Fasting is about giving up something of value and it seems like we’ve been in an unending season of “fasting” since March. I’m referring to the coronavirus pandemic and what many of us have had to do without for the past nine months: a sense of normalcy, time with friends and family, and some of our most cherished activities. A fast is not always about forgoing a favorite food, like chocolate, but it is always about going without something of value.
Another aspect of fasting is that it is usually a choice, one that many Christians make from time to time. However, fasting is often mistakenly thought of as a kind of endurance contest designed to see how long we could go without the valued thing we gave up. This is not the reason why Jesus fasted in the desert after his baptism by John in the Jordan River. Instead, fasting allowed Jesus the opportunity to focus on his call and listen for his Father’s voice. For us, too, giving up something of value for a period of time can help to open our heart and mind more fully to God who is of infinite value.
The difference here is that this “fast” we find ourselves observing right now is not something we would have chosen. However, in the Bible there are examples of involuntary fasts. For instance, the apostle Paul was imprisoned on several occasions, as was the prophet Jeremiah and John the Baptist. Their loss of freedom could be considered, in some way, as a kind of fast — one that they did not enter into willingly.
Yet, Paul, in particular, responded to his fast in a way that offers us a great example of how to respond to a so-called fast that is not of our own choosing. In chapter sixteen of the Acts of the Apostles, we are told about how he and Silas are imprisoned in Philippi under the pretense of having “advocated customs unlawful for Romans to accept or practice” (v. 21). That charge was totally fabricated. Still, they were severely flogged and put in an inner cell with their feet fastened in the stocks.
As a Roman citizen, Paul had been unlawfully accused, beaten and thrown into prison. It would have been understandable if he and Silas had spent the night moaning in pain and complaining about their unjust treatment. However, what Scripture tells us is that they spent the night in prison praying and singing hymns to God. They had been deprived unlawfully of their liberty and harm had been done to their well-being, but they chose to use that time of deprivation to focus more deeply on the Lord.
With Paul as our model, I think it might be helpful this Christmas if we think of ourselves as in a time of “fasting” and, although it is not of our own choosing, to see it as an opportunity to feast on Jesus. Some ways of such feasting include reading through a book of the New Testament in one sitting, like the Gospel of John or Paul’s letter to the Romans. Reading a Gospel or a letter all the way through in one day will open your eyes to things you may have missed before.
And once you’ve read it all the way through, you can then break it down into sections and read a section each day. For example, chapters 1 through 12 of John’s Gospel on one day and chapters 13 through 21 on another day. Or, three chapters a day for seven days. And the same for Romans — all the way through in one day and then section by section. You can also do the same thing with the Psalms — all the way through and then section by section.
These are just a few examples of ways you can turn a time of fasting, so to speak, into a time of feasting on the Lord. So I encourage you this Christmas to find ways to turn what feels right now like a deprivation into a special time with the Lord.