By Victor M. Parachin
In 1756 a frightened and somber King of England called for a day of solemn prayer and fasting. Behind his call was the immediate threat of an invasion and war by the French. On Feb. 6, 1756, John Wesley recorded in his journal the positive effect a day of fasting and prayer had upon the nation:
''The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen. . . Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God heareth prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility.'' In a footnote he added: ''Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted.''
In spite of the fact that the Bible refers to fasting nearly 100 times, it remains a discipline which is absent from the lives of many Christians. Yet, fasting is connected to people whose lives were filled with spiritual power and moral authority.
Great religious leaders such as Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Jesus, Origen, Martin Luther, Ignatius Loyola, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney were known to fast, often for prolonged periods of time.
Although most Christians may not feel the need to do a lengthy fast, there are benefits to be gained from even a short period of self-denial. Here are 16 reminders priest can offer parishioners why fasting is a good discipline to engage in periodically.
1. Fasting expands compassion. It's easy to talk about the problem of world hunger but the physical impact and emotional awareness is heightened when we do without food. ''My sensitivity to the plight of the poor increased,'' says one woman who fasted.
''Eating only one meal a day made me tired and resentful and mine was a voluntary fast. What was it like for those who were lucky to get one meal a day? I couldn't be indifferent to their suffering once I'd shared it.''
2. Fasting is a way of preparing to meet a major challenge. People in the bible who faced great trials and troubles often dealt with them through prayer and fasting. Whenever special courage, insight, strength was needed, they turned to prayer combined with fasting. For example, before Queen Esther approached the king asking him to spare the Jews from destruction, she asked her people to spend three days in prayer and fasting.
She felt that such a difficult enterprise needed prayers fortified by fasting if her effort was to be successful. ''When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish,'' she said (Est 4:16). Consequently, Esther approached the king with confidence and boldness, persuading him to reverse an edict which called for the annihilation of the Jews. A modern application would be to spend time in prayer and fasting whenever a personal or professional crisis looms.
3. Fasting can help you move from a negative to a positive spiritual outlook. Too often in times past, fasting was attached to a negative inheritance, that of mortifying the flesh or atoning for sins committed. While those can be legitimate spiritual concerns, fasting can also be utilized in a positive way. Some contemporary Christians describe fasting as a positive means to ''shake the spirit,'' to ''refocus priorities,'' to ''connect ourselves to Jesus.''
4. Fasting is encouraged by the spiritual giants of the faith. From the second through the fifth centuries, many important church leaders and mystics recommended fasting. Often they linked fasting to acts of kindness and love as an important spiritual discipline. Included in that group are: Clement of Rome, John Chrysostom, Peter Chrysologus, Jerome and Augustine. In fact, Augustine offered this spiritual advice: ''Do you wish your prayer to fly toward God? Give it two wings: fasting and almsgiving.''
5. Fasting benefits others. There is a practical opportunity connected with fasting. The money saved by not eating can be shared with others. Consider the experience of Ron, a Midwest attorney. ''Most workdays I eat lunch out at a restaurant, usually with clients or colleagues. Last year during Lent I decided to skip lunch once a week. I remained in my office reading devotional materials and offering prayers. Each week I set aside the money I would have spent on lunch. When Lent was over I mailed a check off to a homeless shelter in the community.''
6. Fasting creates more time for additional spiritual disciplines. ''Beware of saying, 'I haven't time to read the Bible, or to pray'; say rather, 'I haven't disciplined myself to do these things,''' noted Oswald Chambers. Busy people in various professions are often forced to skip meals in order to meet emergencies and assist others. Likewise, Christians can find good use of the additional time created by not having to prepare and eat a meal.
7. Fasting is good for the soul. ''Irrational feeding darkens the soul and makes it unfit for spiritual experiences,'' observed St. Thomas Aquinas. Those who fast report the practice leads to spiritual renewal, increased insight, deeper commitment, clarity of life purpose and greater intimacy with God.
