Fasting and suffering

I heard a sermon about fasting just a little bit ago. I have lots of thoughts about fasting and lots of questions too.

Generally Christians say fasting is spiritually important because:

  • Somehow the physical process makes us more attuned to the spiritual world.
  • Somehow suffering hunger weakens the hold of the flesh on our lives.

I am particularly skeptical of the last claim. I think the value of suffering is overrated.

I find this verse really convincing:

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. (Col 2:20-23)

This says it straight out: at least sometimes “severe treatment of the body” is “of no value against fleshly indulgence”. I’ve heard there were people who flogged themselves in order to gain spiritual status or power somehow. That seems very mixed up. How is it really any different to say that the pain of hunger is what makes fasting beneficial?

There is a value to being willing to suffer. While suffering has no spiritual value of its own, it is nevertheless the side effect of some good things. That is why people can say “no pain, no gain”. For some things, if you aren’t working hard enough at them that it hurts, you aren’t working hard enough at them to help either. It isn’t the suffering itself which is beneficial, though, it’s the other stuff. If we shy away from suffering too much we can lose out. It’s in this sense that Paul said

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

It’s not that beating up on his body made him more spiritual; it’s that being disciplined means being willing to suffer for the sake of a more important goal.

Because of that it is sometimes practically helpful to resign ourselves to suffering. Once we expect it as a matter of course, we can have the will-power to keep pushing through it. I think that’s what this verse means:

Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1-2).

Often we need to suffer for others. Love usually involves sacrifice of some kind. The point of the sacrifice, though, is that it will actually help someone in some way. It usually doesn’t make my love any purer to hurt myself just for the sake of proving how much I am willing to lose.

This verse is interesting:

Then David said to Ornan, “Give me the site of this threshing floor, that I may build on it an altar to the LORD; for the full price you shall give it to me, that the plague may be restrained from the people.” Ornan said to David, “Take it for yourself; and let my lord the king do what is good in his sight. See, I will give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sledges for wood and the wheat for the grain offering; I will give it all.” But King David said to Ornan, “No, but I will surely buy it for the full price; for I will not take what is yours for the LORD, or offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing.” (1 Chronicles 21:22-24)

In this story, David is offering a sacrifice to express his repentance to God for having sinned. It would be evading responsibility for him to shift the burden of that sacrifice to someone else. So, again, first of all, the cost isn’t really the point; it just follows logically that if you give a gift to God, it costs you.

But it may be that in this case David is saying something more than that. He may be saying that the very cost of it is the point somehow. He may be saying that a sacrifice that hurts is worth more. If so, I think we should understand it as saying that offering something of value to him was a better expression of his desire to give to God than offering something worthless would have been. Perhaps there are times when we give someone something to show we love them, and we choose to give something that costs us because it communicates how deeply serious we are in our love.

In the case of fasting, I don’t think that suffering is the point. I do think suffering is linked to it, though.

  • First, I think fasting is often an expression of distress. Thus people often fasted when they were already suffering. (In fact, when people are suffering enough, they lose their appetite anyway.)
  • Second, in many cases in Scripture, fasting was an expression of deep repentance. It is associated with sackcloth and ashes. People are setting aside their sense of entitlement to luxury and comfort to say, “we recognize we have sinned and no longer claim happiness as our right”. The point is, though, that people who fasted weren’t seriously planning on starving to death, nor were they throwing away all their clothes when they put on sackcloth. These things weren’t suffering, exactly, they were symbols. That’s why the Scripture connects fasting not with suffering but with humiliation. In repentance, fasting was a sign of having lowered one’s pride,of having renounced one’s self-centered demandingness.
  • Third, there are other verses about fasting as an ongoing discipline (once a week, say). As a matter of practical fact, when fasting has become a discipline, it just won’t feel humiliating or painful every time. It will become a matter of course. If fasting was all about the suffering, that would remove the point of the fasting. But if fasting is a symbol, then it doesn’t have to hurt. It just has to mean the right thing.

All of which, I realize, has answered my question for me. Someone tonight said that fasting is “cutting off the flesh”. But that isn’t it – rather, fasting is the expression of having already “cut off the flesh”. If we renounce the flesh in our hearts then fasting is a natural way to symbolize and affirm that choice. If we don’t, fasting doesn’t help at all. Fasting doesn’t cause renunciation of the flesh, it proceeds from it.


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