I despise fasting. I hate the way it makes me feel: grumpy, irritable, distracted with thoughts of burgers, pizza, and ice cream when I’m trying to do something important. But most of all, it makes me feel hungry. And hunger tells me I need something to fill and nourish an emptiness inside. It isn’t the way I was meant to live. No one was meant to live perpetually hungry.
But yet the Bible refers to fasting multiple times. Jesus fasted, along with the Apostles. Early church writings refer to fasting as if it is expected to be a regular part of the life of a Jesus follower. It has often seemed strange to me, though. How am I supposed to focus on my relationship with God when all I can think about is the next time I can pop something into my mouth? And now there’s this trendy thing called “intermittent fasting” that’s supposed to help a person lose weight and get healthier.
I recently decided to take a second look at fasting after talking with several people who claimed it has improved their health. The intermittent kind can take a couple different approaches. One can regularly refrain from eating for a couple days out of each week (sounds awful). Or, a person can restrict the time periods during each day in which one does eat. This means that someone might not eat for 16 hours out of a day and eat only during the other eight hours. I read that besides losing weight, this can help lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes. So, with gritted teeth, I decided to try it.
Nourishment By Going Without?
It wasn’t fun. I would resist food up until 12 noon each day, and then eat nothing after 8:00 in the evening. The morning hours were especially challenging as I was constantly glancing at a clock to see how much time I had left until I could stuff my face. After about a month, I was about to give up on it, despite the supposed health benefits, when I heard God speak to me. It was in the form of a very strong impression that there was something important He wanted me to learn from this experience. He used Deuteronomy 8:3, part of the ancient speech of Moses speaking to the Israelites after they had wandered in the desert for 40 years.
“And He [God] humbled you and let you hunger and fed you manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (ESV).
God was asking me to think about why He, a good God and Heavenly Father, would let His children hunger. What benefit was there for them to experience that hollow feeling with the longing to fill themselves with something, perhaps anything? Of course, He did then provide food for them, miraculously, sent from heaven. But many didn’t appreciate it because it was unfamiliar and there were guidelines and expectations for when and how it was to be collected (Exodus 16:4-36).
The Food We Often Overlook
I began to see fasting through a new lens. Just as God wanted to teach His Israelite children to let their hunger lead them into seeing and feeling their spiritual needs, He desires the same for me today. The feelings of hunger were meant to get the people’s attention. God then provided something for them that would satisfy a deeper need. He was offering them nourishment from heaven. Manna was meant to be more than fuel for their physical bodies. To benefit from it, trust and obedience were necessary. The Israelites had to trust it would be there for them every morning, and then they had to obey God when He said it was time to gather extra for the Sabbath. God was trying to show them that they were more than mere animals needing their daily allotment of calories. Their physical bodies had to be “humbled” and reminded that they also are spiritual beings who find strength, purpose, and sustainability through spiritual nourishment – qualities that physical food cannot provide.
And yet we often live as if physical reality and what it has to give us is all there is.
When our physical bodies hunger, it is difficult to focus on anything but getting that need met. The desire to be filled, however, is not merely a physical yearning. The lines blur between bodily appetites and emotional and spiritual cravings. Often, we attempt to satisfy soul and spiritual longings with food or other physical stimulation like entertainment, sex, accumulation of stuff, or recreation. And it typically directs our thoughts to our bodies and short-term, feel-good moments. Hunger, if we let it, has the potential of reminding us of that other, higher level of satisfaction that can be found when we search beyond a full stomach or other bodily stimuli. Making our physical bodies comfortable can easily turn into a type of idol we bow to whenever our flesh lets out a distressed or bored whine. We then fail to find Manna, and our deepest and longest lasting desires go untouched.
Interestingly, Jesus had some things to say about this. Read the entire 6th chapter of the Gospel of John.
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27 ESV).
And again . . .
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35 ESV).
Nourishing Our Forever Lives
Accessing “heavenly bread” is at the heart of following Jesus. We don’t become more holy or spiritual by merely denying ourselves what we want. But by learning to say “no” or “not yet” to our physical cravings, we are in a better position to hear God, to see the value of His word, and trust Him as we obey Him. In other words, letting ourselves hunger physically can lead us to be better nourished and satisfied spiritually.
It may be difficult to make that transition when we’re accustomed to giving priority to our physical appetites. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m still doing the intermittent fasting and slowly learning to seek God’s word for a deeper level of nourishment. Don’t be afraid to take it slow. The important point is to truly believe that for a Jesus follower, spiritual nourishment is just as vital for our lives, if not more so. And we must then act on that belief.
Explore fasting, whatever rhythm fits where you’re at right now. Most of us have bodies that need to be “humbled” and reminded that they and their demands were never meant to be in charge of our existence. But it’s our spirits, in submissive communion with the Holy Spirit, that are meant to lead us into eternity.
How well-nourished is your spirit? The way of hunger can lead to a healthier life!