217 – Why Fasting Matters for Writers

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Why Fasting Matters for Writers on Write from the Deep Podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor Young

Fasting. We’ve all heard of it, and yet we rarely do it. But this ancient practice is frequently mentioned in the Bible, with Jesus himself leading the way. He did it, he taught about it, and he presumed we’d follow in his footsteps. Join us for a deeper look at this vital aspect of discipleship and why it matters for writers. We’ll even discuss alternatives to try if your medical condition prevents you from practicing typical methods of fasting.

But first, thank you to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

We’ve been talking about various practices for deepening our relationship with God. Here are links to our past episodes about Rest-211Prayer 208Silence-205, Solitude 199, and Fellowship 214 if you missed them. Today we want to cover a practice that isn’t the first choice for most of us. It’s certainly not comfortable, and often put off or not done at all. What is it? Fasting. 

Now, hang in there with us, because while fasting typically involves abstaining from food for a period of time, we’re well aware that some folks, Karen included, have medical issues that make it unsafe, even life threatening, to skip meals. So in this episode, we’ll also cover alternatives to traditional fasting.

First, let’s talk about why fasting matters. I mean, who thought of this? And why?

I’ll sum up my research findings in one sentence: I couldn’t find any source that claimed to know exactly when the practice of fasting started. New World Encyclopedia just says, “Fasting for religious and spiritual reasons has been a part of human custom since pre-history.” 

But it is also found in various ancient written records—including the Old and New Testaments. 

How often is fasting mentioned in the Bible? An article on cslewisinstitute.org lists many occasions:

In Deuteronomy chapter 9, Moses recounts how he did not one but two 40-day fasts when he was meeting with God on Mt. Sinai after leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

In Daniel 10:3, in response to an overwhelming, terrifying vision, Daniel talks about his partial fast for 21 days and says, “I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.” After this he received the meaning of the vision.

Here’s what it says in Ezra 8:21-23 when Ezra is leading a group of exiles from Babylon back to Jerusalem: “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, ‘The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.’ So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.” ESV

In the book of Esther, when Haman succeeded in getting a law published to kill all the Jews, Esther was going to go to the king to plead for mercy, but appearing before him without being summoned was punishable by death unless the king held out his scepter to her. So here’s what she tells her uncle, Mordecai: “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” Esther 4:16 ESV

Another fast during a national emergency happens in the time of King Jehoshaphat. A giant army made up of different people groups has come against them, and this is the king’s response in 2 Chronicles 20:3-4: “Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord.” ESV

The result of this fast? God delivered them—they didn’t even need to fight the battle because the opposing armies killed each other off.

Fasting is found in the New Testament, too. Mark chapter 1 tells us Jesus himself fasted in the wilderness for 40 days. And Jesus’ teaching on fasting in Matthew chapters 6 and 9 make it clear that he expects this to be a normal practice for his followers after his crucifixion.

In Acts chapter 9, Saul, later to be called the apostle Paul, fasts for three days after being blinded after his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus.

In Acts 13, God’s instructions to launch the first missionary journey come during the course of prayer and fasting, and Paul and Barnabus are then sent off with another round of prayer and fasting. And it’s clear that fasting was a regular part of their journey. Acts 14:23 says, “And when [Paul and Barnabus] had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”

We won’t take the time to give detailed examples of prominent fasting Christians in the centuries after the Bible was written, but we will point out that John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and C.S. Lewis were all enthusiastic supporters and practicers of fasting.

One more thing we should make clear. The article on cslewisinstitute.org states that the Bible specifically defines fasting as going without food. Here’s how they put it: “In the Old Testament, the main Hebrew word used is tsom, which means ‘to abstain from food.’ In the New Testament, the Greek word we translate as ‘fast’ is nesteuo, which means ‘to abstain from eating.’ In both testaments, fasting is simply going without food in order to seek God for some special reason.”

The reason they stress this definition is because this is what the actual practice was and is: going without food. This is what the Israelites did, this is what Jesus did, and it’s what he’s teaching about. So, if your health allows, this is the normal way to practice fasting.

But again, we know not everyone can physically do this, so we’ll also discuss alternatives.

First, let’s circle back to the purpose of this practice. The article on cslewisinstitute.org says it’s “to seek God for some special reason.” So, why would fasting help us do that?

How Does Fasting Help Us Seek God?

