This has been an interesting week for me. Some friends were going to be separated for a week for their first time since they were married about a year and a half ago. We have been in frequent discussions by email and Skype about the commitment of marriage, and it concerned me when they said their responsibilities called on them to be apart for a week. From my own experience, I do not do well when Anita and I are apart, and usually look for a prayer-partner or friend to pass some of the time and share some of the weight of being without my beloved.
So I told my friends I would fast for them this week that they are apart. Am I so spiritual that I deserve a medal for this? I do not even understand why we should fast at times, other than Jesus’ comment that His disciples would do so after He was taken into Heaven. (Mark 2:19-20) So this is a simple act of obedience of a slave, not worthy of a reward for doing what he was told to do. God forbid that I should sin against Him and never fast. And if a need is such that it seems to call for fasting and prayer, that need should be met with fasting and prayer.
What I found was interesting. First, let me explain a couple things about my health, and then a couple of things about fasting. I have had multiple strokes (mine were blockages of blood to the brain by clots) and my doctors have specifically told me not to do any more “absolute fasts.” An “absolute fast” is when one does not eat anything other than water for the duration of the fast. Several times I have done this for up to three days, and I did not find this difficult. Apparently I am “wired funny” in that I seem to lack the neural receptors that tell most people that they are hungry. I have never been hungry in my life, even after a three day absolute fast. Oh, food looks good, and its flavors are substantially enhanced at the end of a fast, but for me, it’s kind of “que sera”, i.e. whatever, no big deal.
But since my strokes and my doctors’ advice I no longer do absolute fasts. Instead I do what is called a “Daniel Fast.” The Daniel Fast comes from the prophet Daniel, in chapter 1 of his book in the Bible. It is not a true fast, nor did Daniel call it a fast, but it has been adopted as a spiritual exercise and has received a lot of attention in recent years, probably because of people like me who cannot do actual fasts for any length of time.
Fasting in Christianity is different from others’ religious practices, in that the fast is supposed to be an actual time of deprivation. Most other religions fast during the daylight hours, and then make up for it by eating a bunch during the night. This can be a difficult discipline, to go an entire day without food until sundown, for those who have normal hunger receptors. However, this does not seem such a stretch for people who are normally adequately fed, especially if one “tanks up” during the nighttime. A friend living in Turkey reported to me that more food is consumed during the month of Ramadan (a celebration of fasting and feasting) than in the entire other 11 months combined!
So in a Daniel Fast, the idea is to restrict one’s diet substantially and intentionally, and to devote extra time to prayer. In Daniel’s story, he and three Jewish young men declined to eat from the “king’s table,” a menu that included unclean animals and the Babylonian version of “junk food,” including beer, wine, “rich foods”, and assorted “delicacies,” probably including things like monkey brains, bread that had been baked over offal, and milk products (before the age of pasteurization). They chose to only eat vegetables and drink water for a testing period, because the king’s official was afraid they would do poorly on this diet and he would be blamed. But at the end of the ten day test period, the four Jews were healthier than any of the young men eating the royal food.
For me this means only drinking water and orange juice and eating simple vegetables. Nothing fancy, no coffee, soda pop, wine, beer, or any of the other delicious drinks that are a common part of an American’s modern diet. No special preparation and no big show of fasting (Matthew 6:16-17). Only those closest to you should know that you are fasting, and only because you discuss this with them. A quick search online will reveal lots of information on Daniel Fasting, and some of them show expansive delicious recipes . . . which kind of defeats the idea of self-deprivation. But these sites cover the basics:
While not really a fast, this requires some self-discipline, especially for someone like me. Though I do not get hungry, I reeeeaaalllly enjoy eating. My taste buds are very well developed and I like to eat almost everything! (Okay, NOT monkey brains!) At the heart of the Daniel Fast is the issue of devoting extra time to prayer and focusing on the issue over which you are fasting. This can be accomplished by each time you forego certain foods, maintaining an “open line” with the Lord, and talking with Him about the issue while you are going through the daily motions of preparing food, eating and cleaning up. Or one may want to go into a “closet and pray in secret” (Matthew 6:6) and to spend time listening for the voice of the Spirit of God. In any case, it is a heart matter, more than a physical exercise.
Isaiah 58 puts this in perspective when the prophet describes the fast God prefers and acknowledges, just being able to skip a meal or two . . . or a hundred . . . is not a big deal to Him. What He wants is our hearts. What He wants is our minds. What He wants is our devotion to Him and no other. The God Who Is There created us for just being together with Him, and He delights when we nudge up close to Him and allow Him to wrap us in His loving care. He enjoys sharing our concerns and listening to us, whether we are whining or begging or praising Him. He is our Daddy and just loves loving us just as you dads enjoy loving your children, only His love is to the ultimate degree.
So don’t pray so fast next time and take opportunity to be with Him. Take some time to fast and pray instead of praying fast, and “He that sees in secret will reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:6) That’s just the way He is.