You can tell you live in a consumerist culture when you reduce the essence of life from “being” to “having.” The average American, indeed even the average Christian, finds their identity more in their bank account and their garage than in Christ. We are a culture of consumers and all of this consumption has, by in large, made us spiritually deaf to the call of the Spirit of God. With our iPod headphones plugged in, our fingers wrapped around a xbox controller, and our eyes glued to a flat screen we haven’t noticed the Spirit’s conviction. Maybe food isn’t the primary way we distract ourselves from spiritual things these days (especially since most people eat in their cars for quick meals these days), but nonetheless food can play a stand-in for all our various forms of self-medication. There is a real spiritual danger in consumption and fasting takes a special aim at helping to expose that danger.
I don’t look like it but I am actually a big eater. I love food, I love snacks, and if you give me a cup of coffee and a container of cookies I will eat every last one. But this eating, like so many other things, actually works against me both physically and spiritually! Think about the ways we eat and you quickly see that we’ve got a problem. We eat to celebrate an event or holiday (and we eat big on these occasions). We eat when we are bored. We eat when we are hungry. We eat when we aren’t hungry. We eat three meals a day and regular snacks. We eat to reward ourselves. We eat when we are sad or depressed. We eat because we think we might be hungry later. We eat when we wake up and right before we go to bed. We eat all day! This is a serious issue. But more than just the physical problems, our eating actually presents real spiritual threats to our growth in godliness. All too often we end up loving the things God gives us more than we love God. The Bible speaks to the dangers of loving the gifts more than giver.
In Mark 4:19 Jesus tells us that the reason that the gospel seed did not produce fruit is because it was choked out by the desires of this world. That’s a pretty scary thought! Our desires for the things of this world, bread or booze, TV dinners or just TVs, can actually choke out the gospel message in our lives (see also Luke 8:14)! Jesus warns us that “No one of you can be my disciples who does not bid farewell to all his own possessions” (Luke 14:33). But the Psalmist says we can “humble ourselves with fasting” (Psalm 35:13). We can fight the spiritually deadening effects of consumerism by temporarily denying ourselves more stuff. We can shift our focus from this world’s offer of salvation and security to the only hope we have. Some people eat a whole carton of Ben & Jerry’s when they are in desperation, but the Christians says “Man does not live on Chunky Monkey alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:3-4). Better than chocolate chip muffins Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). Better than a Yuengling Jesus says “He who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
I love the way John Piper summarizes this aspect of fasting. He writes:
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. (A Hunger for God, 18)
So what do you love? Fasting is hard, you won’t hear me say any different. But why is it so hard? It is more than just my stomach’s growl. It’s my heart’s longing for idols. We make food our comforter (think comfort food). We make alcohol our salvation (think Absolute Vodka). We make sleep our satisfaction (think the perfect comfort mattress, Sealy’s). We make self-indulgence our god. Fasting robs us of this hidden rebellion, and forces us to confront sin head on. It shifts our focus to the only fountain that can satisfy us: Jesus (Jeremiah 2:13). Fasting is good for your soul, and sometimes eating is disastrous for it!