I’ve been studying the discipline of fasting this week. Of course, I had to consult one of the masters of Spiritual Formation, Dallas Willard. Here is a quote from his book The Spirit of the Disciplines.
In fasting, we abstain in some significant way from food and possibly from drink as well. This discipline teaches us a lot about ourselves very quickly. It will certainly prove humiliting to us, as it reveals to us how much our peace depends upon the pleasures of eating. It may also bring to mind how we are using food pleasure to assuage the disomforts caused in our bodies by faithless and unwise living and attitudes — lack of self-worth, meaningless work, puposeless existence, or lack of rest or exercise. If nothing else, though, it will certainly demonstrate how powerful and clever our body is in getting its own way against our strongest resolves….
…when Jesus directs us not to appear distressed and sad when we fast (Matt. 6:16-18), he is not telling us to mislead those around us. He is instead explaining how we will feel — we really will not be sad. We are discovering that life is so much more than meat (Luke 12:33). Our belly is not our god, as it is for others (Phil. 3:19; Rom. 16:18); rather, it is his joyful servant and ours (1 Cor. 6:13).
Actually fasting is one of the more important ways of practicing that self-denial required of everyone who would follow Christ (Matt. 16:24). In fasting, we learn how to suffer happily as we feast on God. And it is a good lesson, because in our lives we will suffer, no matter what else happens to us. Thomas a Kempis remarks: “Whosoever knows best how to suffer will keep the greatest peace. That man is conqueror of himself, and lord of the world, the friend of Christ, and heir of Heaven.” (pp. 166-167)
As I read the last paragraph from Willard a word popped into my mind. Vaccination. In the world of viruses and disease, the theory of the vaccination is to inflict the body with a small dose of the disease itself so that the body’s natural immune system will build up a resistance against the disease and fight against it when it tries to take over on its own. Willard makes this terribly true statement that in life we will suffer. Suffering is like disease. It is not a matter of if we will suffer, it is a matter of when suffering will pounce on us. So, as a follower of Jesus, it is not a matter of avoiding suffering, it is a matter of how we process suffering that is important.
In light of this analogy, then, fasting is like the vaccine for suffering. We give ourselves small doses of suffering through fasting, under controlled circumstances, so that we get used to it, and so we don’t become overly reliant on the luxuries and comforts of life. Through fasting we wean ourselves from the illusion of comfort and force ourselves to remember that it is only in God that we have true comfort and life. By taking our regular booster shots of fasting, when the day of true pain and suffering comes, we will be more spiriutally prepared to weather the storm, whatever may come.