Doesn’t fasting turn you into a legalist?

In 2002 I attempted my first 40 day fast. I had been reading about the benefit fasting was to your prayer life for quite some time. I had been reading how the ancients practiced it regularly. I was curious to find out what it was like and if any difference in your spiritual walk was perceivable. So in the winter of 2002 I jumped in headlong.

When I say I jumped headlong in, I really did go all in. My personality is very much all or nothing so there was little room for a middle ground approach. So on the 21st of May 2002 I stopped eating for 40 days. I carved a daily pattern of a few drinks of juice, plenty of water and nothing else. Added to the fasting was a few prayer walks a day and over the next couple of weeks I experienced an explosion of intimacy with the Holy Spirit.

Three weeks in I went to a Christian conference and happened to run into my sister. At about the 3 week marker of any fast you experience a short period of extreme hunger. So I was a little on edge. It was great to catch up and as she asked if I had lost some weight (it’s easy to hide your fasting until you start losing weight).  As I told her about my journey she told me that she and a close friend were also fasting. That was incredible timing. I was intrigued. She said that she would fast and if the hunger became too intense, she would pause and eat.

When my sister told me that she would fast and pause when overly hungry or weak, she said it with such joy. The type of joy that fasting is supposed to produce.  But my fast wasn’t. Something in me internally retorted “that’s not fasting” with a bitter and angry tone. I was so hungry and had been so careful to avoid food at all costs. I had been strict in making my flesh submit. I had shown great discipline but right there in that moment I felt like my fast might have become about the letter of the law. I had become that guy who in his heart believes that unless you have done it to the letter of the law then you really hadn’t done it at all. I had become a legalist.

It’s not really hard for me to be the legalist. I’m the guy who can’t stand people talking in the “quiet carriage” of the train. I’m the guy who can’t stand pedestrians walking on the red signal. I was the one who had to go to every church event during the week. I like a place for everything and everything in its place. Much of my adult spiritual journey was around moving out of perfectionism and into a place of freedom but this idea of fasting was a major trigger. I felt OK internally just as long as I was meeting the requirements of the fast.

It was a few days after this chance encounter when I was reading an article about juice fasting. The author asserted that unless you are only drinking the broth created from boiling vegetables and draining them, then it’s not really fasting at all. I was incensed. I questioned who were these people to tell me or anybody what was or wasn’t a valid fast. They must have been legalists…….and then it dawned on me. I was doing the exact same thing in my heart towards my sister as they were doing to me.

I had to go in search of answers. How could I fast in such a way that joy was the product, discipline was practiced but it was held lightly enough that it was all about grace?

I found the answer in a book by Jack Hayford. It was a book on spiritual disciplines. He addressed the topic of fasting and shared about a pastor and mentor of his. This man would call his church to fast and pray for seasons but was unable to do it himself due to diabetes. So instead of rigorous fasting he would eat as little as he could without getting sick. He called it entering into the spirit of the fast. In his heart he was all in even though his body couldn’t be. This was a radical idea both to me but also in Jesus’ day.

Jesus had a lot so say to the spiritual lawyers of the time. They would try to fulfill the letter of the law when it came to fasting but would miss completely the spirit of the fast. These lawyers and scholars had expanded on the law to such a point that you couldn’t walk with a handkerchief in your jacket on the Sabbath without breaking the law.

In Luke 11 Jesus address spiritual practice that focuses on the external and neglects the internal. It neglects the matters of the heart. It is all about appearing spiritual while not allowing God to interact with the heart.

As I reflect on that interaction all those years ago I’m so grateful that my legalist got exposed. It meant that my first 40 day fast had eternal value as I allowed God to deal with my heart and not just my flesh. It has meant that every food fast since has been in the shadow of heart fasting. It has meant that if I need to pause fasting I can do so and easily jump back in without shaming myself. It has been the difference between spirit and letter. It has been the difference between joy and anger. It has been the difference between heart and flesh. It has been the difference.