Sundays after church, Kay Wilson normally can be found in her Arcadia, California, kitchen preparing a home-cooked meal for her pastor-husband, her two daughters, and their husbands. Yet for the 40 days before Easter last year, Wilson served but did not eat her home-baked bread and flame-grilled steaks. In order to draw closer to God and to pray for a nationwide spiritual awakening, she lived on fruits and vegetables.
Wilson confesses that her partial fast was more a struggle with self-control than a saintly spiritual high. "I'd give anything to eat a piece of meat or cheese," says Wilson, who admits to gravitating toward food when feeling stressed. So when she found herself scheduled to speak at a women's conference during her 40-day fast, Wilson was overwhelmed by the breakfast buffets and abundance of snacks. "It was my inclination to say, 'Poor me,' but instead I said, 'Lord, you are my portion.' " Despite days of doubt and temptation, Wilson says she learned to feast at God's banqueting table. "There is something about the discipline," she says, reflecting on her fast; "it was the most meaningful Holy Week I had ever experienced."
Wilson joins the growing ranks of American evangelicals rediscovering fasting, among the most ancient and rigorous of spiritual disciplines. The contemporary reinterpretation of fasting (few latter-day fasters end all nourishment) has unexpectedly placed fasting evangelicals near the frontlines of alternative spiritual expression.
As with early Christian ascetics under Constantine in the fourth century, some evangelicals are looking for a way to separate themselves from cultural Christianity. Within the past five years, hundreds of thousands of Christians have attended conferences and purchased books on fasting:
- More than 1,000 people attended Campus Crusade for Christ's fifth annual Fasting and Prayer conference in Houston last November. Nearly 2 million people worldwide tuned in through the Internet and at 4,100 satellite sites at churches across the country.
- U.S. Prayer Track is sponsoring the third annual PrayUSA!, a nationwide 40-day fast during the Lenten season that ends on Palm Sunday, March 28. Program coordinators say more than 10,000 churches and ministries requested fasting and prayer guides, with potentially millions of individuals participating.
- The National Association of Evangelicals is promoting 40 days of fasting and prayer beginning September 21 for its 43,000 member churches.
- At its annual convention in January, National Religious Broadcasters encouraged member stations to promote national spiritual renewal and revival through fasting and prayer.
- An estimated 600,000 teens took part in World Vision's 30 Hour Famine, February 26-27. Participants went without food and raised more than $8 million for hunger-fighting projects.
As more Christians focus on fasting and prayer, church leaders, scholars, and others are questioning whether they are witnessing the birth of another pop cultural fad that will quickly run its course or another nationwide revival (see "What Conditions Precede Revival?" p. 35).
THE COMING REVIVAL? At the forefront of the fasting movement are some of America's best-known evangelicals—Campus Crusade's Bill Bright, Liberty University's Jerry Falwell, and the Southern Baptist Convention's Ronnie Floyd—each of whom has fasted for 40 days to seek a greater intimacy with God.
They are convinced that God is preparing the church for revival. Bright, Campus Crusade's 77-year-old founder, says God impressed upon him to fast for 40 days in 1994. "I was gripped with the moral and spiritual decadence of our country," Bright told CT. During his third week of drinking only water and freshly squeezed juices, Bright says he received a "strong impression" that God would send a great spiritual awakening to America. He sent a letter to other church leaders, inviting them to join him for a period of fasting and prayer. More than 600 leaders attended the first conference in December 1994 in Orlando, Florida. Since then, the annual Fasting and Prayer conferences have met in Los Angeles, Saint Louis, Dallas, and Houston.
In his book The Coming Revival (New Life Publications, 1995), Bright calls fasting the "spiritual atomic bomb" that will demolish evil, spark national revival, and speed fulfillment of the Great Commission. Churches are ordering the book by the case.
Falwell, chancellor of Liberty University and pastor of the 22,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, says he has heard more teaching and preaching about fasting in the past five years than in any other period during his 43 years of ministry. "This probably means the church is entering an historic and crucial time," he says.
