Updated: Mar 14, 2019
I have a bad history with fasting.
It started early. When I was sixteen, I signed up for a 30-Hour Famine, an event designed to raise funds for hungry children while giving comfy Western kids a small taste of deprivation. It now strikes me as more than a little insensitive to describe a mere day and a half without food, while playing games in a church gymnasium, as a “famine,” but I was in.
We were instructed to start fasting at 9:00 p.m. the night before. The next day we just had to skip breakfast and lunch, then head to the church that evening. We’d play games and then break the fast with a giant pizza party at 3:00 a.m.
My buddy Dan agreed to do it with me. We hung out on the day of the fast for moral support. But we made the mistake of talking about food. A lot. I think it was Dan’s vivid description of the perfect bacon cheeseburger that ultimately caused our downfall. On the way to the church, we stopped off at local restaurant where our resolve died in a heap of burgers and chicken wings. We never even made it to the church.
We’d held out for twenty-one hours. And for eight of those hours, we’d been asleep.
Fast forward ten years, and I was signing up for another fast, this time with my wife. It was the voguish “Daniel fast,” inspired by the biblical Daniel’s decision to subsist on veggies rather than eat the “royal foods,” like wine, bread, and meat sacrificed to idols, offered to him and his fellow exiles by King Nebuchadnezzar.
Our whole church was doing the fast. After a few miserable days of a vegetable diet, my wife and I dragged ourselves to a midweek Bible study. We were hoping for some inspiration or at least the chance to commiserate. The pastor, who was leading the study, seemed suspiciously chipper. Midway through the study, he casually unveiled a bagel and started munching.
“I’m not going to lie,” he chuckled. “It’s been hard not putting anything on these bagels.”
I felt betrayed. “Bagels?” I whispered to my wife. “Bagels aren’t part of the Daniel fast! Don’t tell me they had bagels in Babylon!”
That was just the excuse I needed. That night, I ate all the royal foods I could think of—minus the meat sacrificed to pagan idols.
Fasting fail #2.
Throughout the years, I’ve tried to fast a few other times, always with mixed results. Some people wax eloquent about the clarity and piercing spiritual insights fasting brings, but my experience has been more like a miserable fog. It’s something I dread. The bad breath, the grumpiness, the lightheadedness. Yet I still think it’s an important spiritual discipline—one I want to start practicing, if only occasionally.
This time, I decided to go solo. Given my track record of fasting with others, that seemed to make sense. And my first attempt would be nothing fancy, just 24 with nothing but water. It shouldn’t be a problem.
Back on the horse
My legs are weak, head swimming. I teeter on the verge of fainting. In my delirium, I grope for something to support me, but find nothing. I see mirages—milkshakes, burgers, pizza—they flicker invitingly, only to vanish as I approach. Then I hear a voice.
“Oh, stop acting like a baby. You’ve only missed two meals.”
The voice belongs to my wife, and she isn’t impressed with how I’ve been moping around the house. She’s right about my theatrics, but dieting—even for one day—is harder than I’d anticipated. Missing breakfast was fine. But by lunchtime, my stomach growled. By dinner I was dizzy. And sad.
I love the idea of fasting. That morning, I was feeling pretty spiritual. I read my Bible and spent some time in prayer. I was looking forward to the day. I’d use the time when I’d normally spend eating to commune with God. But then the hunger and weakness set in and my attitude soured. By 9:00 p.m. I was famished. Instead of praying, I sat on the couch staring blankly at the TV.
That’s when I heard the voice again. This time it was warm, compassionate. “You’re miserable,” my wife said. “We have leftovers from dinner. Why don’t you just eat some chicken and mashed potatoes?”
This is how temptation comes, I thought through the fog of my hunger. Sweet, appealing. There was even an angel of light. I took her up on the offer.
Fasting fail #3.
When I think about fasting, I’m conflicted—and not just because it’s difficult to do. It goes deeper than that. I have mixed motivations. Am I fasting to lose weight and look better? Or am I doing it for spiritual reasons? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight (and let’s face it, I could afford to drop a few pounds), but I wonder if that motivation is ultimately strong enough.
Study after study has found that people who have some overriding purpose for their goals are far more likely to accomplish them. Motivations matter. And I don’t know if looking better in a mirror is motivating enough.
