Watch and pray . . . and fast
It is Lent. Though paying attention to Lent isn’t part of Reformed DNA, many Reformed Christians now observe Lent. “Observe” as in “to keep or maintain in one’s action, conduct” or “to show regard for by some appropriate procedure, ceremony.”
Many people who keep Lent give up food or drink they particularly love. It’s a mark of our society’s abundance that it may seem to us like suffering to give up our daily coffee, chocolate, wine or meat, or some other food we secretly (or not so secretly) crave. Some even fast.
Fasting, like Lent itself, is foreign to the Reformed tradition. Calvin eschewed fasting since it was so rooted in Roman Church practices and had become mere ritual, he said – a stumbling block to real repentance and daily obedient living. Let your whole life be a “fast,” said Calvin, a sacrifice of service and thanks to God for his great salvation. Yes, on that last part! But I’ve come to believe he shouldn’t have ditched the baby with the bathwater in relation to fasting.
Jesus told his disciples, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do. . . . But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face [i.e., prepare normally to meet the world], so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting . . . and your Father . . . will reward you” (Matt. 6:16-18).
Notice that he says “when you fast,” not if. (And that it brings reward from God!) Jesus clearly assumed that his disciples would fast – certainly once he had ascended, when he their Bridegroom would no longer be with them (Matt. 9:15). That’s because Jesus deems fasting, like the prayer which is always presumed to accompany it, necessary. We’ve merrily ignored those words of our Saviour for centuries, thinking, “Well, that’s just one of those cultural things they did then.” But I believe some rethinking of fasting is in order.
40 days not arbitrary
Jesus’ additional words about fasting, and his own example, are a further help. When the disciples couldn’t drive out a demon, Jesus told them, “This kind comes out only through prayer and fasting.” Some demons and the pernicious evil they cause require the kind of persistent, prolonged prayer that fasting elicits. (Surely there is such evil in our own world that requires such prayer and fasting.) Then there is Jesus’ own 40-day fast in the wilderness, which prepared him to withstand Satan’s tempting, and for his three-year ministry.
I’ve gotten far enough here to tell you that I recently fasted. In my case, the purpose was as much medical/health-related as spiritual. But short though it was by classic standards (four days and nights on water only, two more on juice only), it was a revelation to me.
In preparation I learned to marvel anew at the amazing way God has created our bodies. It turns out that 40-days is not an arbitrary number. When you fast, in the first few days your liver uses up the glycogen (a form of sugar) stored in your body. After that your fuel source becomes ketones, fueled by your fat reserves, and minimally by muscle. Once that begins you no longer feel hungry. And that lack of hunger remains – normally until about the 40-day mark in healthy people. In fact, it is the return of hunger at forty days that signals that you should quit fasting, lest your body literally begin to starve.
Fasting cleans out all manner of toxins. A prolonged fast will kill viruses, eat up scar tissue and have other astonishing restorative effects on numerous ailments. And it has profound spiritual repercussions. A fast of more than a few days will produce moments of intense mental and spiritual clarity – if you are taking the opportunity (in all your free time while fasting) to pray, and pray, and pray again, meditating on Scripture as you do.
We live in precarious times. Satan is attacking the Church of Jesus Christ from every direction. Regular prayerful fasting can be – should be – a powerful, God-prescribed weapon against those assaults.
Christian, dost thou feel them, how they work within,
Striving, tempting, luring, goading into sin?
Christian, never tremble; never be downcast;
Gird thee for the battle, watch and pray and fast.
Christian, dost thou hear them, how they speak thee fair?
“Always fast and vigil? Always watch and prayer?”
Christian, answer boldly: “While I breathe I pray!”
Peace shall follow battle, night shall end in day.
Andrew of Crete, 7th c.