Fasting has always been a particularly difficult discipline for me. You see, I love to eat. Don’t get me wrong—By no means would I say I’m gluttonous. I don’t eat a lot, but when I do, I richly enjoy the experience. So, when I decided to undertake an extended fast, it was with a high degree of trepidation.
The Bible seems fairly clear in its stance on fasting: We’re supposed to do it. The picture painted in Scripture is of fasting being an inextricable part of the prayer experience. In fact, history tells us that early Christians fasted two days a week, every week. Yet, in our modern culture, fasting seems to have become very foreign to us. It seems like a dusty ancient discipline at best and self-flagellation at worst. But many Christians still strongly follow the practice of fasting and
prayer, and I wanted to see what they gain from their time of sacrifice. I decided to go on an extended, liquids-only fast, and document my experience. To make things more interesting, I told my best friend Teege (who is not a Christian) what I was doing, and he decided to participate with me and record his thoughts as well. We decided to shoot for 40 days. We had no idea what we were in for.
It’s Saturday. I wake up and my first thought is of how my options for lunch are limitless. My mind pinwheels through the variety of places I can eat and all the people I want to invite to share this experience. As soon as I think of calling Teege, reality floods in. Today is the first day of my fast. I will not be enjoying a tasty lunch today. Today will be relegated to shopping for juice. Teege, his cousin Christina and I head to an organic grocery and buy a variety of bilious, dark-colored juices that look in no way appetizing.
What surprises me is my lack of hunger throughout the day. I feel fine. I keep waiting to feel pangs in my stomach, and they never come. Teege and I congratulate ourselves on the awesome resolve of not eating for 24 hours.
An old co-worker is in from out of town, and a group of us head out to lunch. I’m realizing how integral the act of eating is to our social interaction. As I sit and watch everyone wolf down barbecue, languidly sipping at my water, I feel utterly disconnected from the group. I am in the same restaurant, engaged in the same conversations, yet something about the shared experience of a meal brings a level of camaraderie that I feel excluded from. Occasionally someone asks me about the logistics of my fast. When I answer that I may consume liquids but that all solids are off limits, Jesse Carey tries to convince me that baked beans are a liquid if I drink them.
The whole experience makes me ponder all the biblical references to shared meals. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the early Church ate together. There’s something almost mystical in the fellowship of breaking bread together. In Revelation, John even goes so far as to paint a picture of heaven including a seven-year feast. It’s interesting that the same God who encourages the act of communal feasting also admonishes us to fast. Perhaps it makes us appreciate the feasting all the more, though I still can’t say I’ve figured it out.
It has been my most difficult day yet. Today I feel like I’m starving. My belly aches with an almost spiritual emptiness, which I suppose is the whole point. I woke up cranky and mildly depressed this morning due in large part, I assume, to tiredness and hunger. I saw a homeless woman sitting on the bench several yards away before I’d even unlocked the bakery door where I work. I don’t know if she saw me, but she waited a while to enter the bakery. Still, she was my first customer. She has come twice before.
On her first two visits she asked for a cookie and a cup of coffee, but once I gave them to her I realized she was asking if she could have them, apparently assuming that her inability to pay for them was implied. I told her both times that I would let her keep the coffee and the cookie since she already had them, but I couldn’t give her free stuff all the time. Today I denied her requests, and I did it just to be mean. All justifications aside, my primary motive was to inflict my anger and despair on her. The very sight of her several yards away inflamed my anger, though I’m not sure why, and although I was dreading having her in the bakery, I was almost glad she came in so that I could inflict some cruelty on her. I told her I couldn’t give her food because it wasn’t mine, because I didn’t own the bakery.
“That doesn’t surprise me. Nobody owns anything anymore,” she said. “But it would be nice if you gave me something to eat.”
“It would be nice, but I’m not going to,” I said and continued my work, ignoring her as though she were a person already dead. She milled around for a few more minutes looking at God knows what and then left.
As she had only been in the bakery three times in two years, I wasn’t really worried about her making a habit of begging from me. What bothers me is that while going through a process of self-denial for spiritual reasons, I can’t bring myself to treat a person, especially one who suffers more than the rest of us, with kindness and compassion. On another day I may have been generous, but that only means my compassion depends on my moods.
As a kind of cultural experiment (or because I’m ravenously hungry and derive sick pleasure from at least looking at pictures of food) I decide to count how many ads during each TV commercial break are focused on food. In many breaks, I count four out of five. The one that strikes me the most is the Taco Bell “Fourth Meal” campaign. It always depicts hip-looking people enjoying the nightlife, and at some point realizing how hungry they are. Taco Bell always comes to their aid. The alarming thing about the message it’s sending is that waiting 12 hours to eat is both unrealistic and unfair. You must eat now!
I think there’s something bigger to this fast than just denying myself food. It’s becoming apparent just how much of a culture of instant gratification we live in. Every commercial for food seems to be based on the premise that when we feel the hint of hunger, we must immediately gorge ourselves, not just out of necessity, but because we somehow deserve it. In light of this, fasting seems practically countercultural. It refuses to give in to the prevailing sentiment that we are entitled to fulfill our desires the very moment we feel them, and that the experience of eating will fill some kind of deeper spiritual hunger. After all, food has become more than sustenance in our culture. It has become another consumer good. Fasting doesn’t seem like such an ancient discipline in that context. It seems like something Americans desperately need to embrace.