1. Fasting helps us divorce ourselves from the ordinary pleasures and occupations of this world. 

Dallas Willard, in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, which we’ve mentioned in previous episodes, writes this: “[Fasting] teaches us a lot about ourselves very quickly…it reveals to us how much our peace depends upon the pleasures of eating.” 

Justin Whitmel Earley, in his book The Common Rule, adds, “Fasting is a way to resist the original sin of trying to eat our way to happiness…”

Earley goes on to describe how he feels during a day of fasting: “It’s midmorning when I become irritable. Not only am I trying to concentrate over a hungry stomach, but I also can’t do what I otherwise do every day: look forward to lunch or snacks as a way to medicate the pain of toilsome work.”

He continues describing the discomfort of his day, then he sums it up with this: “When I fast I see that deep down I’m not actually a very patient person after all. I’m not actually a very content person after all…I’m a weak, impatient, angry person who medicates with food and drink. This is painful to confront. Yet to live without fasting is to live without knowing who I truly am.”

Knowing our weaknesses is humbling, but that’s right where we need to be in order to effectively seek God. Which leads to the second reason fasting helps us seek God.

2. Fasting reminds us that we are humbly dependent on God.

We’re dependent on God for everything. Acts 17:25 (NIV) tells us, “[God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”

God supplies our daily bread, our clothes, our homes, our jobs, our stories, our words, our talents and abilities, our book sales, our readers.

Dallas Willard writes, “Persons well used to fasting as a systematic practice will have a clear and constant sense of their resources in God.”

That’s exactly what we need as Christians, a better connection to the reality of God as our constant provider. 

But there’s more. Willard goes on to say that this connection and constant sense developed through the systematic practice of fasting will help us “…endure deprivations of all kinds, even to the point of coping with them easily and cheerfully.”

Imagine what coping cheerfully and easily with deprivations could look like if, say, you find you have to type your next book with one hand because you’ve developed carpal tunnel syndrome in the other? Or if the time you thought you had to write gets cut in half because of an unforeseen family emergency? Or if you lose your publishing contract? Or your day job? Or you have to tighten your belt due to the crazy inflation these days? Or whatever else. 

3. Fasting helps us feast on God.

But God is more than just the giver of stuff we need. Dallas Willard writes, “Fasting confirms our utter dependence on God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food…In fasting we learn how to suffer happily as we feast on God.”

So, fasting helps us see God as more than a provider of resources, but actually as sustenance itself. 

Look at Deuteronomy 8:3 where Moses speaks to the Israelites before they head into the Promised Land: “[God] humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Now fast forward to the New Testament and look at what Jesus says about this bread of God in John 6, verses 33 and 51 (ESV): “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

So, fasting helps us seek God by seeking to feast on him. On who he is, on what he’s done, and on what he will keep doing throughout eternity.

Look at what Psalm 36:7-9 says: “…The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” ESV

Not only can we feast on God, we can also feast on doing God’s will. In John chapter 4, Jesus is talking to the woman at the well in Samaria, while his disciples have gone to the village to buy food. When they come back, they urge him to eat. Here’s what he says, “…I have food to eat that you do not know about” (John 4:32 ESV). So the disciples are trying to figure out if someone brought him food while they were gone. But then: “Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’” (John 4:34 ESV) 

I love how Dallas Willard sums this up. When we fast, he writes, “We learn that we too have meat to eat that the world does not know about. Fasting unto our Lord is therefore feasting—feasting on him and on doing his will.”

4. Fasting helps remind us to pray and serve.

None of what we’ve said so far means we won’t actually experience the discomfort of hunger. We typically do. But one way those hunger pangs can help us seek God is by being a consistent reminder to pray. As we go about the busyness of life, the habit of praying can be something that becomes superficially brief, or put off until we have more time, or forgotten altogether. But prayer is key in communicating with God, so the reminder to pray that hunger brings can help us foster more constant interaction with God.

And hey, if we don’t have to spend time making dinner and eating it, well, we’ve just freed up more time to spend with God.

Another benefit of the discomfort of fasting is that it can help us tune in to the needs of others. Here’s what Justin Whitmel Earley writes of his own experience returning home from a day at work when he’s been fasting, “I come home [at dinner time] not expecting to eat. I’m simply expecting to serve other people as they eat. The most remarkable part is that I’m actually happier that way, because all along I’ve been thinking that food makes me happy. But now I see that only love does that. When that switch happens, ironically one of my favorite things to do is cook for other people when I’m fasting.”