8. Fasting is a reminder we do not live by bread alone. Although food provides physical strength and energy for the body, the discipline of fasting provides the soul with stamina and vitality. In the New Testament Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 8:3: ''Man does not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord'' (New International Version).
Behind that statement is the truth that people experience a hunger which cannot be filled merely by food and other material things. Ultimately, meaning, satisfaction and fulfillment in life result from a healthy relationship to God. Fasting is one way of nurturing that relationship.
9. Fasting is a positive response against materialism. ''We are constantly bombarded by advertising telling us that we must have this or that to be healthy, happy, popular or wise,'' says Allen S. Maller, Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Colo. ''By fasting we assert that we need not be totally dependent on external things, even such essentials as food. If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended for 24 hours, how much more our needs for all the nonessentials.''
10. Fasting creates more physical and mental energy. Ironically, going without a meal often results in greater energy and vitality. German physician Dr. Hellmut Lutzner, author of Successful Fasting, observes: ''Strength, speed, perseverance and concentration are by no means a function of your food intake. On the contrary, you think better and more quickly when your stomach is not full. What mountain climber would eat just before his climb? A runner will never reach her peak performance if she eats just before the start of a race.'' The same principles apply to the spiritual life. An overloaded stomach can interfere with prayer by making us feel sluggish and tired.
11. Fasting helps us appreciate things more. One man who fasted over a weekend broke his fast with a simple meal of soup. ''After not eating for two days, the soup tasted unbelievably delicious. Every spoonful was like eating from an entire banquet. Prior to my fasting experience I would have merely eaten the soup without any awareness of its flavor, texture or taste.''
New Testament scholar William Barclay notes that fasting is effective in restoring basic pleasures and helping us appreciate the ordinary. ''Nowadays the appetite is blunted; the palate is dulled, the edge is gone off it. What was once a sharp pleasure has become simply a drug which we cannot do without. Fasting keeps the thrill in pleasure by keeping pleasure always fresh and new.''
12. Fasting strengthens virtues and weakens vices. ''All great virtues bear the imprint of self-denial,'' observed William Ellery Charming. Time in prayer combined with denial of food is effective in expanding the boundaries of the heart and soul. People who pray and fast regularly often experience greater compassion, kindness, sensitivity and love for others. They become less judgmental and more understanding. True humility is developed while false pride is reduced.
13. Fasting is good for self-discipline. Many people operate on the premise that a primary goal in life to always be happy and free of pain or discomfort. Our culture makes it easy for us to become extremely self-indulgent. We are in danger of becoming less resilient than our pioneer ancestors. Fasting is an effective antidote to the increasing 'softness' in life. A life which reaches out for every comfort and pleasure becomes weak, sluggish, flaccid and fragile. It is a life devoid of fulfillment and meaning. ''No pain, no balm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown,'' noted William Penn.
14. Fasting improves physical health. Increasing evidence indicates that people are healthier and live longer when calories are reduced. Health researchers state that caloric restriction extends health as well as life, dramatically lowering the risk of many age-related problems including most cancers, heart disease and diabetes. One example comes from residents of Okinawa where calorie consumption is 30 percent below Japanese norms. The island residents have an unusually high percentage of centenarians.
15. Fasting can enlighten others. This use of fasting as a teaching tool and a moral imperative to change was exercised by Mahatma Gandhi. Early in the struggle against British Rule over India, Gandhi conducted a fast in prison for the violent excesses of his followers who did not practice his teaching of nonviolence against British authorities. Later, Gandhi fasted to persuade the government to remove discriminatory laws against people considered untouchables.
16. Fasting is a way of following the example of Christ and the Apostles. Prior to his public ministry, Jesus spent 40 days in prayer and fasting (Mt 4:1ff). Also, Jesus expected followers to fast. He said, ''when you fast'' not ''if'' you fast in Matthew 6:16.The missionary team of Paul and Barnabas are reported in Scripture as fasting frequently before important decisions concerning the early Church ministry (Acts 13:2-3; Acts 14:23). TP
REV. PARACHIN, an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), writes from Tulsa, Okla.
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