My first experience with fasting came when I was serving as a missionary in South Asia when I least expected or desired it. Fasting was all right for folks back in the United States, land of cheap peanut butter and BlueBell Ice Cream. But I’d missed two of my best friends’ weddings to serve overseas. I hadn’t had a decent cup of coffee in months. I’d practically forgotten the taste of bacon! I’d given up all I needed to, thank you very much.
But I did have an ancient MacBook and some decent Wi-Fi. And after a long day of cross-cultural life, this introvert desperately need to laugh herself silly over a sitcom or rock out to NEEDTOBREATHE’s latest single.
So when the Holy Spirit led me to spend forty days without my miniature entertainment system, I folded my arms and dug in my heels like a preschooler on her first day in the nursery. It was a fight I was going to lose, and I’ve never been gladder to admit defeat.
“Fasting prevents the good gifts we have from having us.”
When What You Have Has You
I’d like to tell you that giving up a host of Western comforts and moving to a developing country instantly teaches you to depend wholly on Christ. But no one learns that lesson overnight, not even missionaries. In fact, as I discovered, sometimes the added stress of a trip overseas just pushes you deeper into self-medicating behavior. But “fasting,” as Richard J. Foster writes, “reveals the things that control us.” And as my fast began, I realized I wasn’t quite as in control as I’d thought.
I was desperately homesick. I was numb with incessant culture shock. I was seething with rage at the injustice and inequality around me. And without the buffer of sitcoms and punk rock to hold back the tide of emotions I’d been suppressing, I was soon drowning in them.
For me, those forty days were a painful study in how completely I had allowed one of my lawful possessions to dominate my life (1 Cor. 6:12). I slowly began to discover that fasting prevents the good gifts we have from having us. It’s one of God’s ways of loosening our grip on lesser things so that we can better cling to him.
Offer Your Bodies
And in the absence of his good gifts, I began to remember how much I urgently loved and needed the Giver. “[F]asting,” in the words of in Donald S. Whitney, “can be a testimony . . . that you find your greatest pleasure and enjoyment in life from God.” But even more wondrously, fasting allows us to experience the truth of that testimony.
When we’re willing to offer our bodies as living sacrifices (even in the simple act of foregoing a meal or a pastime), God is faithful to transform us by the renewing of our minds, until it is not temporary toys but his eternal will that we find good, pleasing, and perfect (Rom. 12:1–2).
As a missionary, I was particularly vulnerable to the kind of spiritual and emotional gluttony that binges on the cotton candy of this world instead of finding sustenance in the Bread of Life. Habits that would have stayed quietly in the background of my life exploded into monstrous size under the pressure of life overseas.
But if life on the mission field reveals our weaknesses in stark and shocking ways, then even that challenge positions us to experience a deeper level of intimacy with and satisfaction in the living water of Jesus Christ. After all, it is in our weakness that Christ reveals his strength (2 Cor. 12:9–11). And so in the end, the same pain that I’d been numbing with mindless entertainment became the very thing that drove me into the arms of God.
With my emotional anesthetics set aside, I rediscovered the all-knowing, all-loving, and all-sufficient Lord that I’d chosen to follow so many years before. I found in Christ a high priest fully able to sympathize with my weakness and exhaustion (Heb. 4:15). I found in the Holy Spirit a love for the poor, the oppressed, the disabled, and enslaved that far exceeded my own (Luke 4:18).
And I found that if I was willing to honestly cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, then my heavenly Father would be faithful to reassure me that he does not despise the suffering of the afflicted, but listens to our cry for help (Ps. 22).
“Fasting helped me learn to enjoy God’s good gifts, not only in the appropriate amounts but with the appropriate expectations.”
Everything in Its Place
I ended my fast with a certain amount of trepidation. I remember eyeing my laptop from across the room like it was a suspiciously froth-mouthed stray. That thing had gotten its teeth into me once, and I was in no mind to be bitten again. But as I carefully waded back into the shallow end of Keeping up Appearances, Twenty-One Pilots, and Sherlock, I discovered that, far from being repelled by my old pastime, I was able to enjoy it more deeply than before.
Take cupcakes, for example. Cupcakes are glorious things. But if we approach pastries with the assumption that they will provide us all the nourishment we require, we will come away disappointed. And so it is when we ask any of God’s good gifts to provide us with what only he can supply. They fail to deliver what we demand, and we fail to appreciate what they actually do have to offer.
Fasting helped me learn to enjoy God’s good gifts, not only in the appropriate amounts but with the appropriate expectations. Now that I was no longer expecting Doctor Who and The Lumineers to sustain me, they were free to entertain me. With the Father of lights once again in his place as the unchanging center of my life, I was free to enjoy his good and perfect gifts (James 1:17).
The challenges of missionary life didn’t lessen. The stresses of living overseas didn’t change. But my simple fast had taught me that “my food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34, ESV), transforming even the hard work of missions into life-giving opportunities to experience Christ’s sufficiency.
Jaclyn S. Parrish worked as a writer for IMB in South Asia. She currently serves in the US as a writer, editor, and social media associate for IMB. You can follow her on Twitter at @JaclynSParrish.