The founder of the now-defunct Moral Majority says he has used fasting and prayer during times of crisis in his ministry. In 1996, Liberty University was in dire straits (CT, Dec. 9, 1996, p. 62). The school carried more than $70 million in debt and faced losing its regional accreditation.
Falwell, 65, says he went on two 40-day fasts, drinking only water and juices, with a 25-day break in between. At the end of the fasts, and after losing 82 pounds, Falwell says the school received donations totaling more than $50 million, enough to resolve its debt crisis. He says fasting has sparked a spiritual awakening in Lynchburg. "It has revolutionized everything we do here," Falwell says. "This is not the same university. This is not the same church. I am not the same man."
Ronnie Floyd, pastor of the 11,000-member First Baptist Church of Springdale, Arkansas, and former chair of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), began fasting during college. But it was not until 1995 that Floyd felt God leading him to a 40-day fast for revival in America. "I call it the 40 days that changed my life," he says. After sharing his experience with the 15,000 leaders gathered at the denomination's pastor's conference in June 1995, Floyd challenged the entire denomination in 1996 to participate in a one-day fast. Convention organizers mailed cassettes of Floyd's message to 40,000 Southern Baptist churches, asking them to set aside October 25, 1996, as a day of fasting and prayer.
When Floyd speaks of the coming revival, he points first to his church. When he told his congregation about his fast in June 1995, the morning service went twice as long, and 70 percent of the attendees came back for prayer and confession on Sunday night. "God has really purified the body," Floyd says. "Our church hasn't been the same."
UNIFYING EFFECTS: The fasting movement is reaching beyond its leaders and is unifying congregations, crossing denominational lines, and bringing into tighter focus the outreach efforts of church and parachurch ministries.
In spring of 1997 in Bakersfield, California, 94 churches from different denominational and racial backgrounds held a citywide fast for 40 days. One church purchased advertisements on local billboards and television stations to promote the fast. Mayor Bob Price issued a proclamation for the religious community to fast and pray "that with God's help our community will be free of crime, poverty, prejudice, and all acts of man's inhumanity to man." Three thousand people attended a rally on the steps of the courthouse to mark the end of the fast.
The pastors call it a historic level of cooperation. They say there is less talk about doctrinal differences and more partnerships among Caucasian, Hispanic, and African-American congregations. Together the churches are refurbishing low-income housing and building a new drug-treatment center. "America is at a crossroads," says Steve Vinson, pastor of adult ministries at Canyon Hills Assembly of God in Bakersfield. "We believe that 1999 is the year of preparation before we can receive the anointing."
Many of the Bakersfield churches participated in PrayUSA!'s 40-day Lenten fast. PrayUSA! is one of the outreaches of Mission America's Celebrate Jesus 2000, a program of 185,000 congregations attempting to share Christ with every American by the end of next year (CT, Jan. 11, 1999, p. 13). Bright and Pat Robertson serve as honorary chairpersons for the fast.
DOING SOMETHING RADICAL: One measure of the fasting movement's depth and unifying character is its inroad into youth culture. Christian teens are fasting in record numbers. As with their parents, they are searching for a more disciplined spiritual life, but they seem to be more eager to sacrifice pizza for prayer than are older Christians.
"They have the energy, and they want to do something radical," says Miles McPherson of Miles Ahead Ministries. McPherson, a former professional football player with the San Diego Chargers, holds youth evangelism crusades across the country. Nearly 3,300 attended a workshop on fasting that McPherson led in 1997.
"It's easier to get kids to fast," he says. "Kids are more daring. They have more faith." Their main roadblock is their parents, who may worry about the lack of nutrition or fear an eating disorder. But McPherson says teens look to adults to model fasting. He rejects the view that limits teens' interest to Big Macs and Nintendo. "If that's what you give them, that's what they'll do."
Zeke Zeiler, a regional director of Campus Crusade's high-school ministry, says teens today have a spiritual hunger similar to those in the Jesus movement of the sixties and seventies. During Fasting and Prayer '98, Zeiler helped organize Sleep Fast, a giant youth lock-in. More than 2,000 teens stayed overnight at the Houston Astro Arena listening to popular Christian bands and speakers and praying for needs of the nation. Youth groups in 28 states joined by satellite broadcast. But the teens fasted from sleep, not food. Because of the influence of popular culture on teens, Zeiler encourages youth to fast from television or music instead of food.
