing to beat, because you can’t give up food entirely, so the temptation will always be in front of you. And gluttony comes over you while you’re eating in a compelling way, as if you’re changing into another person. It’s not a mild urging. It’s extremely powerful. While you’re under its spell, it’s as if your entire personality and all your priorities have changed.

I still think it’s okay to have good food, but it would be nice if, for the rest of my life, I could stop eating when I’ve had enough instead of when I can’t jam any more in or when the waitress hits me with pepper spray. I’ve been behaving well lately, but on Saturdays I give my diet a rest, and there have been excesses.

If anyone who reads this has any input regarding their own fasting experiences, I would love to have some comments about it. This might be a very big deal and an extremely useful practice, if the benefits I perceive are real and lasting. Over and over, we are told we’re supposed to fast, but the things I’ve read about the beneficial results are extremely vague and unconvincing. If it can change a person’s character, it’s not just a good idea; it’s a gift the value of which cannot be overstated.

I believe in free will. So do most Christians. Aaron says the Jews believe you can enter a state in which you have no free will. That makes sense to me. I don’t think it’s wrong to say a crack addict or even a cigarette smoker has lost his or her free will. At the very least, they are subject to extreme temptation, the likes of which non-addicts don’t face. Perhaps one of the purposes of fasting is to rid yourself of compulsions you can’t resist. Maybe this is why Jesus had to fast for forty days before he was given real power. If that is true, then presumably, a modern Christian can get God’s power by fasting. God prefers not to hand out machine guns to monkeys. Power without self-control destroys us. Maybe we are supposed to fast in order to render ourselves suitable to receive increased strength and blessings. That would be fine with me. Fighting my own nature with my own nature is a tough battle, as is fighting adversity with my limited tools. I want all the help I can get.

I used to think the baptism of the Spirit and prayer in tongues were the main things that changed people’s natures, but I think I’ll have to add fasting to that list. I would rather add fishing or going to the gun range or eating pie, but I don’t make the rules.

This may be a big, big deal. Let me know what you think.

Funny how I happened to write this during the forty Days of Teshuvah.

11 Responses to “Starving Your Demons”

  1. Steve_in_CA Says:

    I had friends many years ago (they moved away and I lost contact). Both became “Born Again” and fasted one day a week and prayed together, always the same day. But changed nothing else about their diet. They lost quite a bit of weight and got closer to God. It really seemed to work for them, they were sometimes real jerks before they changed their life.

  2. Steve H. Says:

    The thing that struck me about my experience was that it was sudden. Generally, Christianity transforms me slowly. The other day I mentioned diets and plateaus. Maybe it’s normal to have big jumps as well as tiny but steady changes.

  3. Spoodles Says:

    My experience with fasting (food) is pretty limited. I’ve fasted 3 times, and each time found out I was pregnant while fasting. So, naturally, I had to stop fasting. I’ve found that for me fasting from media, the internet, or some other mild obsession does much more to bring me closer to God than abstaining from food. I get pretty sick when I don’t eat and it does very little for my spiritual condition. Guess I’m just not very spiritual.

  4. wormathan Says:

    I have had a different experience with fasting. When I learned my sister had cancer I fasted every day she had chemo. I found that I was more likely to pray and when I did it was more uplifting. Whenever I felt hungry I would close my eyes and pray for my sister instead of reaching for the peanuts I kept at my desk. I did not refrain from non-caloric liquids though since I get migraines occasionally.

    I am of the opinion that fasting is more than just a means to get God to listen, I believe it puts us in a state of self denial (obviously) that forces us to realize our dependence. I have found that after praying during fasts, I also look for areas in my own life where I need to make changes.

  5. Heather P. Says:

    My grandmother used to fast quite often.
    I have never fasted due to certain medications that require food to be taken. I will have to look into this. I really need to fast since my mom is not doing well at all. I will be looking into this further. Thanks for the idea.

  6. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    I have never found fasting to benefit me, rather distract me and give me headaches. Other people claim great benefits. Who am I to argue? I’ve heard a criticism of the NIV that it plays down fasting. I am not a fan of the NIV, so you’d think I’d be more supportive of fasting.
    So I hide behind Isaiah 58:6
    Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

  7. JeffW Says:

    I’ve been doing “Daylight Fasts” this week (for Health and Spiritual Reasons), and then eating a small meal at night.
    I’ve had trouble doing multiple-day, “water-only” fasts, as I get terrible indigestion…it seems that my stomach is still producing acid for food that’s not there.
    Like you, I find it easier to walk away from over-indulgence after I’ve been fasting awhile.

  8. pbird Says:

    I think fasting gives you control over your own impulses. I still don’t enjoy it. After a lifetime of dieting, its a sore subject with me. However, it is true that after about three days you lose interest in food.

  9. jeremy Says:

    pdird, I agree about the impulses. I wish I could remember the quote I read recently from some 19th century Christian writer – something like: it’s a good habit to once a day deny yourself something your ‘flesh’ really wants. Not to be ascetic or needlessly austere, but just to remind yourself who’s boss (and if you’re trying to really walk the Christian walk, it shouldn’t be you). Seems like fasting does exactly this. It shapes the will. Which matters, if you see the Christian thing as very much a matter of conforming your will to God’s

  10. tondelayo Says:

    For the record, you are not a glutton. I have seen gluttons, I would not list you among them. You enjoy your food and you look forward to it as well. It is unlikely also that you will ever deposit the remains of chicken wings in your nightstand. Okay, I am not saying that is a sign of gluttony . . . just creative placement.

  11. rick Says:

    I have a friend who is at the target weight for his height. He is in his 70’s. He said something that caught my attention. He mentioned that he ate to live, not live to eat.

    One fasting experience when I first became a follower of Christ. I had been fasting and reading my bible in a small room of my kitchen. I grew somewhat tired so I laid down on a rollaway I had in the room. After a time I woke up an saw every gross word, I have ever heard or spoke. Each letter of each word was a different color. I was repulsed and said”get out of here.”
    About two weeks later I realized that I no longer was using foul language to express myself.

    Cut my sentences about 50%.