“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.

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

You Are What You Eat…And Not Who You Sleep With

Food and sex have shifted roles over the past fifty or so years, argues Mary Eberstadt in a fascinating essay at Policy Review. Once, social stigma condemned extra-marital philandering. Sex was a serious ethical issue, with serious personal and social consequences. Food, however, was something with few, if any, moral implications. Particularly for a generation with memories of the Depression, one was simply glad to have food at all. Continue reading You Are What You Eat…And Not Who You Sleep With

Provision and Progress

Michael Pollan is a rising star in the world of food. His recent book, In Defense of Food, was reviewed on Evangelical Outpost not long ago, he appears in a film now in theaters, and in a soon-to-air PBS documentary. He’s garnered attention on speaking tours and in a variety of articles, including this article by John Schwenkler at The New Atlantis. Schwenkler elaborates on In Defense of Food‘s central thesis – that our forsaking of folk wisdom to worship at the altar of decontextualized science is harming us, not simply in how we conceive of food (as Pollan argues), but in all areas of our lives.

The scientific perspective on food encourages us to understand what we eat solely in terms of its constituitive parts, reducing it to “nutrients.” This excludes folkways that approach food more holistically.  Because common sense cannot address food in terms of its caloric content or chemical construction, it has been bypassed in favor of expert opinion. But expert opinion is more and more returning to the value of inherited wisdom, things older generations came to know without scientific justification. Yet again, it turns out we should have listened to our mothers.

Schwenkler’s argument is reminiscent of the recent best seller Blink. In it, author Malcom Gladwell argues that instantaneous intuition, which outpaces reason and seems to defy available evidence, often provides a subtle and reliable analysis of situations, one we couldn’t otherwise perform consciously.  There are all sorts of ways in which an individual may have a way of doing things which she can’t justify, but which may well be to her benefit. Why shouldn’t this be so for cultures? It seems as if Pollan and Schwenkler would have us hesitate before throwing over “the way things are done” in favor of “progress.” They each offer examples of how America is returning to the roots from which it too hastily cut itself off.

Schwenkler, like Pollan, champions “not the kind of wisdom, whether real or merely apparent, [that is] dreamed up within the walls of the laboratory or the ivory tower, but rather the piecemeal accumulation of folk intuitions and commonsense tricks that encourage personal and societal flourishing in ways that abstract theories and appeals to first principles very rarely can.” He argues that “it is often at our peril that we allow such conventions to be displaced.” He notes that from child-rearing to city planning, we as a culture are realizing that our blind faith in engines of progress and modernity have often done us a disservice, one which our cast-aside old wives’ tricks and folk wisdom can remedy. From “free range” kids to farmers’ markets, things like eating local and trusting parents’ intuitions is gaining grassroots support over the prepackaged and oversystematized.

To be fair to the previous generations who got us into this streamlined, scientistic, systematized global economy,  it must be said that life informed by the scientific advances of the modern world has its advantages.  Things like the polio vaccine are just as much derived from science-centered progress as TV dinners. And though we may rightly blame such “progress” for the latter, it is best not to overlook the real progress of the former. Of course, neither Schwenkler nor Pollan are dismissing a century’s worth of development out of hand, but in their rush to affirm those goods which the last century has overlooked, they may do some overlooking of their own.

It cannot be ignored that the attempt to return to the way our grandmother thought of food and place is a move forward. There is no way that modern institutions, which are steeped in science, can be erased or undone, and we ought to be wary of replacing the old system with a new equally unhealthy one.

Pollan has acknowledged these dangers. In an interview with Organic Gardening magazine, Pollan notes that organic is in danger of being co-opted by the same money-driven engines that created the problems organic farming professes to address. Any revolutionary movement is in danger of absorbing (or being absorbed by) the worst of the status quo, and no solution for the food industry is safe from its abuses. Neither Schwenkler nor Pollan explicitly answer how we can go back while moving forward. How the organic movement spread without utilizing the  industry which it repudiates; how can the higher cost of organic justify itself to the poor; and whether it can work to help world hunger, or is doomed to be the hobbyhorse of the wealthy leisure class are all as yet unclear.  The general movement toward organic and local produce would do well to step carefully, working toward real, necessary change to our foodways, without rejecting what good has already been gained. ‘