“And When You Fast:” Thoughts on Food in Preparation for Great Lent

‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything. – 1 Corinthians 6:12

As we approach Great Lent every year, a common question pops up in online articles, during coffee hours after Sunday services, and in casual conversations among Christians and non-Christians alike:

“So, what are you giving up for Lent?”

Some may give up an activity like engaging in social media or watching television. Others may pick a single food item, such as candy, or soda, or french fries. It’s good to try and purge things from your life that are unnecessary or overly time consuming, even if only for a temporary period.

But I want to speak of my personal experience in the practice of significant dietary fasting and why I’d like to encourage evangelicals (and all Christians) to consider a somewhat larger-scale food fast this year for Lent.

(Of course, everything I say here is based on my personal experience and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice. Anyone who wants to try fasting or make any significant change in their diet should first consult with their doctor and consider their personal medical and dietary history and needs.)

I was raised in an evangelical tradition, and while I grew up accustomed to the notion of fasting, the extent of my experience with and knowledge of fasting and other Lenten practices was limited to my observations of Catholic acquaintances. I knew that people commonly gave something up for Lent, and many of my (Catholic and non-Catholic) friends talked about giving up something specific and limited, like their favorite junk food. Chocolate was a popular choice.

I didn’t try fasting until I was in college, and I went pretty large-scale, compared to the kind of fasting with which I was familiar. For Lent during my freshman year, I gave up all animal products: meat and dairy, essentially. This is the fast I have kept (not without slip-ups, of course) for Lent since then.

Fasting has taught me some important lessons about my relationship with food. I’ve learned that I use food to to self-medicate, to improve my mood, and to indulge myself when I’m having a rough day.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that when it comes to food, easily and often, I am not in control: rather, food controls me. When I suddenly can’t reach for my favorite comfort foods, I get frustrated, sometimes depressed.

The tagline of many Snickers commercials is “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” with the implication that eating a Snickers bar will help you feel more like yourself. But is it really good for us to believe that we are somehow not ourselves and out of control unless we can always immediately satisfy our cravings and fill our bellies the instant we feel the pang hunger?

An acquaintance once responded to the idea of fasting by saying, “I don’t need to fast because I’m free in Christ to eat whatever I want.” But it’s not good to always eat, or do, or say, or think whatever we want. Acting on every impulse and desire is not freedom.

I’ve also heard people balk at the notion of giving up food in any sense because they simply “love” food too much. If the only reason a person resists fasting is because they truly cannot fathom giving up certain foods, or they enjoy certain foods too much to abstain from them even temporarily, that is no mark of freedom, either. It is more like gluttony. Fasting has taught me that I far too easily turn food into an idol, something I worship and rely on in order to feel satisfied.

I never knew how much of a slave to food I was until I tried fasting.

Another benefit I’ve realized from fasting this way is that it enhances the celebration of the resurrection at Easter. Fasting, followed by feasting, enables us to celebrate with all aspects of our being. Humans are not merely intellectual or emotional creatures; we are physical as well. I think many people like to believe that our bodies are not really part of who we are, or they are at least a lesser part of who we are, but that’s simply not true. God created us spiritual and material, and He cares enough about our bodies to redeem them through Christ’s incarnation and restore them in the resurrection we are promised after death.

After all, if our bodies weren’t an important aspect of who we are, fasting would be no big deal.

Further, by indulging in certain foods out of celebration rather than out of necessity (because we “can’t” give them up), we practice mastery over our food instead of letting food master us.

Fasting also inspires thankfulness by reminding us of the true purpose of food, on its most basic level: survival. When food is no longer about what I want or what sounds good and is instead just about nourishment, I am reminded on a visceral level to be thankful for such nourishment, even when it’s as simple as a bowl of rice and beans or a piece of fruit.

It’s also crucial to keep in mind that fasting is not about maintaining perfect abstinence in order to make ourselves “worthy” to receive God’s grace. It’s about freeing ourselves from any unhealthy relationship we may have with food (or anything else) and finding our satisfaction in God alone.

Food, Faith, and Fasting, a podcast hosted by Rita Madden (a Registered Dietician who also holds a Master of Public Health degree), is a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about fasting and spirituality, as well as gaining some practical tips on the topic. She has some good thoughts on the relationship between hunger and spirituality during a fasting season:

Now it’s important to mention something here, because when hunger goes up, frustration goes up. So when we feel hungry, we also get frustrated. Blood sugar goes down; irritability goes up. So be aware of that: there are going to be times when you’re going to feel frustrated more. Turn to prayer…When you’re feeling hungry, and you turn that hunger into prayer, whether it be at a service or in your prayer corner at home or just taking a five-minute break and just clocking out of your workday and having prayer, this is a good thing. This is how this tool of fasting can help us to deepen our prayer life and our walk in faith.

