Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Brief Layman's Theology of Fasting

There are certain physical manifestations of emotional occurrences that are common to all of humanity. Insomnia is characteristic of overwhelming anticipation; who can sleep the night before Christmas morning? Indigestion is often associated with stress, as well as high blood pressure especially if the stress is chronic. What are the physical manifestations of intense longing? Perhaps insomnia, diminished pleasure in other activities, the inability to focus on anything else, or anyone else. As the villain in the movie Hitch said, “Colors are dull, food has lost its taste…” When you want something (or someone) more badly than anything else in the world or out, your body reacts by suddenly losing its desire for other things, including things necessary for survival. You’re not hungry, you can’t sleep, and you can’t take your mind off of the object of your affection.

David wrote Psalm 63 in the Judean Wilderness while he was running from King Saul. Inside the rain-shadow of Israel, the area gets less than 11 inches of rain per year. It was during this time, running for his life while being pursued by an army, hiding as a fugitive in one of the most barren places in the country, that he penned the following words:

“Oh God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you,
My soul thirsts for you
My body longs for you
In a dry and weary land where there’s no water.”

Forgetting about his own weariness, forgetting about his physical thirst and hunger, David writes that he earnestly seeks God. He can’t even begin to think about his material needs when he is so desperately longing for his Lord. “I have seen you in the sanctuary, and beheld your power and your glory”. David had an intimate knowledge of the goodness of God, and the satisfaction of knowing him and its superiority over even the richest of worldly pleasures. “Your love is better than life… my soul will be satisfied as the richest of foods” David knew that the love and approval of God was better than even life itself, and was ready to forfeit it even as his being was being supremely satisfied in the presence of his Lord.

I would like to suggest that this is the basis for fasting. Fasting is outcome of a soul saying, “God, I want you so bad I don’t even care about physical hunger, I don’t care about physical thirst, I don’t care about death. All I want is you”. When someone is madly in love, it is like his self is elsewhere while his body tries to maintain status quo. He remains listless as other things go on around him because he’s only thinking of one thing. If you ask him if he wants to get something to eat, he’ll reply, “It’s okay, I’m not hungry”. If you ask why he looks so tired or weak, he’ll tell you it’s because he hasn’t been sleeping well.

During these intense periods of longing for your Maker, that is when you fast. You take the time that your body normally uses for daily survival-maintaining rituals (such as eating), and you turn that time towards God.

Men and women who are madly in love with God sometimes seem like their mind is elsewhere. Maybe they don’t exhibit those extreme symptoms of a romantic obsession, but if you could picture them in your mind’s eye, they will always be looking upwards. They are God-centered, heaven-faced, and always thinking about the object of their utmost affection, Christ Jesus their Lord.

People who remind me of this are John Piper, my friend and mentor Greg O’Brien, and my dear friend Mushroom Cheng. Anyone who talks to these people for more than five minutes will know what their minds are constantly thinking of, or who their minds are constantly thinking about. I look up to these people and admire their single-minded passion. I want to be obsessed with Christ and his supremacy to the point of being slightly aloof all the time. That’s the level of desire I want to have for my Lord and savior.


  1. How does one distinguish between desire and want for desire?

  2. It's a semantic distinction; a wordplay at the heart of it. Desire is desire, and a want of desire is sheer willpower overcoming emotions. Desire isn't an emotion; not just anyway. You can measure it in a number of different ways; by the choices you make, by the time you spend, by the ways you choose to spend your time. If every fiber of my pathos wants one thing, but through force of will I choose another, then it turns out I desire the latter more. I DESIRE the cheeseburger but since I have health issues that require me to limit the amount of red meat I eat, I CHOOSE the chicken sandwich.

    When I state that want to desire God, I am really saying that I want the decisions I make to reflect God as the object of my highest valuation. And so even if all my affects point to myself or someone else, I can still honestly say I desire God more than anything else when I choose to die to myself.

    Free will and fatalism aside, we are ultimately creatures who have more control over our choices than our emotions. I want everything that I have control over, that which I do and say and think, to affirm my verbal confession that God is my King and Ruler.

  3. you're saying that desire is desire, but to want to desire is to make the conscious choice to bring that desire to show in reality. but i'm asking kinda something different. i'm saying what happens when you start wanting the want, or, i guess.. legalism.. (but out of sincerity)

    hope i didn't just open a can of worms..