I volunteer with a tutoring program at a friendly local megachurch, and when your student doesn’t have any homework, they have you read out loud from missionary biographies as reading practice.
One night, we were reading the story of Samuel Morris, a passionate young revivalist who came to America after miraculously escaping a rival tribe who tried to kill him. Guy had an interesting life.
At one point, Sammy Morris declared that he was going to set aside Fridays as a day of fasting, since that’s the day Jesus died and the day God spared his life in the jungle.
I glanced up from the story. “Do you know what fasting is?” My student, a shy seventh grader, shook her head. “It’s when someone gives up food for a set period of time and dedicates the time to God.”
“Oh,” she said. “Isn’t that like anorexia?”
Well. How do you explain to a thirteen-year-old with very little spiritual background the complexities of a spiritual discipline that we rarely practice in the Protestant church (though Jesus seemed to assume that we would)? Especially when it has a lot of superficial similarities to a self-destructive pattern of behavior that we tell young girls to stay away from at all costs?
Awkward silences are my favorite.
Once I recovered enough to say something, I blathered on for a bit about how fasting is usually for a short period of time so it can’t damage your health, and it’s about focusing on God, and, well, it’s just different.
That’s all true, I think, but here’s what I should have said: fasting is not the same as anorexia. Fasting is the opposite of anorexia.
Starving yourself is all about control. Every account I read of anorexia focuses on the obsessive need to measure food intake to the tiniest detail, the feeling of triumph when you can continue to function on next to nothing. The compulsive exercising, the victorious ache of an empty stomach, the obsessive calorie counting of each section of a graham cracker, each bite of celery—determining with ultimate authority what can be allowed in and what will not be worth the cost.
Fasting is about giving up control. It is, for once, saying “no” when you want something, when your whole body is demanding it. It draws out other desires, because when you’re hungry, you get to see the worst of yourself. The weakness, the paralyzing sense of dependency, the desire to find the nearest vending machine, buy out its contents, and stuff them all into your mouth at once—but deciding that no matter how awful it feels, it is worth the cost.
Anorexia takes something good—discipline—and twists it. It takes something that is about denying our wrong desires and turns it into denying good desires. It becomes selfish instead of a way to die to self. But so does self-righteous fasting. (Jesus talked about this too.) And so does gluttony…although gluttony might not be what you think it is.
Just like the opposite of love is hate…and apathy, and selfishness, all in different ways. And the opposite of joy is greed and also fear and also arrogance.
Whichever extreme you’re most prone to, remember that anything that puts the focus on you instead of God is not good.
I love how John Piper put it in a book on fasting: “The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie.” When we get too comfortable, when we never have to take up a cross because people aren’t actually handing them out in middle-class suburbia these days, when the gospel starts to look like the American dream . . . something’s wrong.
Should we talk more about fasting in the Protestant faith? Is it possible to enjoy our blessings a little too much, to the exclusion of things like discipline and dependance on God? I don’t know for sure, but it’s something to think about.