Again, the practice of fasting helps us master our hunger instead of being mastered by hunger. Instead of turning to food in our hunger, we can turn to God.

This year, I encourage Christians who have never practiced a Lenten fast, or who have never practiced it on a larger scale, to consider doing so by giving up something significant in your diet. Of course, one beauty of the fast is that there is no “right” way to do it; consult with your pastor or priest (and your doctor) to discern what is appropriate for you. It’s okay to start small, especially if you’ve never fasted before.

Try and choose something that will be difficult to give up, because it is largely in the daily work of the fast that the greatest blessings are revealed and that we are reminded to look to God alone for our true satisfaction and sustenance.

Virtuous Eating, Part 3: Spiritual Food

(This is the last of a series of three post examining the Christian’s relationship with food. The first covers the reasons we should take food seriously, and the second takes a stab at identifying pitfalls in the way Americans think about food.)

I ended the previous posts with two uses of food which most nutritionists ignore: food as the means of thanksgiving and as the means of love. These two are, of course, very weird.

Modernly, food is about the body rather than the soul. Since we believe food is primarily fuel, things like thanksgiving and hospitality appear secondary to its “real” function. It seems only an accident that gratitude and love enter the picture.

However, this is backward. At the heart of it, heaven’s love for the earth is the reason behind the necessity of food. One theologian even wrote that food is God’s love made edible. Biblically, food provides a banquet in the Garden, a sacrifice in the temple, a feast in the Passover, a miracle in the wilderness, a lesson in the crowds around Christ. Miraculously, from the night He was betrayed, food – simple bread and wine – even offered humankind a means by which to bring God directly into ourselves, a feast which began with giving thanks and never ended.

I wrote before that the impulse to say grace before a meal holds the key to how the Christian ought to see food. Even Christ, incarnate God, chose to thank God for the food He ate. Just as He looks at you or me and sees our true potential as human beings, He understood how to perfectly realize the nature of food. And, at every turn, He acts as though the fulfillment of food is thanksgiving. Just as the purpose of humanity is to glorify God and to adore him forever, the purpose of food is to give us an opportunity to be grateful and gracious. It drives us to remember our limitations and needs and to help our neighbor. It constantly reminds us that we are not self-contained worlds, but interactive and needy.

We are dependent creatures, and this is not a fault. Nowhere is this as easily seen as the dinner table. It is the delight of the host to place glistening, savory food in front of her guest, and it is the delight of the guest to receive it, compliment it, and be fed. At the moment of the dinner party, fuel is secondary to love. The table of a dear friend’s house is a sketch of the dependence we have on God. It is a mutually delightful interchange.

For those of us with strong faith, this dependence is joy. The more we accept our state as dependent creature, the more we realize that food is God’s response to our dependence on Him. Every response from God is a species of love, and food is no exception. If our side of eating means giving thanks, His side of food means providing love. Beholding His creatures in need of His help, He graciously and gloriously sprouts wild mushrooms and rice patties and strawberries, almonds, carrots out of every nook of the earth and the trees. The whole world bursts with the answer to our dependence – God’s loving provision for our ever-needy bodies. More importantly, the church gushes with God’s provision for our ever-needy souls: the spiritual food, the Eucharist, which (we should not forget) means “thanksgiving.” Christ crystalizes this providential love in our communion with Him.

The fact that we can take God into our bodies by receiving communion must shape the way we see the very act of eating. It seems impossible that communion could be just one thing among many instead of the model for all other eating, just as it is impossible for Christ to be a part of our lives instead of our whole reason for existence.

All twelve apostles attended that first communion. They heard Christ give thanks, but one of them refused to do the same. Judas left the feast filled with the good things Christ had given him, but without gratitude. He ended up with his intestines bursting open in his death. The stomach which couldn’t respond with thanksgiving couldn’t remain intact.

Virtuous Eating, Part 2: The Two American Extremes

(This is the second in a series of three posts on the Christian’s relationship to eating. Here is the first post. The final post will examine the Eucharist and fasting.)

