Strengthened in Hope
The birthplace of Christian fasting is homesickness for God. In the summer of 1967 I had been in love with Noël for a whole year. If you had told me then that we would have to wait another year and a half to marry, I would have protested firmly. For us, it seemed, the sooner the better. It was the summer before my senior year in college. I was working as a water safety instructor at a Christian athletic camp in South Carolina. She was hundreds of miles away working as a waitress. Never had I known an aching like this one. I had been homesick before, but never like this. Every day I would write her a letter and talk about this longing. In the late morning, just before lunch, there would be mail call. When I heard my name and saw the lavender envelope, my appetite would be taken away. Or, more accurately, my hunger for food was silenced by the hunger of my heart. Often, instead of eating lunch with the campers, I would take the letter to a quiet place in the woods and sit down on the leaves for a different kind of meal. It wasn’t the real thing. But the color, the smell, the script, the message, the signature were foretastes. And with them, week by week, I was strengthened in hope, and the reality just over the horizon was kept alive in my heart.
The Romance and the Resistance of Fasting
Christian fasting, at its root, is the hunger of a homesickness for God. But the story of my heart-hunger to be with Noël could be misleading. It tells only half the story of Christian fasting. Half of Christian fasting is that our physical appetite is lost because our homesickness for God is so intense. The other half is that our homesickness for God is threatened because our physical appetites are so intense. In the first half, appetite is lost. In the second half, appetite is resisted. In the first, we yield to the higher hunger that is. In the second, we fight for the higher hunger that isn’t. Christian fasting is not only the spontaneous effect of a superior satisfaction in God; it is also a chosen weapon against every force in the world that would take that satisfaction away.
God’s Greatest Adversaries Are His Gifts
The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18–20). The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.
Jesus said some people hear the word of God, and a desire for God is awakened in their hearts. But then, “as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14). In another place he said, “The desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). “The pleasures of life” and “the desires for other things”—these are not evil in themselves. These are not vices. These are gifts of God. They are your basic meat and potatoes and coffee and gardening and reading and decorating and traveling and investing and TV-watching and Internet-surfing and shopping and exercising and collecting and talking. And all of them can become deadly substitutes for God.
The Deadening Effects of Innocent Delights
Therefore, when I say that the root of Christian fasting is the hunger of homesickness for God, I mean that we will do anything and go without anything if, by any means, we might protect ourselves from the deadening effects of innocent delights and preserve the sweet longings of our homesickness for God. Not just food, but anything. Several years ago I called our people to fast for a twenty-four-hour period once a week (breakfast and lunch on Wednesdays, if possible) during the month of January. We were facing huge issues of self-assessment and direction, and we needed the fullness of God’s presence with all his wisdom and purifying power. Within a few days I got this note in the mail:
I’m behind this. I think God is in it. It doesn’t work for me on Wednesday. I’m with people over lunch every day. So I have a couple of things I believe are from the Spirit that may be more of a fast for some than food. I thought not watching television for a week, or for a month, or a night of the week when I normally watch it, might be more of a fast than food. Instead of watching my favorite program, I might spend the time talking and listening to God. I wonder if there might be others for whom this would be a fast and would be a focused time of prayer to them.
The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts.
I said to the congregation the next Sunday, “Amen. If you say, ‘Fasting on Wednesday doesn’t work for me,’ that’s okay. If your heart is right and you’re open to the Lord and you’re asking him, ‘Lord, draw me into the spirit of awakening through fasting,’ he will show you. He’ll show you when and how. If your health doesn’t allow for that, if the doctor says, ‘No fasting for you,’ that’s fine. The Great Physician knows all about that, and something else will work for you.”
The issue is not food per se. The issue is anything and everything that is, or can be, a substitute for God. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899– 1981), the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, delivered a great sermon on fasting when he was preaching through the Sermon on the Mount in 1959–1960. In it he said,
Fasting if we conceive of it truly, must not . . . be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting.1
My assumption so far has been that good things can do great damage. Oxen and fields and marriage can keep you out of the kingdom of heaven. Which is why Jesus says, “No one of you can be my disciple who does not bid farewell to all his own possessions” (Luke 14:332). Anything can stand in the way of true discipleship—not just evil, and not just food, but anything. Nor should it be surprising that the greatest competitors for our devotion and affection for God would be some of his most precious gifts.
- Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 38. 3
- The word that I translate “bid farewell” is used five other times in the New Testament, and the meaning of each of these is to “take leave of” or “to bid farewell to” (Mark 6:46; Luke 9:61; Acts 18:18, 21; 2 Corinthians 2:13). The point is that we can only use our possessions aright when we have been freed from them as necessary to our contentment in God.
This article is adapted from A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer by John Piper.
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