Anatomy of a Fasting Prayer

During Lent, I deny myself chocolate. Chocolate masquerades as food, and in Ordinary Time, it occupies a good bit of my thought space. Actually, chocolate buzzes with the insistence of a mosquito hunting its next blood-meal. Chocolate seems a prime, albeit luxury, candidate for the fast.

I’ve practiced Lent for fifteen years now and certain patterns have emerged. Along about the third week, something usually happens that really ticks me off. Then self-denial turns into defiance.

A couple of years ago, I was at a missionary prayer meeting when my friend, who’d just recovered from a hysterectomy, told me she’d found a lump. I went home and prayed. Hard. Three days later she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Double mastectomy. Radiation. Chemotherapy. Reconstruction. And the preemptive removal of both ovaries.

I was so angry I ate a chocolate chip cookie. That was my big power move. I ate a cookie at God. (I’m sure he was impressed.)

In Scripture, fasting means eating no cookie, no food at all. It’s abstinence from nourishment. People deprive themselves in order to humble themselves (Ps 69:10).

Going without food makes one vulnerable to discomfort, disease, disordered thinking, and general crabbiness. Fasting reminds me of my mortality. To refuse sustenance is to agree with God: the powers of life and death are in his hands, not mine.

And that’s where I go wrong every time. Week one is a struggle to adjust to the new normal. I turn away from the M&Ms a dozen times an hour. Week two is a discipline to seek God every time I find myself at the cupboard. With week three comes the cockiness of control. I no longer gaze fondly at the cocoa mix. Yet, instead of grieving the death that continues in me (Rom 8:6), I begin to twist the truth.

Perhaps the power to give life is not in my hands, but I have now demonstrated three weeks of power to choose the (micro-) death of not eating (chocolate). I decide to fast and I succeed. No longer do I deliver help-help prayers to resist temptation. The humble requests for forgiveness, deliverance, and healing have declined.

I do not eat a cookie. I do not eat three week’s worth of cookies. That’s my big power move.

Self-denial morphs into defiance. Defiance produces pride. And pride turns into entitlement. God “owes” me the healing for which I’m praying because I have given up food for him. When the healing does not come, then I lash out with infantile confusion. I eat a cookie at God.

Scripture also offers examples of this false-humility fast. Turns out, God is not impressed. In Zechariah 7:5, he demands, “Was it for me that you fasted?”

Apparently, God thinks fasting is prayer, physical communication, so we must pay attention to our motivations (Matt 6:16–18). A word-study on the Hebrew and Greek “fasting” and its cognates yields a list of “acceptable” motivations:

Have you given up Toblerone or television, feasting or facebook? Why?

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