We have begun to explore the spiritual discipline of fasting, as a means of confronting us with our own intrinsic created-ness and therefore our dependent-ness. Fasting massively heightens our sense that we do not have life in ourselves, and as such has the potential to craft in us a far more appropriate frame of heart, mind and soul as we come boldly before the throne of grace. But it does more than this. Remember in our first article I made the point that the purpose of fasting is to induce hunger. Well, hunger doesn’t just expose our created-ness; it can also expose the reality of our heart, and of our falleness.
How does this work? We’ve all heard of comfort eating. Perhaps one or two of us have indulged in it. Food has powerful emotional and psychological effects on us. Eating is far more than simply an efficient way of taking in energy. We can almost self-medicate with food, and there are times when we eat not because we are hungry, but in order to repress certain feelings: sadness, fear and anxiety. Human beings are deeply integrated creatures, and as we have already begun to sense how spiritual a thing food is, it would hardly be surprising to realise that food can repress not just emotional or psychological dynamics, but also spiritual ones.
Let’s take an obvious example: think about how hungry you would be after even a couple of days without food. And with that hunger, there would be a low grade impatience or irritability that might blow up into anger at the slightest provocation. Why? We’d say that our impatience, anger, resentfulness is because we haven’t eaten. Isn’t that a justifiable reason: because I’m hungry? But what is it about hunger that intrinsically makes us irritable, short tempered, impatient or resentful. Or to put the question more pointedly, do you think Jesus behaved in such ways when He was hungry? …even when He had fasted 40 days? I doubt it. Jesus was holy and righteous, and so He didn’t sin even in the midst of life-threatening hunger. We sin because we are sinful, not because we are hungry. We behave like that because that is what we are really like. Usually we mask and repress our sin with a good meal, and we can hide those attitudes from others and even from ourselves. But fasting, and the hunger it brings, exposes the reality of our hearts - which is a good thing, by the way! When sin is exposed, we can bring it to the cross.
And so in Deuteronomy, Moses explains the LORD’s wisdom in inciting Israel’s physical hunger in the wilderness. ‘Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger, and then feeding you with manna … to teach you that man does now live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD’ (Deut. 8:2-3).
It was no accident that when Jesus re-enacted Israel’s temptation in the wilderness the first temptation He faced was to ‘tell these stones to become bread’ (Matt.4:2). Again, it is the LORD who induces hunger (remember that it was the Holy Spirit that lead Jesus into the wilderness), but this time there was no sin to be exposed. In the Exodus wanderings, Israel’s desire for food had quite simply triumphed over their desire to be the LORD’s redeemed people. When faced with the possibility of life in the presence of the Tabernacling God, Israel’s hunger caused them instead to look back to slavery in Egypt. ‘If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat, and ate all the food we wanted…’ (Ex.16:2-3); ‘We remember the fish ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic’ (Num.11:5). Really? The ancient Church would have chosen slavery, oppression, tyranny and death … along with a good meal, rather than freedom in Christ? Perhaps this lies behind Paul’s rather curious description of people whose ‘god is their stomach’ (Phil.3:19)?
Hunger exposed the terrible reality of Israel’s hearts, even as it exposed the raging purity of Christ’s. When pushed to the edge of life itself, Christ’s passion resolutely remained for ‘every Word that comes from the mouth of God’. He would rather die of hunger than violate the commands of God. He knew that life was not found in a merely physical existence - well fed, but enslaved to sin, tyrannised by the one who holds the power of death, alienated from the Father. Such is the love that burned in the heart of the Son, that His hunger for faithfulness eclipsed His hunger for bread. ‘O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you … I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you’ (Ps.63:1-3).
‘Your love is better than life’? Such a liturgical response comes easily to the lips of the well-fed, when appetites are sated and a sinful ‘self-preservation’ attitude is safely held at bay by the absence of any immediate threat to life. But how long would we have to go without food, before we would cheerfully choose life over the love of the Lord… before we would squander our inheritance and despise our birthright for a pot of stew (Gen.25:29-24)… before we would gladly leave the Presence of the LORD, and return to Egypt? Fasting draws us into these deep questions, and gives them a power they wouldn’t otherwise have.
The Lord provided for both Israel and Christ in the wilderness. Manna rained down from heaven for Israel (Ex.16:4); angels came and attended Christ (Matt.4:11). But for Israel the Manna was a daily reminder of their failure, and need of a Mediator (Num.11:33); for Christ the Father’s provision ushered in the beginning of His public ministry. ‘Jesus (who is that Mediator) returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit’ (Lk.4:14).