"He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them...He was hungry."
Quite likely the most obvious scriptural conclusion ever.
When I felt the impression to fast 40 days over Lent, it wasn't a lightning bolt or burning bush that delivered the message. But it came while I was driving on "the Bush" so, draw your own conclusions to God's creativity.
"You need to fast."
Still, small voice. Huge, gigantic doubt.
Thinking it through, hunger was an easy expectation.
I think fear was even easier.
God’s whisper had struck at the heart of my greatest addiction and depressive compulsion...food.
I examined the known quantities in this quest...
-I understood that fasting was not just giving something up to prove yourself to God.
-I did believe there were parts of myself I needed to face in order to live out the spiritual choice of "less of me, more of Him."
-By fasting 40 days I could identify with Christ’s 40 days in the desert.
-To follow the path of my calling, I believed I needed to empty myself to be filled by Him.
I also knew the reality of my weakness and compulsion.
So I prepared a "request."
In retrospect, my "request" quickly became a plea.
And even more quickly, that "plea" became as honest a prayer as I’ve ever prayed.
"I can't do this without You. I need You."
So I started on Ash Wednesday.
I thought I would be hungry. I was.
I thought I had a plan. I did.
I knew I would need His grace. I did.
And I thought I knew what to expect. I did not.
Many of the deepest, personal moments I won't write about publicly, because they are beyond my subjective ability to convey.
So what follows is not the certain, trusting, spiritual experience I planned on. It is the humbling simplicity of what I never expected.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way.
I could never drink orange juice again and be in complete scurvy-ridden bliss.
I never expected 40 days of fasting would move through such definitive stages...
First, I didn’t feel like I could do it, there were the headaches, people eating in front of me, the general cruddy feeling, the toxins beginning to exit via your tongue, and the long road of 40 days of forever stretched out before me.
Then somewhere along the line after a couple of weeks, I realized I felt great even though I was eating only three small “meals” one day a week. Actual hunger wasn’t overwhelming, but the compulsion and temptations were a huge issue when I was around others who were eating.
In the last couple of weeks came a gracious reliance and certainty in God seeing me through, but at the same time, real hunger set in. That gnawing realization that no food was waiting on you when you get home, no sweets, no munchies, nothing...just water and juice.
Physically, I became acutely aware of just how much I ate in comparison to how much I need to eat, and what I need to consume to be healthy. I have come face to face with just how devastating my slavery to food is.
I lost 28 pounds in 40 days. Not a normal, healthy rate of loss, but not surprising given the circumstances.
Mentally, I came to the crossroads of how poor nutrition, compulsive eating, and depressive binging contributes to and worsens my depression. I am grateful to God for bringing me to that honest point of self reality, and providing the people who will help keep me accountable in my addiction.
I would never even begin to equate my hunger with those who know true hunger, the hopelessness of no option of food or clean water. I had water to drink, and I could have chose at any moment to stop fasting and eat. What dawned on me is awareness of the unlimited availability of food in a consumer culture. When you can eat anything at anytime, and you choose not to...the temptation to give in to your consuming, ‘I want it now’ nature is a constant, overpowering reality.
Being hungry with no hope of food is the shame of human indifference. Being hungry surrounded by plenty makes you aware of how close we are to the desensitizing death of true gratefulness.
But through all the moments of illumination and realization, the simplicity of the prayer--"I can't do this without You. I need You."---provided the spiritual tipping point for not just a fast, but how I live from this point on.
I started this fast with a plan. The usual, spiritual plan. When you aren’t eating, you pray or read the Bible or activate some spiritual discipline to allow God space in your life to work and move.
Somewhere along the way, about 3 weeks after He said, “You need to fast.” The Spirit of God spoke again. There was nothing in between. No tingly moments of rich scriptural insight, no visions, no nothing. Period.
I had been keeping my fasting schedule of prayer and writing and asking God to meet me in the midst of this endeavor. And out of nowhere came the Spirit’s prompting: “Why are you asking Me to meet you on your terms and on your schedule.”
In that moment, came my spiritual reality. If nothing else was felt, understood, illuminated, conquered or accomplished...this moment made it worth everything.
It was so simple, but I had made it complex. And even worse, I had made it mine. I was creating space in my life for God to move, for my soul to be filled with Christ, to break my heart for him, to face my worst self and addiction.
I was setting out daily boxes for God to squeeze into. Good, well-meaning, specific-timed opportunities for the Creator of All Things to come and move in my space.
I had given up 40 days of food. But to Him, It didn’t matter how much or how little or if it was food or TV or meat or Dr. Pepper or gum. He looked at my soul and still saw that I was giving Him my terms of His engagement.
Ultimately, as always...we can never earn or impress.
And my greatest unexpected life change came through fluidity.
I stopped scheduling my expected God moments, I read the Bible often...but many times only in moments when I felt drawn to it. I prayed the scriptures, I prayed in my head... And I waited. Not in structure, but fluid.
When I stopped dictating the time and terms.
God showed up.
There were times when scripture cut my heart.
There were times grace surrounded my soul.
There were moments when I faced my worst self.
When I threw away the plan, tore up the boxes, deleted the schedule and with a broken heart prayed that prayer... "I can't do this without You. I need You."
His Spirit showed up when I least expected.
God became real in ways I never expected.
He became real in conversations with people He put in my path.
He orchestrated moments with the hurting, with the broken.
He has put homeless people in my tidy, pastoral path in Austin and downtown Dallas.
He helped people despite me.
He helped me through gracious people.
Along the way, He healed my soul.
And helped me see that He is beyond my attempts to tame Him.
In reality the physical hunger is just that, physical.
But there is a deeper hunger that is filled when all that we are is opened to His timing and His will.
When I honestly pray as Jesus did, “not my will, but Yours be done” I had better be prepared for the unpredictable whirlwind of God’s Spirit that follows.
You cannot tame a whirlwind. I can’t schedule it, earn it, manipulate it or wrap it in connection, recovery, missions or discipleship. It may wreak havoc on my entrenched habits or it might grace us with a comforting breeze.
But His strength is Spirit. And Spirit exists outside our containers.
It has an ancient unpredictable beauty that we try to fold nice and cleanly with just the right amount of sincere Christian living and serving and praying and shaping and earning and clutching and hiding and...never letting go.
This experience became a letting go.
First, he had to devastate my benign control, then I had to fall soul first in love with Jesus all over again.
If I can’t get the falling in love with Jesus part...If I can’t wrap my heart and head around the unmerited reality of His grace and how only it can change a heart, then my fasting, praying, singing, counsel, community, that which I manufacture as sacred and all the other tidbits of my version of Christianity is hollow, empty and not worthy of His presence.
I don’t believe it has to be that way.
I believe in fasting. So much so, that I am adding it as a weekly spiritual discipline.
As you can see, I now have no baseline of expectation for it. I don’t even know which day of the week it will happen. But the Spirit will be there when it's right.
Because the greatest realization of these days continues to be simply this...
There is nothing I can bring to Him, except myself as an empty, cracked jar. To be filled in His timing, to be poured out at His pleasure, and continue the simplicity of a prayer that resonates with all broken beauty--
"I can't do this without You. I need You."
True emptiness, true love, calls us to let go..to die.
Humbly resurrected in the grace of an undeniable, uncontrollable, always present God, who wondrously shows up when we stop allowing Him to.
---David Hulon Hood