Recently I’ve been following a friend’s weight-loss journey through her posts on Facebook. In her latest post, she announced that she’d lost a total of sixty-one pounds. In the new picture she posted of herself, she smiled broadly. She was almost unrecognizable from the photo she’d taken mere months before. But it wasn’t the weight loss that impressed me most; it was her reasons for doing it.
I press on even when the scale is not cooperating. I press on when I’d really rather eat something else. I press on when it is hard and I want to quit. I’m focused on my whys. I want to be able to take my girls on a roller coaster. I don’t want to go on medications because I can’t manage my weight and my diet. I want to live a long and healthy life for my girls and future grandchildren. And I want to feel good about myself and buy cute clothes again. I want those things more than I want a cheeseburger.
I guess you could say my friend had some superficial motivations. She longs for the day when she could “buy cute clothes again.” But her main motivation is her children. She wants to be there for them—and that enabled her to press on even when things got tough.
Her example inspired me, and helped me think more clearly about my motivations for fasting. It’s probably okay to have some physical motivations, but the ultimate purpose of the practice should extend beyond myself.
One more try
A few days later I tried fasting again. The gnawing hunger, dizziness, and bad mood all came back with a vengeance. Yet this time, I pushed through. It was only one day, but I was starting to glimpse the spiritual benefits. No visions or mountaintop experiences. For me, the spiritual benefits were found in the opposite direction. When you fast, you’re weak, vulnerable. You slow down. Your energy levels drop, and there’s a sort of stillness to your life. You’re empty—literally. It’s an excellent reminder that you’re finite, dependent. It might not feel great, but spiritually speaking, it’s not a bad place to be.
Next, I decided to give the Daniel fast (the bagel-free version) a second try. For ten days, I’d eat nothing but fruits and vegetables. I’m not a fan of vegetables unless they’re on pizza. Even then, I sometimes pick them off. So I decided I’d make fruit and veggie smoothies. I pulled the blender out of retirement and loaded up on produce. I used frozen veggies and fruit. It’s amazing what you can eat if it’s cold. My kids even got in on the act, squealing for “Daddy drinks” every time I took out the blender.
It was still tough. For a guy whose idea of health food is a bacon cheeseburger with light mayo, the diet was jarring. For the first four days, my head was in a fog. Fortunately, once my stomach got used to the new regimen, it got easier. Plus it was nice to see the numbers on the scale falling. At the end of the ten days, I was down ten pounds. Weight loss wasn’t the only benefit. A few things I noticed during the fast . . .
I’m an automatic eater. During my fast, I was struck by how often I reached for food, just unconsciously. At one point, I popped a small cookie into my mouth and remembered I was fasting a nanosecond before biting down. I spit it into the garbage, bidding a reluctant farewell to the forbidden morsel. It reminded me of the research on habits. A lot of my poor eating decisions aren’t even really decisions. They’re habits. I’m on autopilot when I cram a lot of unhealthy food into my mouth. The fast slowed me down and made me aware of my eating choices. Hopefully I’ll be more conscious of what I eat in the future.
Discipline has a price. Fasting involves two kinds of sacrifices. First, you give up the freedom to satisfy that most basic, human yearning—hunger. That’s painful, but fasting has social consequences too. You don’t realize how much of your social life revolves around food until you stop eating. Even in the space of ten days, I felt it. We hosted a couple of dinners, which I sat through sipping water. I went out to restaurants with my wife and kids and had to abstain. Fasting can make you feel like an outsider, even when you’re with family. But discipline always has a price.
Fasting is about gaining. The goal of fasting isn’t just self-denial. We Christians aren’t grim ascetics who love to punish ours bodies. And it certainly isn’t to prove how spiritual you are. Fasting, I’ve come to realize, is about replacing. It’s giving up something physical to gain something spiritual. The Anglican bishop Todd Hunter puts it this way: “The stopping, the self-denial inherent in abstinence is meant to start, continue, and yield progress in the spiritual life. Its goal is to clear space and make room for something new.”
When I fasted, it freed up time and attention to focus on God and examine myself. Saying no to physical hunger gave me an opportunity to seek spiritual nourishment. I ended the ten-day period feeling physically and spiritually refreshed. I’ve decided to make fasting a regular part of my life. Maybe I’ll fast once a month. Or a few times a year . . . let’s not get crazy.
This post is adapted from Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science (Moody, 2019).