A significant number of American youth fast each year during the annual 30 Hour Famine, sponsored by World Vision, the international relief agency.
Kari Borders, 18, has fasted in three such events, raising nearly $4,000 for hunger-related projects from friends, family, and businesses in Marietta, Georgia.
Borders witnessed hunger firsthand during her childhood in the Ivory Coast as the daughter of Southern Baptist missionaries. Last year, she returned to Africa to visit World Vision projects in Kenya. She still is shocked by the number of cereal options available at U.S. grocery stores.
Borders, now a premed major at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia, is preparing for a career as a medical missionary. She says she was surprised to find that her 30-hour fasts deepened her spiritual life. She also has a new appreciation for food. "I've had the munchies before," she says, "but I never say 'I'm starving' these days."
HOW BIBLICAL IS FASTING? All the world's major religions endorse fasting for spiritual, therapeutic, or political purposes, and fasting for Christians has an ancient and credible history. In the Old Testament, Moses went on two 40-day fasts during his mountaintop experience with God (Exod. 24:18; 34:28). King Jehoshaphat called the people of Judah to fast to appeal to God to protect them from an impending invasion (2 Chron. 20:1-30). Esther asked the Jews to fast from food and water for three days (Esther 4:16), culminating in their dramatic rescue. The Ninevites fasted, and God chose not to destroy them as he had originally told Jonah he would (Jonah 3:5-10).
In the New Testament, Paul and Barnabas were commissioned from the church at Antioch, launching their missionary work after church leaders fasted and prayed (Acts 13:1-3). Certainly the best-known account of fasting in the Bible is Jesus' 40-day fast. It followed his baptism, concluded with his temptation by Satan, and served as a prelude to his public ministry (Matt. 4:1-2; Luke 4:1-2).
Nonetheless, some Christians question whether fasting should be practiced today. The debate often focuses on the biblical passage where the disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus why his own disciples do not fast (Matt. 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39). Jesus responds that friends of the bridegroom should not mourn while the groom is still with them, but that they will fast when the groom is taken away. While some believe Jesus is referring to the three days between his death and resurrection (and so Christians should not fast after the Resurrection), many scholars interpret this time of Jesus being "taken away" to mean the period between Jesus' ascension and his second coming (which means fasting is appropriate for today). Supporters also point out that Jesus instructed his disciples "when you fast" (Matt. 6:16-18), not "if" you fast.
TO EAT OR NOT TO EAT: Although fasting by definition means not eating, evangelicals have found countless ways to redefine fasting to fit the temptations of contemporary American life.
Janine Parkins participated in the Fasting and Prayer conferences two years in a row by attending the live satellite broadcast at her church in Brazil, Indiana. She has Graves' disease, which affects her thyroid, so she felt she should not go without food. Instead, she fasted from the Internet. As a homemaker, Parkins spends three to four hours each day online, checking e-mail and participating in a Christian chat group. "I'm addicted to it," Parkins says, adding that it felt "cleansing" to ignore her computer for a few days.
Even though total abstinence from food and liquids is the most stringent form of fasting, religious traditions uphold many other varieties of fasting. Some fasters point to Daniel's diet of vegetables and water (Dan. 1:12-13) as biblical evidence of fasts that allow limited food. Within Christianity, the Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic traditions follow strict dietary guidelines for many of their fasts, not always completely withdrawing from edibles.
Today, most evangelical fasting practices range from 40-day water and juice fasts to 24-hour fasts, where the participant skips two meals. Some fasters may skip one meal a week or follow a strict regime of fruits and vegetables. Others, including those with health problems, may fast from sugary foods, television, or video games—whatever seems addictive.
In the United States, where losing weight is a national obsession, fasters are most often questioned about the health benefits of food abstinence (see "How Healthy Is Fasting?" p. 36). Yet whatever the significance of those health benefits, many fasters say reducing their waistlines is a secondary motivation.
