Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
I have set many goals in my life—here are a few: learn biblical Greek, visit all the national parks with snow-capped mountains (I like alpine peaks), read everything written by C.S. Lewis, learn to cook well…some were easier to realize than others. But one goal I have never set for myself is this one: learn the spiritual discipline of fasting. I mean, really. Sure, it sounds godly to grow in prayer, or service, or worship. But fasting just sounded miserable to me!
Enough of true confessions. I’m here to tell you that I was flat out wrong. While there is nothing easy about fasting, it can reap profound benefits. Nevertheless, I will also admit to you that of the twelve classic disciplines examined by Richard Foster in his devotional classic Celebration of Discipline, fasting is by far the one with which I have the least experience. In fact, I am humbled to be writing about how to do it as a youthworker, because I still have so much to learn about it myself.
That being said, I still want to share a few things I have come to realize so far. First of all, it is something referred to with great frequency throughout scripture, but with surprisingly little explanation. It just seems to be a given that people yearning to know God better would practice fasting. As Foster says,
The list of biblical personages who fasted reads like a “Who’s Who” of Scripture: Moses the lawgiver, David the king, Elijah the prophet, Esther the queen, Daniel the seer, Anna the prophetess, Paul the apostle, Jesus Christ the incarnate Son. Many of the the great Christians throughout church history fasted and witnesses to its value; among them were Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, Charles Finney and Pastor Hsi of China.
Importantly, let’s not forget that fasting is not exclusively a Christian discipline. As Foster reminds us, “all the major religions of the world recognize its merit.”
OK, this sounds persuasive, you may be saying. But in the next breath you might be mumbling, “But what exactly is fasting?” We can start by defining what it is not. It is not a hunger strike, which is done to gain political power or attract attention. It is also not dieting, which is done for health purposes. Biblical fasting centers on spiritual purposes.
Let’s get more specific; Foster again is very helpful: “In Scripture the normal means of fasting involves abstaining from all food, solid or liquid, but not from water.” However, there is also seen in scripture what could be called a “partial fast,” which is a restriction of diet (a good example described in Daniel 10).
Unlike the hunger strike and a typical health-related diet, spiritual fasting is usually a private matter between the individual and God; then again, there are great examples in Scripture of group fasting (Joel 2:15, 2 Chronicles 20:1-15, Ezra 8:21-23) usually done in case of emergency or to gain spiritual focus for a serious problem. Fasting has also been practiced consistently by monastics, and even by John Wesley, who urged Methodists to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, per the instructions of the Didache, an ancient Christian text from the first century.
While all of these examples might be convicting to your soul, it is worth noting that “there are simply no biblical laws that command regular fasting.” (Foster) Nevertheless, I want to commend fasting to you as a youthworker. To do so, I must share what I have so far found to be the most significant (and humbling) lesson gained from fasting, again from Richard Foster: “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.” While I have fasted from food here and there over the years, usually in a group situation to focus in prayer over an important decision or crisis, I have mostly practiced fasting in other ways. I have found fasting from certain things to be crucial to my own spiritual growth at many junctures in my journey, and it has helped me to persevere in a career in which so many burn out.
To illustrate, here are three examples:
Fasting from words
Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest, author and scholar who died in 1996, has taught me the most about this (find his slim classic The Way of the Heart if you would like to learn more). To fast from words is also to practice the profound spiritual discipline of silence. Arsenius, an early desert father, says it best:
I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having remained silent.
In other words, we have become a noisy culture, and in many ways words have lost their creative, uplifting power. Instead, words have become so cheap and overused, and more often used as forces of destruction and sin. As it says in Psalm 39:1, “I said, ‘I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.'” To fast for a day, or perhaps even longer, from speaking, can have profound effect. After a fast of silence, I am always reminded not only of how casual and sloppy I can be in my speech, but worse, of how little I truly seek to listen, both to God and to others.
Working with teenagers can be a noisy business. They are often so talkative, they love their music loud, and have grown up in a world of 24/7 news, music, internet, and cable. As youthworkers we are sucked into that cacophony of overstimulation. To pursue a fast from words (and this usually means being alone, too!) is to cultivate the soil of your heart and mind in some powerful ways. In silence I have learned so much about the “still, small voice of God” and about my own fear of being quiet. Yet in those times of spirit-filled calm, I have learned how to face those things I have been running from, and find that He is right there with me.
Fasting from technology
In some ways this could be considered part two of what I just described. If fasting from words brings us into silence, we must then consider fasting from the source of much of our noise, which is technology. During one season of Lent in years past, I fasted from all technology after dinner. As mentioned earlier, fasting itself reveals the things that control us, and while I had a sense that I flirted with addiction to email, I had no idea how deep the compulsion ran until I gave it up each day. While the first days were challenging, within the first week I discovered the beauty of reading again, of a full night’s sleep, and get this… the power of boredom! While I do not want to get bored every day, an occasional evening or even a day of aimlessness, in a life that is absolutely chock full of people, activities, and to-do lists, can be amazingly liberating to my spirit. Try it for yourself.
Fasting from spending
How did I come to practice this discipline? I backed into it. In February 2009 I resigned from a 15-year position as a youth pastor. This decision was the right one, but it was so difficult, nonetheless. I needed time to wait on God for what was to be next, and to recover from the jarring transition that it was, so I had saved some money to do so.
However, in my immaculate timing I made this decision one month before the historic financial collapse hit bottom! Amidst daily news of gloom and doom I tried not to panic, but also decided I needed to dramatically pare down my budget, not sure when I would be employed full-time again. Thus I declared 2009 to be The Year of Living Simply. I decided to buy nothing new (other than food). I refrained from spending money on entertainment—movies, books, music, eating out, and travel. I let magazine subscriptions expire. I stopped buying gifts and just sent cards (sorry, friends). This took a third out of my budget!
Let’s be clear—I am not advocating some dreadful legalism that disdains enjoyment. God wants us to enjoy his provision and his creation. But I was now recognizing how much of my joy came from stuff rather than from God himself and from the people and things he provided already.
Needless to say, I had more free time since I wasn’t busying myself as I had previously. I enjoyed quality time in conversation (rather than consumption) with friends and students. Monks take vows of poverty and/or simplicity—they hold belongings in common, because they believe that the more possessions you have, the more those things possess you! The only way we can really address the materialism we see in most of our students is to wean ourselves from it first.
I have not done a very good job of exploring the actual practice of fasting from food for spiritual purposes. If you would like to learn more about that, I commend Foster’s book to you. Regardless, I will end with his thoughts on the benefits of the spiritual discipline of fasting:
Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way. It is a means of God’s grace and blessing that should not be neglected any longer.
Use the links below to read all of the articles in the series, or visit Kelly’s CYMT contributor page:
Kelly Soifer is currently the Director of Recruiting and Leadership Development for the Free Methodist Church in Southern California, providing strategic planning, pastoral recruiting and training for over 40 Free Methodist churches from Santa Barbara to San Diego. She is greatly energized by the Free Methodist Church’s deep commitment to “walking their talk,” where they serve in multiple ways throughout their communities, reaching diverse populations.
Kelly was a youth pastor for 15 years, and before that served as a Regional Director with Young Life. She has also taught both at a local Christian high school (teaching Bible and doctrine) and at Westmont College, where she trains students in church and parachurch internships.
In keeping with other crazy Californians, Kelly is a devoted bicycle commuter, delighted owner of an Italian scooter, and enthusiastic fan of organic produce and cooking. She has also become quite the blogger, Facebooker, Google Plusser and Twitterer! However, she cannot surf.