The birthplace of Christian fasting1 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.
Christian fasting, at its root, is the hunger of homesickness for God. But the story of my heart hunger to be with Noël could be misleading. It tells only half the story. Half is that our physical appetite is lost because our hunger for God is so intense. The other half is that our hunger for God is threatened because our physical appetites are so intense.
What Kills Spiritual Appetite?
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 adversaries of love to God are 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 with worries and riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14).2 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” are not evil in themselves. They are not vices. They are gifts of God. They are your basic meat and potatoes, coffee and gardening, reading and decorating, traveling and investing, TV watching and Internet surfing, shopping and exercising, collecting and talking. Any of these can become deadly substitutes for God.
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. I mean that we will do anything and go without anything if, by any means, we might protect ourselves from the deadening effects and preserve the sweet longings of our hunger for God.
The issue is not food per se. The issue is anything and everything that is, or can be, a substitute for God.
How does fasting help us keep from turning gifts into gods? We easily deceive ourselves that we love God unless our love is frequently put to the test, and we must show our preferences not merely with words but with sacrifice. Many small acts of preferring fellowship with God above food can form a habit of communion and contentment that makes one ready for greater sacrifices.
This is one way that fasting serves all our acts of love to God. It keeps the preferring faculty on alert and sharp. It does not let the issue rest. It forces us to ask repeatedly, Do I really hunger for God? Do I miss Him? Do I long for Him? Or have I begun to be content with His gifts?
Christian fasting is a test to see what desires control us. What are our bottom-line passions? In his chapter on fasting in Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says,
More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside of us with food and other things.
Psychologically, that sort of thing is spoken of a lot today, especially in regard to people who have much pain in their lives. We would say they “medicate” their pain with food. They anesthetize themselves to the hurt inside by eating.
But this is not some rare, technical syndrome. All of us do it. Everybody. No exceptions. We all ease our discomfort by using food, and cover our unhappiness by setting our eyes on dinnertime. Which is why fasting exposes all of us–our pain, our pride, our anger.
At these points we really begin to discover what our spiritual resources are. The things I discover about my soul are so valu- able for the fight of faith. Humbly and quietly, with scarcely a movement, fasting brings up out of the dark places of my soul the dissatisfactions in relationships, the frustrations of the min- istry, the fears of failure, the emptiness of wasted time. And just when my heart begins to retreat to the delicious hope of eating supper with friends at Pizza Hut, she quietly reminds me:not tonight.
It can be a devastating experience at first. Will I find spiritual communion with God sweet enough, and hope in His promises deep enough, not just to cope but to flourish and rejoice in Him? Or will I rationalize away my need to fast, and retreat to the medication of food? The apostle Paul said, “I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12). Fasting reveals the measure of food’s mastery over us—or television or computers or whatever we submit to again and again to conceal the weakness of our hunger for God.
Intensify Spiritual Desire
Fasting proves the presence, and fans the flame, of spiritual hunger. It is an intensifier of spiritual desire. It is a faithful enemy of fatal bondage to innocent things. It is the physical exclamation point at the end of the sentence, “This much, O God, I long for You and for the manifestation of Your glory in the world!”
The more deeply you walk with Christ, the hungrier you get for Christ. If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. God did not create you for this.
There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of food and the dangers of idolatry and to say with some simple fast: “This much, O God, I want You.”
1 Christian fasting: willingly abstaining from food or drink for a spiritual purpose.
2 All Scripture quotations in this article are taken from the New American Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1977by The Lockman Foundation.
Adapted from A Hunger for God, copyright © 1997 by John Piper. Downloadable PDF at www.DesiringGod.com. All rights reserved.