For Kurt Freund, his experience of surviving a life-threatening colon rupture in 1995 served as an unexpected introduction to fasting. During his recovery from emergency surgery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a hospital chaplain gave him literature on fasting. Freund, 56, had been a Presbyterian minister for 15 years but had not considered fasting a practice for today. He knew his digestive cycle needed a rest, so he tried fasting with vegetable and fruit juices. A year and a half after his surgery, with fasting a regular part of his routine, Freund's physician told him he had the colon of someone 20 years younger. "I take it as a mandate that this is supposed to be part of my life," Freund says.
BULL-MARKET SPIRITUALITY: Fasting has become a more accepted religious practice at the same time many public-opinion polls show interest in spirituality has soared. "There is a bull market in spirituality right now," says Richard Lovelace, emeritus professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and author of Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (InterVarsity Press, 1980).
Many evangelicals are experimenting with classic Christian disciplines as a way to get beyond the culture's more superficial offerings of spirituality, though one reason some may be drawn to fasting is that it is concrete, action-oriented, and individually focused. "You know if you are doing it or not," says Gary Moon, president of the Psychological Studies Institute in Atlanta.
Moon uses the New Testament account of Martha and Mary to describe evangelicals' new-found interest in spiritual disciplines. Moon sees evangelicals as Martha, busy in the kitchen cooking, while Mary is focused on Jesus himself. Much can be learned from the work of Mary. "It's the work of being there; it's the work of showing up," Moon says. "The disciplines are different ways of hanging out with God."
Dallas Willard and Richard Foster are among the few evangelical authorities on spiritual disciplines. Willard is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California; his books, The Spirit of the Disciplines (HarperSanFrancisco [HSF], 1988) and The Divine Conspiracy (HSF, 1998), along with Foster's Celebration of Discipline (which has sold over 1.1 million copies and last year was released in a special twentieth-anniversary edition by HSF), have helped spur a generation of evangelicals to engage in a more rigorous approach to spiritual life.
Although fasting was practiced by evangelical forerunners such as John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, modern evangelicals have tended to shun the spiritual disciplines, thinking they connote salvation by works. But Willard believes evangelicals are easily paralyzed by grace: "[Grace] is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning."
Despite Protestants' anxiety over works righteousness, some wryly observe that evangelicals have been too busy doing "good works" to be still long enough to practice the spiritual disciplines.
But good works are the fruits of fasting. Isaiah 58:6 explicitly links fasting with social justice: "Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?"
Willard is pleased with the recent focus on fasting, but he is concerned that evangelicals may be neglecting the other spiritual disciplines in the process. "It has become a faddish interest," he says, adding that Scripture memorization and meditation may be more beneficial to the church, though not as dramatic as fasting.
WHAT MOTIVATES FASTERS? For some, fasting has become a countercultural expression of their faith, a backlash to crass consumerism, or an act of solidarity with people in poverty. Experienced fasters say food withdrawal brings personal problems into sharp focus, forcing the faster to cling to God instead of a bag of potato chips.
A danger of fasting is to view food as evil, which can lead to legalism and health problems. The Bible supports fasting, but it also affirms the goodness of food. Paul warns against extreme asceticism (1 Tim. 4:1-5) and false humility (Col. 2:20-23) and affirms that food is a gift from God.
Although some Christians endorse the use of fasting as a way to turbocharge their prayer lives, others are suspicious of motivations to bend God's will to their own.
Fasting advocates point to Old Testament passages where people fasted to receive an answer to prayer during times of crisis. Elmer Towns, in Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough (Regal Books, 1996), identifies nine biblical fasts, including the Daniel fast for physical healing, the Esther fast for protection from evil, and the Samuel fast to convert people to God.
From the beginning of their marriage in 1991, Troy and Karla Temple prayed to have a baby. After two miscarriages, the Lynchburg, Virginia, couple was diagnosed with infertility. In February 1997, while driving home from a friend's ordination, Troy had a sense that God asked him what he was willing to give up for his family. The next day, Troy started a 40-day fast, drinking only water and fruit and vegetable juices. He admits that during meals, prayer was often farthest from his mind, but he says the discipline was physically and spiritually renewing. In September, the Temples received a call from a local adoption agency. A birth mother had selected the Temples to adopt her biracial baby, born four weeks later. God answered the Temples' prayers with Madeleine Paige, who Troy tearfully points out was conceived during his 40-day fast.
