Has fasting become the forgotten spiritual discipline? It appears front and centre in Jesus’ ministry but has dropped off our radars in youth and children’s ministry. As we enter Lent, Martin Saunders thinks it’s time it made a comeback...
Go without. Have less. Save now, buy later. Alien sentiments in a materialistic culture that is shaping our children and young people – and us – into consumers rather than citizens. Our shared aspirations seem to concern the accumulation of wealth, possessions, a nice place to live and eventually some sort of financial ‘security’. So the idea that we’d do anything to undermine these things jars with our sense of normality.
But deep down, we all realise that there’s something fundamentally broken with this consumer culture. Getting more stuff doesn’t seem to make us any happier; moving into a bigger house only causes our eyes to wander up the street to the even larger properties there. And what kind of security – financial or otherwise – can any of us really buy in the President Trump-era anyway? The comic actor Jim Carrey once said: “I wish everyone could get everything they ever wanted, because then they’d realise that’s not the answer.” Author Jack Higgins wrote that the problem with fame and wealth is that: “When you get to the top, there’s nothing there.” Those who’ve walked the road of material gain before us are quite clear to point out that money does not buy happiness.
So if we’re simply allowing our young people to be indoctrinated – or more worryingly, discipled – by this culture of accumulation, then we’re setting them up for a huge fall. For some of them, that fall will come when wealth and financial security never arrive, and they become to prone to gazing enviously, and then bitterly, across the street; for others, it will take the shape of a Jim Carrey-style revelation that all the money and stuff in the world won’t make them happy. Either way, the consumeristic worldview is a road which eventually leads to disappointment.
Yet in the shape of a life and relationship with God, we actually have the antidote. As Christians, we have a message of future hope which does not disappoint (Romans 5:1-5), and our role as leaders is to help children and young people to understand and fully connect with that hope. One of the key ways in which we do this is by teaching and modelling spiritual practices, ancient tools by which we can plug in to the transformational power and presence of God himself. When we do that, we see the emptiness of the endless quest for acquisition, and begin to quench our deepest hunger with something ultimately more fulfilling.
Chief among these tools – perhaps to the point of over-reliance – is prayer; we rightly help the children and young people in our care to value and attempt prayer in many forms. But there are many other great spiritual disciplines: means by which Christians through the centuries have sought to loosen their connection with the physical world and heighten their sense of the supernatural, and one of the most fascinating, tried and tested, and powerful among them is the discipline of fasting.
The fast and the curious
After a long time in the wilderness (appropriately), fasting has made something of a cultural comeback in recent years. The growth and popularity of the 5:2 diet and its many imitators has reintroduced the positive idea of denying the body food. Many dieters attest the success of the model to the allowance of normal eating most of the time in return for the occasional period of starvation. Others use fasting as an occasional measure to detoxify the body, rather than to control weight, and claim that the practice can do everything from clearing up your skin to increasing your brain power.
Fasting is also still seen in church circles, and particularly in its more charismatic and pentecostal wings. Largely though, the role of fasting in Christian spiritual formation has become diminished. Where once it played a big role in the spiritual lives of Christians everywhere, alongside more everyday activities such as prayer and Bible study, now it plays a bit-part role as a sort of wannabe spiritual silver bullet that we only draw on when we’re really desperate for an answer to prayer.
The absence of fasting from the lives of most Christians is arguably a bit of an anomaly. Jesus himself talks about fasting as if it’s a normal part of any person’s spiritual life, saying: “When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your father, who is unseen; and your father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18). Jesus’ doesn’t talk about ‘if’ you fast, but ‘when’.
There’s possibly a good reason for that too, revealed in a couple of other key passages of scripture. When Jesus leaves the desert after 40 days of superhuman fasting in Luke 4, we read that he returns to his ministry “in the power of the Spirit”, while in Acts 13, the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas involves “worshipping and fasting” (v2), after which they were “sent on their way by the Holy Spirit”. There seems to be a connection between human fasting, and the unleashing of the power of God. Now, depending on your theological viewpoint, that either sounds perfectly sensible or all a bit nutty. Actually, I think it makes pretty good sense to think that God might choose to move in response to our fasting, and perhaps that’s why Jesus speaks of it as an assumed part of our everyday lives.
Ultimately, fasting is about self-denial. It’s the practice of taking away the things on which we’ve become reliant to sustain us, and depending on God for sustenance instead. It’s about putting aside personal pleasure, and even embracing a little bit of pain, in order to focus ourselves on what’s really important. Or in other words: fasting creates a vacuum within us, into which we invite God to move.
Fasting isn’t about success or failure, but rather promoting the idea that we should make enough space in our lives for the stuff that really matters
The fast supper
Fasting doesn’t have to involve food, although that’s the biblical example, and a valuable one. As a discipline it stands in contrast to our culture’s obsession with materialism and gluttonous over-consumption, and those vices apply much more widely than to just our diets. Yet while I think there’s great merit in teaching young people to embrace fasting from technology, sport and anything else that can take up an unhealthy proportion of their time, I don’t think we should write off food fasting in ministry, especially in view of the verses quoted above.
