Thursday, 22 March 2012

Fasting Safely

Source for this picture here.

Fasting is the deliberate avoidance of food for a period of time which is longer than the person would normally go without eating. People choose to fast for a number of reasons, usually motivated either by health concerns or as a faith-based practice, or a combination of both. At this time of year, we like to try to have a fast for a set time, normally for about 36 hours (in other words, for example, if we start our fast on a Thursday evening we will not eat at all on Friday or on Friday night, but will resume eating on the following Saturday morning), at least once or maybe twice. We have been doing this as a family for the past few years.

Our choice to do this is based in our desire to draw closer to God by following the example of his son Christ Jesus during the 40 days of His temptation in the desert. For us, it is just as much about humbling ourselves, by denying such a basic human need, and in our weakness, learning to lean on God and trust in Him to carry our burdens. I honestly don't believe that we could fast as successfully if it were not for having this trust. And the spiritual benefits of fasting, if done correctly, can be great. Of course, it depends on your real reasons - in your heart, your fast should not be conducted for personal gain, but for spiritual growth which will benefit those around you - as Matthew teaches, a fast should be a private, personal act that only God knows about -

"Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;
That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly
". (Matthew 6, 16 - 18).

It is not done as a show of piety but as a commitment to grow in faith and trust in God's strength.

A lot of people hesitate at the idea of fasting because they are afraid it will make them feel ill and therefore not be of any benefit to them. They are worried that they will faint, or have symptoms that prevent them from being able to engage in their daily activities (or keep their fasting a secret between them and God!) and this makes them reluctant to attempt it. But I can assure you that it really isn't quite as dreadful as it sounds - and the benefits really are, wonderful. During a fast you really can feel much closer to God. There is a clarity to your prayer and thought which can only happen when you are in a fasted state, and I believe that all Christians could benefit from engaging in a fast now and then, to experience this opportunity for self restraint and spiritual growth.

Here are a few things that I've learned, which make fasting easier and less of an ordeal.

First of all - this is the most important bit - check with your doctor or practice nurse before you embalk on a fast for the first time. There are some groups of people that shouldn't fast, such as those with diabetes or kidney disease, pregnant women and those who are frail or who have general ill health. Children under 13 should only fast gently, and not go without food altogether, as they are still growing and need the nutrition from regular meals. It should also be noted that if you take regular medication (Papa Bear and I both do) you should continue to take this unless otherwise advised by your doctor. It goes without saying also, that anyone who has an eating disorder, should not fast.

When we fast, we abstain from all food. Some people will eat fruit or vegetables whilst on a fast, but we prefer to avoid solid food of all kinds, altogether. We also avoid drinks containing milk, or fruit juices. The reason for this is that rather than filling us up, we find that the sugars in milk and particularly in fruit juices, actually make us hungrier than if we didn't take them at all (fruit juices, even pure ones, are full of fructose, a kind of sugar which in turn will raise your blood sugar and cause food cravings. It is worth knowing this, especially if you are into the "green smoothie" craze which seems so popular at the moment. I'm not saying all green smoothies aren't healthy, but ones that contain a large proportion of fruit juice, as many of the recipes I've seen do, are probably no better for your health than a bowl of wholegrain cereal). We don't chew gum, either - it just encourages your stomach to produce digestive juices which will then cause pain and heartburn (as a family, we don't chew gum anyway - we think it's not very pleasant!).

We do drink water - carbonated water is great, and very refreshing - and hot drinks, including tea and coffee (we are not fasting especially for health reasons, therefore we do not see this as a "detox" and see no reason to abstain from clear drinks like black coffee or tea). If you usually drink more than a couple of cups of tea, coffee or other caffeinated drinks, you will probably find you get a terrible headache, if you do decide to abstain from your usual fix. We choose to carry on with our caffeinated drinks, although surprisingly, I personally don't crave them much when I am fasting. Beef tea (called Bovril in England) is also useful, if you crave savoury flavours, and we also have Miso soup seasoning in hot water, which is quite pleasant without being very strongly flavoured).

