Soul Food: What does fasting have to do with social justice, desire, and spiritual formation?

In the beginning of the biblical story, God places humanity in garden called Eden. This name didn't really mean much to me until I heard that 'Eden' means delight. Also, as God creates each aspect of creation God declares, 'it is good!' So, in these and in other aspects of the Genesis story, the Bible is saying that delight (a delight that incorporates joy and savouring and relishing and fun and laughter) is our first and original home.


According to Genesis, 'delight' is our first and original home.

Not only are humans created for delight. But, we were created to enjoy God’s good world in ways that produce peace, justice and flourishing. If our desires were well 'shaped', or well 'ordered' then we could simply 'follow our heart' all the time, and do whatever we felt like and it would always lead to the flourishing and holistic peace ('shalom') that we all deeply long for (and for which the earth groans - see Roman 8). But we all know that if we acted on every desire and impulse we'd actually be really, really unhappy. If I had a bucket of fried chicken every time I walked past a KFC, I'd be feeling awful a few hours later, and I'd be getting less and less healthy and happy in my body over time.


Our disordered desires don't only affect us as individuals. We are interdependent, interconnected, global creatures. How we live impacts our neighbours near and far. When the priorities of our heart aren’t right, it causes all sorts of injustice and suffering through our greed, selfishness and exploitation. I can buy items of clothing just because they're what I want, what I desire. But the company making the clothes might be exploiting workers elsewhere in the world, or might be harming the wider creation in all sorts of ways.


So, what we desire, and how we desire, and the order of our desires matters. Our desire matters because it determines the person we're becoming (see JKA Smith - You Are What You Love), and because it impacts how much joy and peace we experience, and how much joy and peace we create in the world for others and for wider creation.


Fasting is an opportunity to reshape and reorder our desires. As we fast, we choose to temporarily forgo something – usually food – in order to recalibrate our hearts so that our desires are reordered and reprioritised. As we sit in the discomfort of not responding to the immediate pull of our appetites, an internal recalibration takes place. Human hearts are 'malleable' - always changing and reforming. And, what we do does something to us.


In a sense, with fasting, we turn up the 'volume' of our desire for God and for the Kingdom of God in our lives and in our world. Fasting isn't the only way we can do this, but it's a really great way. And I both love and hate it!


I think the internal narratives that we think (consciously or unconsciously) are vital in terms of the spiritual formation in our hearts. When fasting, it can be helpful to prayerfully reflect on our global sisters and brothers for whom hunger is not a voluntary choice. To prayerfully consider the systems and government policies that sit behind this. And to consider the ways in which our actions are contributing to climate change and harming God's good world, causing greater flooding and droughts (which are big factors in food unavailability).


Fasting also helps bring our abstract theologies and biblical ideas into the grounded, concrete reality of the world we live in. I think there is a risk of too much of our church talk, prayers, ministries and missions not being well anchored in the world we live in - the world God loves and is renewing and restoring. A faith that is not anchored in God's good world and God's mission for this world is unlikely to lead us naturally into participating in God's mission, as we're invited to do. Such a faith can create a dichotomy between what is perceived as sacred and secular. But fasting, if we frame it within the biblical story of God's redemption of all things, has the potential to draw us rapidly into God's redemptive activity in the world.


I’ve never found fasting easy or fun! But, I’ve found that the discomfort and hunger from fasting reminds my soul that I want to enjoy God more than anything else. And it makes me more thankful for all that I have, more aware of God’s compassionate gaze, more attentive to the struggles of my sisters and brothers around the world, and more caring of God's world (where we get all our food from!).


Fasting is not about 'twisting God's arm'. Fasting is a spiritual practice to intentionally and actively reshape our hearts such that we delight in God's good world in ways that bring about God's redemption, peace, justice and flourishing.


I'll follow up this post with some very practical and simple thoughts about fasting. But for now, I offer a simple prayer for us to share:


God, we thank you for this good world you have created to be savoured, relished, nurtured and cared for. Forgive us, Lord, for where our disordered desires have caused us to live selfishly, greedily, or ignoring the struggles of others. Renew our hearts. Let us experience joy and delight in ways that honour and please you.