If we do attempt food fasting with young people however, we should do so with a sensible degree of caution. Dr Kate Middleton is a director of Mind and Soul and the author of First steps out of eating disorders, and warns that there’s a danger that young people can confuse fasting with some of the strange food practices in modern culture: “We must distinguish fasting from this,” she explains. “It isn’t another form of ‘clean eating’, nor is ‘clean eating’ a form of fasting! It isn’t about some kind of bodily purity; it is about helping us focus on prayer and on God. Similarly, fasting is not a form of diet or dietary control. I’ve heard preachers say that fasting is a good thing to do to avoid getting too fat, putting on weight or getting too greedy… to me it isn’t about that at all and I think its important we are clear.”
With caveats in place, Kate does see the spiritual value in fasting from food, especially when it spurs us into action. “In my mind fasting is about helping us focus on God and also says something about our desire,” she says. “In the Beatitudes, Jesus talks of those who ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’, and I think about fasting as something which asks an important question. What do we long for more: food (or whatever we are fasting from) or God and the things we are praying for? I fast because the things I am praying for are things I have a far greater hunger for than food, and when I fast, every time my stomach rumbles or I think, ‘I want some cake’ I remember that actually I want these things I pray for so much more. In Isaiah 58 fasting is linked with action, with stepping out to bring more of God’s kingdom to the Earth.”
Lee Martin is Youthscape’s mental health theme lead, and a practising psychotherapist. He says that we should be especially aware of any food control or disordered eating issues among our young people before we introduce the idea of food fasting. “Positive reasons for a young person embracing fasting might include becoming closer to God, or developing less of a reliance on material things, but we’re on more dangerous ground if we’re enabling young people to develop an unhealthy sense of control (due to feeling a lack of control in other areas), or even an excuse to self-punish. While eating disorders are complex in motivation and expression, they can be broadly separated into two core motivations: the need to control or the desire to self-punish. So if a young person has these kinds of issues around food, then it’s better they look at something else from which to fast.”
Lee is also keen to underline the danger of setting any kinds of goals around fasting: “Goals for people struggling in these areas are another excuse to self-punish,” he says. “There should be no expectations or sense of the possibility of failure. When we lead young people toward spiritual disciplines, we must emphasise the grace, mercy, acceptance, forgiveness of God, or perhaps his power and his ability to bring peace into lives. To young people who either self-loathe or have control issues, we can’t introduce the idea that our relationship with God is something we can ‘fail’ at.”
Fast of the summer wine
For many young people then, food fasting is inappropriate, while for others, food isn’t really the thing that sustains or preoccupies them most anyway. Thankfully, fasting has other, perhaps more modern applications, which involve the practice of the same kind of self-denial on a different front. The things we or our young people could fast from might include (a non-exhaustive list):
- A social media account, or all social media
- Mobile phone
- Video games, or a specific addictive smartphone app
- All technology
- Netflix, box sets, or TV in general
- A single addictive drink or food (eg coffee, chocolate)
- Buying non-essentials
Whatever we choose, its defining feature should be that this thing either unhealthily occupies us, or is something on which we’ve in some way become dependent. So when we’re deciding with young people about how to practice fasting, a good starting point is to try to discover what the things are which can play this kind of role in their lives. If they’re only occasional gamers, then announcing a fast from Minecraft is probably not going to have a deep effect on their spiritual lives. But if they’re the sort of young people who treat their mobile phone as an extension of their physical body, then maybe learning to exist for a short time without it might be helpful.
The next question then, after deciding what you’ll fast, is how. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this, and there are some things which will cause us serious problems if we abstain from them for too long – food being a prime example. Other fasts are just unrealistic – asking a teenager to fast from all technology for a month is madness, but they might just be able to manage a single day, and still feel some profound effects as a result.
You might want to encourage fasting as a corporate activity. World Vision’s 24-hour famine, now apparently retired in the UK, used to encourage youth groups to practise food fasting together for an all-night lock-in fundraiser, while more recently many youth groups have attempted a total social media fast for a weekend or even a week (perhaps most notably as part of Open Doors’ ‘Blackout’ campaign). Alternatively, fasting might be something that you ‘prescribe’ in the context of discipling one young person (although in this case, probably not food), especially if you feel that they have an unhealthy attachment to a particular pastime. Either way, you should also be prepared as the leader to take part in the fast – after all, you can’t call young people somewhere that you’re not willing go yourself.
Blast from the fast
As Lee Martin points out, any fast shouldn’t be about success or failure, but rather promoting the idea that we should all make enough space in our lives for the stuff that really matters – time with God, family, friends, and looking out for the interests of others above our own. To help with this, Kate Middleton talks about ‘positive fasting’; the idea that as well as abstaining from something, you deliberately practise something else, whether that’s taking time each day to write to a friend, reading some of the Bible or trying to help out more around the house. And this idea really gets to the heart of fasting: a recalibration of our relationship with the material world around us, which helps us to become more like the people we were created to be.
Fasting is just one of those amazing ancient tools which can help our young people to draw closer to God. I’m not suggesting it should become a bedrock of your youth and children’s ministry, but I think its total absence from the average youth programme is a mistake. Let’s of course be careful not to encourage dysfunction, or to appropriate the idea for the wrong reasons, but let’s also not be scared to explore why the Bible seems to speak so often of prayer and fasting, this two-edged weapon in the fight to make sense of a consumption culture.