My favorite part of the day is licking the peanut butter off the spoon after I scoop it into my protein shakes. It makes me realize how good food will taste at the end of this fast, an experience I believe will be as spiritual as denying it to myself for the pure act of discipline. I’m just excited to experience the joy that can be found in an act as commonplace as eating, especially because I had previously had such a love-hate relationship with food. As I fast I keep repeating one of my favorite lyrics in my head. It’s from “Sins of My Father” on Tom Waits’ Real Gone: “Seven days of sinning and 40 to repent.” Have my sins compiled made up seven days straight? This 40-day fast isn’t even coming close to making up for what I owe.
I got sick today at work for absolutely no discernible reason. First thing in the morning, I came in feeling fine, went to the bathroom and immediately threw up on myself. Gross, I know. The strange thing is I felt fine for the rest of the day. I have to think that it’s the process of my body purging itself of all the trans-fats and preservatives I pump into it.
I’m definitely hungry now. I keep thinking back to the brief time I spent in Africa last year. There I came face to face with actual hunger. Maybe part of fasting in modern-day America is to actually have some context, however small, for what real hunger is like. I’ve always been one to bandy about meaningless phrases like “Man, I’m starving” when 11:45 rolls around. In a society of rampant excess, very few of us know anything about starving. I cannot even claim to know it now, because I still have access to food whenever I feel like ending this fast. But perhaps fasting can somehow teach me a little bit of empathy for the vast number of people in the world who really do understand hunger.
I have been irresponsible believing that if I am to practice the discipline of not eating, all the other things I want to accomplish will fall into place. After writing yesterday about my temper subsiding, I completely allowed myself to be the victim of it at work as soon as things stopped going well. I was completely unable, or more accurately unwilling, to control it. I forgot all my intentions the moment a tantrum became my natural inclination. I am embarrassed by my lack of self-control.
After hanging out with Adam for a few hours, he was about to drive me home. I said, “If we go to Steak ‘n Shake right now and get a couple of Frisco melts, nobody would have to know.” I thought it was hilarious.
I’m standing in a hotel room in Dallas, Texas, and I’m miserable. Up until now, I’ve been relying far too heavily on various forms of broth to make me feel full. But I doubt airport security would have looked favorably upon me bringing a trash bag full of soup cans through the metal detector, so for the moment, I am stuck with water and water alone. To make matters far worse, my hotel room overlooks my favorite fast-food restaurant of all time, Jack in the Box. Its gleefully grinning harlequin mascot is beckoning me with siren songs of Sourdough Jacks and jalapeño poppers. Would anyone even know, I wonder, if I walked over there and grabbed a burger?
All of this makes me come to terms with my own pride. Maintaining this fast has been a lot easier when I am surrounded by people who applaud my efforts. Everyone knows about my fast, and I know part of my endurance has been based on fulfilling their expectations. How much of this am I doing to impress my friends rather than submit myself to God? I take the elevator to the lobby, and walk through the parking lot to the Jack in the Box. Out of an act of God’s sheer mercy, it is closed. I return to my room, pray for strength and drink more tepid water.
Tonight I felt a release I can’t fully explain. I was agonizing over my motives for this fast. Was I continuing it just to prove a point? Was I trying to go the full 40 days out of pride? Or, was I just telling myself I was doing it out of pride, because it justified my desire to break the fast? I prayed intensely and fervently, asking God to purify my motives. The strange thing is that I didn’t feel any moment of enlightenment. I just suddenly had the thought, “I’m going to go grab a bite to eat,” and I felt complete peace in it. I devoured a small meal of pita wedges and hummus, and it was good, but in no way the transcendent experience I expected it to be. Perhaps food no longer has the same power over my life that it used to. Moreover, I also expected to feel guilty afterward. I didn’t. I didn’t really feel much of anything other than a sense of normalcy. To be honest, it will probably be some time before I fully comprehend the ramifications of the last three weeks. For now, I’m just happy to be back on solid foods.
It is almost a week and a half after I’ve broken my fast. I have been smart about eating since the fast, though not particularly healthy. I mean I’ve been smart in my attitude toward food. I’ve been truly enjoying it. I realize how foolish I was about discipline. I regarded discipline as not feeling the urge to do the things I don’t really want to do. It seems obvious now that discipline is really about feeling the urge to engage in certain behaviors but not doing so anyway.
The fast itself taught me my own fragility both physically and spiritually, but it also taught me that I can work for what I think is important. It was, though not transcendent in almost any way, one of the most spiritual experiences of my life in ways I never expected. In ways opposite to the ways I expected.
It’s been almost a month since I broke my fast, and in many ways I’m still processing the experience. It impacted me spiritually in ways I can’t yet put into words. In the midst of all this, though, is a profound sense that my sacrifice was very, very small. Many Christians embark on fasts longer than mine on a regular basis. However, I can say that I learned some much-needed self-control, and also gained an appreciation for setting oneself apart from a culture of excess and instant gratification. I would recommend the experience to anyone (with the caveat that you should consult your doctor first), and assure them that they will gain much more than they sacrifice. Fasting for 20 days was enlightening, frustrating, miserable and exhilarating. Next time, I know I’ll make 40.
Originally published in RELEVANT Magazine issue 30. If you enjoyed this article, consider visiting your local newsstand to pick up the latest issue or subscribe online and save up to 71% off newsstand.