Celebration of Discipline (4)
This is part four of my series on Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline”. This post focusses on the fourth chapter of the book, “The Discipline of Fasting”.
Fasting is and should be a very personal and private discipline, but I would like to include a disclaimer here: I am not currently practising this discipline. I am unwell at the moment and I don’t think it would be wise for me to practice fasting. Should I ever take up the practice, rest assured you will not hear about it. Like I said it is personal and private.
Last Lent I heard of someone criticising fasting, asking rhetorically “what good does that do for others?”. While it is a very noble and good desire to want to help others this person has missed the point of fasting. We are commanded to love our neighbour but that is not the immediate purpose of fasting. The purpose of fasting is to focus on God and draw closer to him. The most important commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and it goes hand in hand with the second: to love our neighbour as ourself. A closer walk with God will lead to a greater love for others, but it is essential that we know and pursue God as a first priority. The first section of Celebration of Discipline – “The Inward Disciplines” – deals with this and fasting is one of those disciplines. For a Christian, all of the outward activity we do means nothing if inwardly we are not pursuing God. The 19th century Scottish Presbyterian minister Robert Murray M’Cheyne is famously quoted as saying “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” and Jesus Christ Himself said that if we want to remove the speck we perceive in someone’s eye we must first take the log out of our own (Matthew 7:5).
That’s enough of a defence of fasting and the inward disciplines, this is supposed to be a reading journal.
Foster claims that fasting has fallen out of favour for a number of reasons. Firstly we have a modern backlash against overly ascetic practices of the Middle ages and too much emphases on the outward form of Christianity, which itself was a result of the decline in a real inward faith. I read that as people fasting to look and act holy because that’s all they have left. People will eventually sniff out this kind of hypocrisy, but today the pendulum has swung so far the other way that modern society sees nothing wrong with giving in to every whim as long as it makes us happy. Foster describes this as “the popular belief that it is a positive virtue to satisfy every human appetite”.
Our society is also obsessed with food and we are fed propaganda that convinces us it is dangerous to go without food even for one day.
But Jesus expected us to fast and Foster makes this case quite strongly. Nowhere in the Bible is it commanded that we fast but Foster provides plenty of biblical reasons to fast and shows clearly, using Matthew 9:14-17, that it was something Jesus expected His followers would do, and that includes us.
There is no way to escape the force of Jesus’ words in this passage. He made it clear that he expected his disciples to fast after he was gone.
As for the benefits and joys of fasting I really enjoyed the way Foster puts it when he says that “Fasting is feasting!”. Fasting reminds us that we are sustained not by food, but by God. Fasting is really feasting on the word of God! Fasting helps us to keep our balance in life and keeps our human cravings in their place (something not encouraged by society). Fasting, done correctly, is a way for us to seek God and put Him first, and we know that God does reward those who seek Him diligently.
There is also a lot of practical advice for fasting here, including fasts including a very helpful log written by someone beginning the fasting discipline, which helps us see how it moves us from the superficial to the deeper elements of fasting.
I enjoyed this chapter, but like I said I have not put it in to practice yet, and if I do you won’t hear about it.