The hunger pangs that everyone experiences when they fast are usually the biggest challenge to seeing it through to the planned finish. It's worth remembering that really and truely, being hungry isn't all that bad for us, and certainly nothing to panic about. It is after all partly a learned response - you'll find you feel a great deal hungrier at mealtimes, while you are fasting, for example, than at other times of day, but even when you are genuinely very hungry, it won't hurt not to eat for 24 or 36 hours. Some people carry on fasting for longer than this, but we have never done so. Although I feel quite energetic when I fast I do also feel weak and quite dizzy by the end of the 36 hours, and I wouldn't be very productive if I carried on any longer. Ditto the rest of the family!

To cope with hunger pangs, try to avoid any triggers. Your fast day is not the day to do your menu planning, or to spend the time looking up new recipes! It also helps to stay out of the kitchen or supermarket when you are fasting. You'll probably be surprised at how easy it is not to think about food, if you aren't going to be eating at all for the whole day, as you won't be preparing it, and this will take a lot of temptation out of your way. Make a decision not to think about food at all, and you'll find you aren't nearly as hungry as you expected. When you do go through a really hungry phase, try to sit it out. If it seems really impossible to carry on, try distracting yourself by going for a walk, doing something moderately challenging that you enjoy doing with your hands such as knitting, writing, drawing, a jigsaw puzzle or a crossword. A hot drink of herb tea or coffee may help, or you can also try brushing your teeth, or rinsing with mouthwash. The pangs will go - part of the challenge of a fast is learning to be patient and endure them, and it does get easier with time. Focus on the moment, and live through the harder times, and it will get better.

Although it isn't a good idea to undertake any really hard physical work (Papa Bear wouldn't ever do a fast on a work day, as he would find himself feeling very weak and faint extremely quickly), it is helpful to keep busy. This keeps your mind off your hunger pangs, but it also seems to help keep your mind clear. The fogginess of thought that people often experience when fasting, seems to be kept at bay for us, if we keep active. We usually go for a walk 2 or 3 times throughout the day when we are fasting. And it's amazing how you will find your head clearing as you walk along.

There are periods of the day when the fast will feel like a struggle. There's no denying this. These are the times when you are ready to offer up prayer and devotions to God. I often do this while walking along. I call upon Him to help me through this tough phase, and give me the strength to keep going with the fast and not fail at it. He always does give me the courage and endurance to do this! The early afternoon is a particularly hard time for me. After prayer and devotion and extra Bible study, I will then have a lie-down, to ride through the worst of it. I'll also pamper myself a bit with a book that's easy to read or a sleep.

By the time you end your fast, you'll probably be surprised at how good you feel - and how easy it would be, to carry on fasting! I always imagine we'll be ravenous, and prepare a huge breakfast for us all, but when it comes to eating it, none of us want any more than we'd ordinarily have! This is because after the first 24 hours of fasting, metabolic changes occur in the body, and it begins to convert to drawing on the internal fat reserves for energy, instead of food, which in turn will make you crave food less (this is temporary though, and should not be a motivation to keep on fasting). So go gently, and just eat your normal breakfast (or whichever meal it is that you have chosen to use to end your fast). Foods that are good to end a fast with are simple plain dishes, such as oatmeal, or a tatie (jacket potato) with a little butter, or a bowl of soup. Nothing too hard to digest. You'll find your energy levels rise quite quickly after this, but I'm always a little tired the day after a fast, so be gentle to yourself, and don't take on any extra tasks above your normal workload.

Don't be scared to try fasting, if you haven't before. Why not try missing just one meal, to start with, and work up from there? You'll soon discover the beauty and rewards of fasting. It brings a clarity of thought and a sense of deep peace with it, as your mind focuses only on what is most important of all - your relationship with your Saviour, and His plan for you. The self denial of fasting will make you stronger, more patient and enduring, more appreciative of all the good things that you have, and more thankful for the presence of the Lord God in your life.

"Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward.
Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I
am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;
And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day:
And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not
." (Isaiah 58, 6 - 11).