Does God want fasting?
She coughed several times during the 10-minute conversation. She was fasting with other members of her church, the woman said, and that made her mouth dry.
According to Isaiah, a fast honoring God’s will is one that seeks to end oppression, one in which we are attentive to what we have and how we share it.
I t raised the question of whether she was fasting from even water, but it seemed inappropriate to question her action, motivated by spiritual desire.
Though an ancient, sacred tradition, there is an ongoing debate about potential negative health effects of going without food, even more without fluids. And for those of us who have grown up in Western countries — especially women — turning abstaining from eating into a virtue can be dangerous for those who struggle with eating disorders.
Given all that, are we sure fasting is what God wants?
Through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah (58:6-7), God asks: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Though this is not the only scripture about fasting, it sparks wondering about whether a fast has to be denying one’s self food and drink.
According to Isaiah, a fast honoring God’s will is one that seeks to end oppression, one in which we are attentive to what we have and how we share it. It involves focusing on what we need to be part of God’s purposes in the world.
Julia Butterfly Hill lived nearly two years in the branches of a redwood tree in the late 1990s to draw attention to the destruction of old-growth forests. She relied on prayer and the power of transformative love to engage logging company officials and the loggers themselves, as well as the broader public. Her memoir, The Legacy of Luna, reveals one who sacrificed much for her beliefs and yet did it joyfully. Living on a small platform, with few possessions, eating only basic grains and produce that volunteers brought up to her, she found she had enough. But she does not present herself as particularly holy — she frankly describes, for example, longing for a hot shower.
While Hill chose to give up luxuries for a cause, she can, like others who have known want, be teachers to those of us who have most often had full bellies, a comfortable bed and a hot shower whenever we want one.
What if fasting were expressed through a deep gratitude for having our basic needs met? Might it teach us to live with less, in a way that fasting followed by going back to old habits would not?
In Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel Saint Francis, the narrator, Brother Leo, joins the Italian holy man in his vow of poverty. Leo envisions perfection as having a sack full of bread and olives, and enough to drink. He adds, “If so much as a crumb falls to the ground, I bend over, pick it up and kiss it because I know positively that this crumb is a little bit of Paradise.”
How might it change our perspective to see the little things of life as a sign of the world to come? Perhaps there is something to the idea that we need to feel discomfort in order to truly appreciate what we have.
Even if we do not deny ourselves food or water, we may need a metaphorical dry throat to teach us how even a morsel of our daily bread could be a taste of God’s will being done on Earth as in heaven.
Celeste Kennel-Shank is a minister and community gardener in Chicago.