Faith is nothing more—but how much this is—than a motion of the soul toward God. Even the motion of faith is mysterious and inexplicable: I say the soul moves “toward” God, but that is only the limitation of language.
Christian Wiman, “My Bright Abyss”
In February, some Christian girlfriends and I realized that we wanted to observe Lent together. We wanted to see what it would be like to remind ourselves, repeatedly, that a person we have come to love—Jesus Christ—gave something up for us. We decided to observe it the old-school way: a Friday evening fast. We’d replace that time with individual prayer, reading Scripture, or some state of quiet and meditation on God. The morning after, we’d get together and break it.
It was a far more important experience than I had expected. My faith in God is like this inner, bright, warm something that almost illuminates life from the inside out, but more often it’s like this inexplicable thing outside of me, like the awe that crashes on me as I look up into starry skies. It’s hard to knit these two realities together. Upon reflection, though, this difficulty may be a major saving grace. Remember when Neo takes the red pill and escapes the Matrix to find something so much bigger, more intense and complicated than he’s ever known? …And then throws up? The human mind is a bit too small of a package for anything approaching eternity.
This is why real-life practices of faith are such gifts. Praying, serving strangers who are neighbors, a habit of reading the Bible on the phone on my commute. These are the means by which practicing Christians express faith with our own hands and feet, use the language of this tangible world to point to something beyond it.
Fasting is one of those practices. It also seems like one of the least practiced. But, my friends and I experienced something very real and accessible, so that’s the part I’m writing about. I only hope that something of the underlying spirit comes through because, as with every practice of faith, that spirit is the actual substance.
I cannot, by direct moral effort, give myself new motives.
C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”
The love of the world cannot be expunged by a mere demonstration of the world’s worthlessness. But may it not be supplanted by the love of that which is more worthy than itself?
Thomas Chalmers, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection“
Motivations are no reliable thing. My friends and I wanted to fast to express a gratitude to and for God. We also live in a world where fasting, pulled out of the spiritual lexicon and into the secular, is a weight loss strategy. That is not what my friends and I wanted to do at all, but given how deeply rooted our insecurities about control/weight/appearance are in current culture, we knew how easy our fasting could turn into that. Our hearts are weak: We start with one motivation behind an action and, if left unchecked, it turns into another. For me personally, an eating disorder in college (anorexia: I starved myself) had trained my mind for years afterward to link any skipping of food with a deadly, self-soothing sense of control.
This is why it was critical to fast together. Fasting with community kept us all both accountable to the fast and also more aware of when our hearts were turning inward into selfish, self-based things. One friend texted the group a passage from the Bible around 5 p.m. each Friday, and that small prompt alone helped lead me through the evening. (Sure, call it a “nudge.”)
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them… when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others… When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting…
There’s another, even more silent reason people end up fasting, and it’s poisonous for Christian communities. That is, fasting to congratulate ourselves that we’re good people—in fact, better than others. As with most other things, faith is something we human beings can mutate into a rat race. If you’ve met a self-righteous Christian (I have, and that includes knowing myself), then you’ve experienced the rat race. Self-worship is a low-hanging fruit.
However, a holiness competition was not Jesus Christ’s preferred method of devotion. He expressly commanded people against using fasting or anything as a showcase of self. He was unabashedly and clearly against people sitting around and being religious smart alecks.
So the ladies and I checked each other’s hearts just by being real with each other. On Saturday mornings, we broke our fast, laughing, talking, praying. We had fresh bread, butter and eggs (and good coffee). We asked some hard questions. We brought each other back down to earth. It was simple and fabulous.
The wind it’s been tryin’ to blast us to bits / And the water’s been tryin’ to swallow this ship / And my heart has been throwing the goal overboard / But I won’t give you up / Cos your anchor still holds
Flannel Graph, “Saints out of Sailors”
Fasting itself was hard. Sadness was the most accessible emotion to me as the Friday afternoons waned. I felt sad to feel hunger. I felt anxious to distract myself to make the evening easier. I itched to be busy—religiously busy—by reading all of those chapters of the Bible I had missed that week, writing down bullet notes of prayers, messaging everyone I was thinking about, etc., etc. Then, I felt sad again by how quickly I could warp these genuinely good things into mere personal relief.
Most overwhelmingly, fasting was sad because it was a speck against the hunger that is chronic and debilitating in bodies across the street and across the world. This sadness was a palpable reminder of the perpetual exhaustion most people in the world experience, and which my daily life allows me to forget.
On one evening, forcing myself to shelve my to-do list, I found myself lying in fetal position on my bed listening to worship music on Pandora. I was struck very intensely by the knowledge of my own neediness as a person in general, and it was emotionally paralyzing. On another evening, I read the Bible for hours, journaled about a particular passage that was speaking to me all anew, and then went to bed early. On another evening, I ran errands and went grocery shopping, all while batting down the uncomfortable thought that I was frittering away my fast by being obsessively productive.
It is as if each of us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music that, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant, because it demands the attention we are giving to other things. It is not hard to hear this music, but it is very difficult to learn to hear it as music.
Christian Wiman, “My Bright Abyss”
When morning came, we broke our fast. I cannot understate the significance of this sequence. The purpose of our fast was not ultimately to skip a meal of food, but to consciously point ourselves to a deeper “hunger” in us—for good, justice, truth, mercy, the presence of God—that we somehow know will be met. It’s curious, because this particular hunger has not been satisfied in human history, yet. It’s like when scouring your brain desperately for the words to a song you’ve forgotten or the name of a restaurant you know you’ve been to. Expectation. Breaking the fast represents the meeting of that expectation.
…he has put eternity into man’s heart…
Such is faith, the conviction of things not seen. Had my friends and I only fasted, without breaking the fast together, the practice would have been a very inaccurate model of our faith, focusing only on suffering and overlooking our anticipation of a greater good to come. In a way, it would have been too easy because, as I’m learning in so many parts of my life, hope is a thing of great courage. I mean, it’s incredibly scary and takes bravery.
So, I learned, fasting is a practice of hope. I really didn’t expect to experience that.
To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweet as when one long to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole.
Marilynne Robinson, “Housekeeping”
- National Public Radio (4/23/17) reported on the stark lack of hope among Muslim refugees fleeing Myanmar, and it’s another facet of the tragedy happening there and wherever else entire communities are being persecuted and displaced. It is a truly urgent question: “Can You Still Have Hope When Life Seems Hopeless?“