Better befitting the brainchild of a cruel author of dystopian fiction than the plans of a gym manager, my fitness center has a number of TVs hanging from the ceiling which perpetually show images of food. Who knew there was a show called Man vs. Food? And, why is there a one hour special on ice cream? Or pizza? Most of all, why am I exposed to these images while pursuing healthy activities? I like to think that I am too optimistic about humanity to suspect my gym manager of purposefully showing unhealthy foods in order to tempt me into unhealthy eating so I must keep returning to the gym. (This may go along with my habit of liking to think things that aren’t true.)

Upon seeing the title Man vs. Food from my perch on the elliptical, my first response was, “I’ve already read that one. It was in Genesis. We lost.” My second reaction was, “Then again, there was that rematch in the gospels. We won that.” After fasting forty days in the desert, the tempted Jesus answered with what Adam and Eve should have said: “Man does not live by bread alone.”

Christ’s interactions with food have nothing to do with calories or the appropriate balance of carbohydrates to protein. They don’t relate to body image or fitness. They aren’t vegan, and they aren’t raw. Rather than emphasizing the measurement of portions, he breaks bread with such miraculous abundance that twelve baskets are picked up after everyone is full. He fasts in the desert. He feasts with the apostles. He has a rather pronounced taste for figs. He’s thirsty on the cross, and stops drinking the vinegar after a taste. He’s ready to eat after the resurrection.

This attitude toward eating does not match one extreme of America’s philosophy of food: our “virtuous” eating. In this view, food is taken to be immensely powerful, the source of life. In one documentary on veganism, Forks over Knives, an expert even states that careful diet choices will allow us to avoid all of life’s tragedies. Though he presumably refers to heart disease and cancer, the superlative coloring of this statement is relieving. At the heart of it is a salvation narrative which sounds more like the Pharisees’ than like Christ’s. The narrative is this: if you simply follow the rules of clean eating carefully enough, you will live forever. At least the Pharisees believed this had something to do with the soul. Americans have somehow duped ourselves into believing that, if filled with all the right things, the decaying body will never die. Asked point-blank, the healthy eater would admit that her body will eventually die, regardless. But, that is an eventually the healthy eater forgets frequently. At least for myself, while making smoothies out of broccoli and kale, I know that I am lying to myself a little bit about the fact that, one day, I will grow wizened and wrinkled and I will die.

On the other side of the spectrum is the American who does not watch Man vs. Food from a treadmill after a fat-free lettuce wrap, but from a couch with a pizza box on her lap. This person understands something which the health-food nut willfully forgets whenever opening the fridge: man is mortal. By choosing tasty foods, this person at least anticipates something true about food. After all, aside from one divine exception, food is much more likely to bring us pleasure than immortality.

However, this appetitive way of life is only more pitiable. What virtue it has in understanding something true about the function of food is overshadowed by its radically false assumption about humanity. While our mortality must never be forgotten, neither should our immortality. Our divine secret is that humanity, assumed and rescued in Christ, exists as more immortal than mortal. When we live recklessly, driving our bodies into the ground through wild pursuit of immediate pleasure, we ignore the reality that man consists in spirit and body working in an eternal bond. It seems as though our ability to be pleased is quickest in the body, but deepest and more subtle in the spirit, and a satiated body tends to dull that more desirable sense of spiritual pleasure. I read once that someone who is too full of food has a hard time praying; it’s true. I find myself dozing and unfocused if I come to prayer after a second helping of ice cream.

Our culture’s philosophies of food are strangely well represented in the tension of a healthy eater sweating on a treadmill in front of television sets showing a man eating a pizza slice the length of his arm. Our culture offers two choices. On the one hand, we can be Pharisees, believing that what we don’t eat will save us. On the other, we can be gluttons, assuming that what we do eat will fulfill our needs. Neither of these two American extremes are viable to the Christian.

Christ regards food differently. One aspect of food that nutritionists in an individualistic society don’t consider, or even regard with something approaching suspicion, is social eating. Yet, food is radically social in Christ’s life and resurrection. Christ doesn’t eat alone. Instead, food serves as the background for his relationships. It is the canvas on which he displays his compassion for the hungry crowd, his fulfillment of the Passover feast, and even his third day resurrection, which is punctuated by the foods he eats to prove embodiment. It is gift and object lesson, apologetic and evidence. In the life of Christ, food is never an end in itself, but the means of love.

Virtuous Eating, Part 1: Taking Food Seriously

I felt disappointed when I read Acts 15.