That story is recounted in Fasting Can Change Your Life (Regal Books, 1998), a collection of first-person accounts of fasting edited by Falwell and Towns. Although Troy Temple writes, "I didn't trade food for God to give us a child," the chapter title, "A Baby Girl for a Childless Couple" may suggest otherwise.
Other chapter titles also indicate a results-oriented view of fasting: "Receiving 24 Acres for a New Church," "Freeing a Son from Drugs," "Healing Cancer," "Breaking Stuttering," and "Getting 50 Million Dollars," which is Falwell's account of his two 40-day fasts.
But many believe fasting is meant to change the faster, not the will of God. "The process of self-control is spiritually helpful, but it is certainly not meritorious," says Gordon-Conwell's Lovelace. "I don't think of it as getting God's attention." Willard agrees that it is easy to confuse fasting with cornering God. "Its role in prayer is not to earn the right to an answer," he says. Instead, fasting increases our hunger for God, conforming our will to God's will.
PURITY THROUGH SUFFERING: Not everyone who sees value in fasting sees revival on the horizon. Some sense God's rising anger with the church in America.
"We've lost our salt," says Kay Arthur of Precept Ministries, an international Bible-study ministry. "I hope I'm wrong, but I see judgment," says Arthur, also an executive committee member of the Fasting and Prayer conferences. "God is going to purify us through suffering." Fasting can help bring the church to repentance, Arthur says.
PrayUSA!'s Eddie Smith believes the church is not ready for a spiritual awakening. "The revival will be served on a platter of ruin," he says, which he sees as a coming global economic crisis. "Our schedules are too busy and our minds are too rattled to have revival. You can't have revival and your R-rated movies," Smith says.
The fasting trend is also spurred by millennialism, a belief that the year 2000 marks the beginning of the biblical end times. Falwell says he anticipates Jesus' return within the next decade.
John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and author of A Hunger for God (Crossway Books, 1997), warns against such predictions of spiritual awakenings. Fasting cannot manipulate God into sending revival.
The public nature of the fasting movement has given some Christian leaders misgivings, because public attention may foster self-righteousness and "superstar ascetics." (For more, see the editorial "Not a Fast Fix," p. 30.)
Jesus instructs his followers not to be seen fasting (Matt. 6:16-18). But many Bible scholars contend Jesus was not excluding corporate fasts, only fasts done for the purpose of public attention.
Gary Moon of the Psychological Studies Institute attributes the popularity of corporate fasts to the same factors that make weight-loss and 12-step addiction programs successful: support and accountability. "It's easier to battle the flesh and the Devil when we're not alone." Willard agrees there is a place for public fasts, but he is concerned that it is difficult to fast publicly without "being seen." Willard also cautions that spiritual writing can be like get-rich-quick seminars: "The temptation of leaders is to make big promises, but who follows up on it?" He fears people will dabble in fasting—buy the books, pay the conference fees—then give it up when they do not receive the spiritual answers they are seeking.
Some fasters are placing high expectations on what fasting will accomplish. "What really concerns me is that spiritual disciplines must not be regarded as a battery-charging of the spiritual life," Lovelace says. But the repeated process of releasing our grip on physical comforts and clinging to God will lead to individual spiritual growth, he says.
MOVING MOUNTAINS? On Ash Wednesday, Kay Wilson began her second 40-day fast. As with last year, she is participating in a "Daniel fast," eating only fruits and vegetables. This year, her husband, Gerry, is joining her.
The Wilsons began the morning by "prayer walking" through their neighborhood. They are praying each day for national revival and for forgiveness within their church. For the past year, Wilson has helped organize monthly fasting and prayer days for Arcadia Friends Community Church and the churches of the Southwest Yearly Meeting. "We're really trying to move some mountains," Wilson says.
Tens of thousands of other Christians fasted this Lenten season and prayed for spiritual renewal. Whether or not their acts ignite the fire of national revival, it is already sparking a deeper commitment to discipleship that is uniting Christians, sometimes in powerful new ways.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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