5. Fasting helps us empathize with the suffering of others.

You all will likely find other benefits of fasting that we didn’t have time to cover, but one last benefit we want to mention is that fasting gives us empathy with those who are suffering. That, in turn, expands our capacity and tenacity in our prayers for the needs of those around us.

Justin Whitmel Earley writes, “When we fast, we become more attuned to the stubborn reality of the world’s suffering…while there is a part of fasting that reveals our own needs, there is a part that reveals the world’s need, too…fasting is a way to lean past our own emptiness and into someone else’s. It’s a practice of empathy, of willingly walking into pain for someone else. It’s an imitation of Christ…” 

What if fasting isn’t medically advisable for you?

Now, for those of you who can’t fast—either for physical or mental health reasons—remember the goal as you’re looking for a suitable alternative. As Justin Whitmel Earley puts it, you want to “lean into the lack.” 

  • Simple Meals

One idea, instead of not eating, might be to eat very simple meals.

You can follow what Daniel did, and rather than abstain from all foods, you can choose certain foods to abstain from. Maybe especially those we consume for pleasure rather than healthy sustenance. We need protein everyday, but does it need to come from whatever your favorite source is? What about things like soda? Refined sugar? Chocolate? Potato Chips? These are things we like the taste of, we eat them for pleasure rather than nutritional value.

In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Willard writes, “The desert fathers such as St. Antony often subsided for long periods of time on bread and water…” but he also cautions that “their ‘bread’ was much more substantial than we have today.”

So you might not want to eat just store bought white bread! But what is the simplest meal that can supply the basic nutrients you need? The goal is to experience discomfort, to be humbled, to focus on God as our fullness.

  • Abstain from Snacking

Another alternative, and something that can also be done in conjunction with simple meals, is to not eat between meals—if your medical condition makes that possible. I know I have the habit of grazing. My watch tells me it’s time to stand because I’ve been sitting too long, so I get up and walk to my kitchen where I eat a nice little snack. Which, when you analyze that, is probably counterproductive. For the most part, I don’t need those snacks. I just like them.

  • Abstain from Entertainment

Kelly Minter, in her Bible study Encountering God: Cultivating Habits of Faith Through the Spiritual Disciplines writes this: “When we fast, we’re practicing the needed discipline of saying no to ourselves and yes to God.”

For alternatives to fasting from food, what other things can we say no to? Well, we can say no to entertainment. No TV, no phone games, no social media scrolling for birds and puppies and other fun videos, no Spotify, Pandora, or Podcasts, no reading for pleasure, going to the movies, sporting events, or whatever you do for fun. Take a whole day off, and rather than seeking distraction, seek only God, his presence, his words, his direction. Learn to delight in God, and only God. 

  • Abstain from Something Else 

What are the things in your life that take up time? Things you look forward to and would miss? 

For example, suppose you’re an extroverted person who hates to be alone and spends lots of time getting together with friends. Maybe you can choose to stay home one night a week instead—stay home and have a date with God.

Or, maybe you like to go out and shop. You don’t even necessarily buy things, although maybe sometimes you do. But instead of hitting the mall to look around and see what’s new, you abstain for 40 days. Instead, you use that time to stay home and seek God.

There are probably lots of other alternatives out there we can think of if we give it more personalized time and thought. Ask God to show you. The point is to practice fasting—in whatever way your health allows—and incorporate it into your spiritual life. As Dallas Willard writes, “…[F]asting is one of the more important ways of practicing that self-denial required of everyone who would follow Christ (Matthew 16:24).”

Why do we fast?

Kelly Minter sums up her reasoning for fasting this way in her Bible Study Encountering God: “I believe we can and should fast for guidance, healing, direction, intercession, in pursuit of spiritual breakthroughs, and more. But I believe one of the greatest reasons we can fast is simply in pursuit of a deeper experience with Christ.”

Fasting. We’ve all heard of it, and yet we rarely do it. Take a deeper look at this vital aspect of discipleship and why it matters for writers. #amwriting #Christianwriter Share on X

WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!

Do you practice fasting? What do you find to be the best thing about it?

THANK YOU!

Thank you to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

Thanks so much to our July sponsor of the month, Wendy L. Macdonald. She’s a writer, poet, podcaster, photographer, a maker of journals (find her on Etsy to see them!) and nature lover. I know you’d enjoy getting to know her! Check out the treasury of her website at wendyLmacdonald.com.

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