James Tissot: Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (Brooklyn Museum)
By Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries
Disclaimer. I’m not the most disciplined person, just ask my wife who has been tasked by the Almighty to block every unnecessary tech purchase I can imagine. Regardless, I am still shocked by the relative dearth of resources for so fundamental a spiritual practice as fasting. With the exception of what amounts to a name drop on the denomination’s website and a blip here or there in the Methodist media, fasting is persona non grata in our public conversation.1
While fasting may not be widespread in contemporary United Methodist culture, the practice has deep roots in Wesleyan spirituality and the Judeo Christian tradition it springs from. John Wesley fasted two days a week as a young man and continued the practice, in a moderated way, into his later years. He considered fasting an act of piety and went so far as to describe it as “a means which God himself has ordained.”
In typical fashion, Wesley suggests moderation in the use of the practice:
Therefore care is to be taken, whenever we fast, to proportion the fast to our strength.
Taking Wesley’s advice, one of our first questions should be “can I safely fast?” There are some excellent medical reasons not to fast. Seeing as at least some of Wesley’s medical advice is suspect2 , I will direct you to this article and, of course, your personal physician. If you determine you can fast but find yourself very weak or you start feeling terrible; listen to your body, drink fluids and and eat something. While some measure of discomfort is to be expected, endangering your health is not a good idea.
For those who can safely fast as a spiritual practice, there are a variety of ways to approach the discipline. Wikipedia provides a quick overview of the practice as found in Scripture and the traditions of different Christian sects. Despite the fasting heroics of Jesus, a 24 hour fast in which one misses two meals, typically eating dinner one night and missing the following breakfast and lunch, is more sensible and far more common.
People can practice a food fast in different ways: absolute (no food or drink), regular (only water), partial (water and juice) and still others might only avoid certain rich foods (meats). Absolute fasts are often discouraged without consulting one’s physician because of the dangers of dehydration. I found this article on preparing for the Yom Kippur fast pretty helpful with its emphasis on thoughtful planning and personal preparation.
Christian fasting is usually accompanied by the other acts of piety Wesley often referred to, prayer and Scripture reading. For example, the B1 fast footnoted below provides some solid resources for theological reflection. Fasting done outside of some spiritual practice can devolve into something unintended. Opportunities for prayer, reflection and possibly even action (writing letters) should be considered and pursued.
As soon as I press publish on this post I fully hope/expect the good people of the internets to point me toward some great United Methodist resources on fasting and other spiritual disciplines. Regardless, given how earnestly we talk about rekindling discipleship in our churches, it’s hard to understand why this vein of Christianity seems neglected in favor of an obsession with metrics and attending to the remaining vestiges of the attractional church.
In a consumeristic culture where our inability to tell ourselves ‘no’ could be defined as our most serious social sin, let me gently suggest that this might be an area worth our serious investment. When practiced with the passion Wesley exhibited, perhaps tempered a bit by modern sensibilities, fasting could well be a key for some to finding new freedom in Christ from the gods of this world; you know, iPhones, celebrity culture and that dreaded feeling that we are never quite good enough.
- Example: A quick search of the General Board of Discipleship site returned no results for fasting and one result, a dead link, for spiritual disciplines. Digging around a while turned up a writeup with some good, basic advice in the Interpreter in 2010, a Global Ministries program offering a version of the youth fast called B1, and the UMC-related Missional Wisdom Foundation which encourages the practice of fasting once a week as a community rule.
- In Primitive Physick, Wesley suggests the following “cure” for baldness: “Rub the Part Morning and Evening, with Onions, ‘till it is red; and rub it afterwards with Honey.”