A few months after a meal at Charlie’s Steak House, I began to notice something growing in my heart, a seed with a small sprout, a single thought: Fast from food. I tried to kill it, smothering it with other thoughts, dreams of shiny things or lottery hopes. Then I tried ignoring it, letting it grow but not turning an eye to it. Nothing worked. It remained and grew stronger, so I decided to avoid God and hope the thought would dry up and wither away.
I was disillusioned with my life, unsure of my future and depressed with the job I currently was working. And now added stress: this request, fast. God surely had me confused with someone more spiritual. This was the sort of request meant for Billy Graham or Mother Teresa—certainly not me. I was 25. I was four years out of college, freshly married and I cut the lawn on Saturday mornings. I had just finished seminary, but that certainly didn’t make me Billy Graham, and it definitely didn’t prepare me to fast for 40 days. The only fast I’d known about was blazing down a ridgeline on my mountain bike. I knew little of sacrifice, even less about hunger.
But the sprout kept growing; the idea strengthened: Fast for 40 days. God nagged me. He pestered me. He never left me alone—when I jogged and when I showered and when I drove. The same call, the same burden: Fast for 40 days. Eventually, as the discomfort of my rebellion outweighed the fear of the colossal amount of days of starving myself, I surrendered.This brings me to today, the day before the beginning. I’m not surrendering out of faith. I simply want to be rid of the request. God won’t relent, so I will. I believe like a demon.
If faith is here I’m not aware of it. Right now fear is my dreaded companion, my pessimistic partner. It’s important to know I’m not a big man. I’m skinny, though I prefer to be called thin. And I wonder how long I can live off this measly frame. What will my body burn once the little fat I have is consumed? Will I burn an organ on day 24? Will I lose a butt cheek on day 36? So I declare aloud to the God of heaven and earth: “Lord, I don’t want to lose an organ or a butt cheek. I’d like to keep these things for future use. So if my weight drops below 150, I’m quitting. Sorry if that seems rude or shallow. Sorry to put conditions on this request you make of me. Maybe it’s wrong to do so, but that’s the deal.”
There is also the issue of headaches. A few years ago I began getting migraines, pounding menaces that paralyze me, as if a little man lives in my head and chisels away unneeded parts of the interior of my skull. Usually the little man forces me to lie still in a silent, dark room. I’m on daily medication to help limit the migraines, but there are still triggers. The most common trigger is missing a meal, never mind 120 meals. If I don’t eat, the little man with the chisel goes to work.
So I sit in this murky pool of fear with doubt and dread swirling around me. I look up at the Lifeguard and manage to utter, hoping to avoid being hit by lightning: “You didn’t think this through, God. I can’t do this and you know it. But I’ll start and when I end up in the hospital, or renouncing my faith, joining a pot-smoking, traveling carnival, it will be your fault.”
I don’t much fear the carnival or the hospital. My greatest fear is the sad notion that none of this will matter, that this whole thing will be as meaningless as trying to retrieve fallen rain. I fear getting to the end of this and still having no clue what I should do with my life. Perhaps I made this whole thing up in some grand, self-righteous mission. I fear God isn’t listening, that I’m forgotten. This fear creates a gnawing frustration, one that manifests a lie in my heart: He doesn’t care at all. And all the places in me that should be at rest grow tight.
Faith seems so elusive at times. You’d think someone willing to start a 40-day fast would have more faith, at least a measure of strength and resolve. I think about someone like King David, and I’m comforted by his major moral failures. I feel sorry that his family had to live through the chaos created by his failures, but I can at least relate to that part of his life. But then there are other moments when David seems bold and untouchable. In 2 Samuel 6, the Ark of the Covenant made its way through Jerusalem, delivered home after many years in a foreign country. King David danced and leaped in joy—abounding, insurmountable joy. This was not normal behavior for a king. Kings sat and reigned. They looked regal and stable. This leaping man was a lunatic.
I wonder, in my conservative, polished Christianity, Would I do that? I think I’d be too concerned about what the other people would think of me, what they would say to their friend about me later over coffee. I get so concerned about people liking me that I miss remarkable things along the way.
I don’t have much in this life mastered. I want to dance, but oftentimes I stand watching.
Excerpted from 40 Days Without Food by Russ Masterson. Copyright 2011 by Russ Masterson. Used with permission by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.