The rising action is thrilling. Empowered and united by the Holy Spirit, the great apostles discuss a question of freedom in Christ and the Christian’s relationship to Law. St. Peter and St. Paul, Barnabas, the apostles, and all the great men of the early church stand in conference and speak together in one voice, declaring what seemed good to them and to the Holy Spirit. That’s right: they speak with God. So important is the matter, they have the letter couriered by no less a man than St. Paul, that brilliant redeemed soul, the pride of the universe.

Then follows the letter. That’s where I get disappointed: it’s just about food. They extend four proscriptions: “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29). Well, at least they got somewhere important by the end there, but I’m a little disappointed that they wasted all that time on food.

Of course, finding myself disappointed by Scripture always precedes a realization that I have copious room for growth. Acts 15 is not a disappointing chapter; I’m just a disappointing person when I read it. Why do the apostles and the Holy Spirit write about food? For only one reason: it’s important. This opens the question – could eating, that most frequent interaction between myself and my world besides breathing, actually matter?

It’s possible. If Discovery Channel documentaries have taught me anything, it is that animals have two primary drives: hunger and procreation. Food and sex. Christians generally agree that sex matters to the spiritual life. By comparison, we seem sluggish to probe the interaction between eating and our spiritual life.

Inundated by secular messages about food, the average American Christian would be hard-pressed to explain the Christian understanding of eating. Yet the same Christian can give at least a shallow account of the biblical standard of sexuality, despite being surrounded by unbiblical messages about sex. We recognize that the secular explanation of virtuous sex and the Christian explanation of virtuous sex are aimed at different purposes. Science offers us a condom to defend our bodies; the Bible offers us chastity to defend our souls. Yet, the average Christian explanation of healthy eating would probably sound identical to the secular explanation of healthy eating. There are two possibilities: 1) secular science tells us everything we need to know about eating, or 2) our view of food may be missing something as important as the difference between a condom and chastity.

If these two drives – eating and sex – are the strongest instinctive drives of the human body, the average Protestant’s lack of a position on the more frequent one leaves me concerned about what ideas are floating around in our heads and where we got them. I suspect they aren’t from the Bible.

The biblical account of man, after all, turns quickly to food. The story of Adam and Eve is so familiar, it’s strange how surprised people get when you point out that eating plays a central role. Literature students rush to examine close-up the core of Milton’s apple, but fail to notice Eve standing there chewing on food. And, while we’ve thrown open the book of Genesis on the debate stand in science departments, we’ve closed it in the kitchen.

After Christians overcome their initial surprise at the role of food, they become skeptical. Surely, I’m being too literal. Surely it’s mere chance that we fell for food. It could have been anything – anger or sex or sloth. The heart of the sin isn’t food; it’s disobedience.

Of course, disobedience is the heart of the matter. But, we can’t forget that humanity’s first disobedience was the wrenching of our soul upside down by choosing appetites for earthly things over heavenly ones. Hearing the dinner bell the tempter rang, we did not reply “man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Where we should have answered with abstinence, we answered with appetite. Now, we live infected by our original decision to take care of our stomachs before our souls, to assume that we had to provide for ourselves, that we could provide for ourselves, and that God’s providence was not to be trusted. Our original disobedience is wrapped up in our disordered appetites.

We must take food seriously.

Thank God, one concrete link remains for most Christians between eating and the spiritual life! And, thankfully, in that single sliver of a link glitters the heart of our antidote. While the average Christian may find little spiritual guidance on when to eat and what and how much, we still know (by God’s mercy!) one thing about eating as American Christians: we know we give thanks to God before we do it.

Though the issue is complex, though we almost don’t know what virtuous eating means, at least we have not forgotten the most important antidote for sin: gratitude. Before eating, our great love for God flares out, overcoming our unschooled appetites with a moment of due thanksgiving. In this rightly-ordered action, we oppose ourselves to the Fall. Food, which Adam hoped would sustain us apart from God, is perennially subordinated to our acknowledgment that God sustains us. Food, which Eve was proud to pick for herself, becomes the occasion for our humility.

Though there remains more to examine in order to align our appetites with the Christian life, there is no more beautiful, hopeful place to start than in that simple prayer of gratitude.

(This is the first of a series of three posts on the Christian’s relationship to eating. Subsequent posts will examine the Eucharist, fasting, diets, eating disorders, and the cultural mythos around healthy eating.)

I Was a Raw Foodie

On a visit to California, I heard about them. Foreign and exotic and impressive, inspiring the sort of reverence due to a shaman – they were called Raw Foodies, and, for health reasons, they ate all of their food raw. They argued that cooking food eliminates good nutrients, and that it’s better for the body to eat things in their most natural state – uncooked. Continue reading I Was a Raw Foodie