Fasting is about more than food

4/20/2014

Rev. Barry Giddens lost 20 pounds.

Mike Barrett lost 23.

Rev. Stephanie Smith is 10 pounds lighter.

All three participated in fasts during Lent, the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter that are the most sacred and spiritually powerful of the Christian calendar.

But the fasts weren’t just about food and weight loss.

During a time when Christians are invited to examine their faith and deepen their commitment to Christ, these Lenten fasts were designed to bring participants into closer, more intimate relationships with Christ.

Not a diet

“I kept reminding my congregations that it’s not just a diet; it’s not just self-denial,” said Rev. Smith, pastor of Statesboro’s Hubert and New Hope United Methodist Churches. “It’s to draw you into the heart of Christ.”

Her congregations participated in the Daniel Fast, a biblically based fast in which only fruits, vegetables, and water are consumed.

The point of the fast was not for weight loss, but to become healthier, more aware, and more dependent on God.

“Our churches are not the healthiest. We love to have covered dishes, fried chicken and casseroles and as many desserts as possible, so this is one way for us to be intentional in what we put into our bodies,” she said.

In addition to a Monday night Bible study, the congregations also had three opportunities each week to be active together, and that time of exercise and fellowship was rewarding, Rev. Smith said.

“I think people were initially drawn to the fast because of the idea of weight loss and a better lifestyle,” she said. “We’ve now become closer as congregations and I’ve been able to experience more of their lives … it’s connected me to these individuals and all of us together, and we have a deeper sense of who we are just by our fellowship time together.”

Living healthier lives

Hubert and New Hope UMCs’ 13 participants lost a total of 165 pounds.

Barrett, New Hope UMC’s lay leader, shed more than 20.

A 62-year-old father and grandfather, Barrett wants to be around to see his grandchildren grow up. He participated in the fast to lose weight, get in shape, and to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

“I want to be able to do my job better for God, and if I’m overweight I’m not a very good example,” he said.

Following the fast wasn’t too difficult for Barrett, but prayer, fellowship and accountability were vital to his success.

“I have to focus on what God wants for me even before I begin eating, that’s the bottom line,” he said. “(Fasting together) has given us a closer relationship with each other and really, a closer relationship with God and a deeper understanding of how he works in our lives and what he wants to do with our lives.”

Fasting for unity and growth

Nearly 85 percent of the Harper’s Chapel congregation participated in the church’s Lenten fast. When planning the fast, the Baxley church’s worship and Christian education committees hoped it would help unite the church and deepen participants’ faith.

“The fast is a way to bring the church together in one accord as we seek new levels of ministry and new levels of the Spirit,” said Harper’s Chapel UMC pastor Rev. Chris Carter. “We feel like this is a good way to unify our church as well as becoming closer in our relationship with God.”

Each week, participants removed a food group from their diet. The first week they shunned sweets; during week two they denied themselves bread and pasta; in week three no one ate food from restaurants; they ate no red meat in week four; and in week five they ate only fruits and vegetables. The day before Easter was a true fast, and on Easter the congregation celebrated with a fellowship dinner.

Some participants have also fasted from television, social media or technology.

“During this Lent season, we hope to empty ourselves by denying ourselves … so we can focus more on God and focus ourselves on growing more in our relationship with God even further than we are now,” Rev. Carter said.

Lifestyle changes

Earlier this year, Rev. Barry Giddens began preaching about fasting.

Deeply impacted by hearing Dr. Elmer Towns, co-founder of Liberty University, and Steve Reynolds, author of “Bod for God,” speak about fasting, Rev. Giddens realized that he needed to change the way he thought about food.

“It brought food into a whole different light for me,” he said. “Food is fuel for our body, and we have to put the right kind of fuels in our body.”

When he told the Lyons First United Methodist Church congregation that he wanted them to participate with him in a 21-day Lenten fast, he thought they’d think he was crazy.

But more than 50 people joined him, and the experience has been rich and rewarding, Rev. Giddens said.

“Through this fast, I’m seeing the blessings of God pour down,” he said. “I think part of that is because I am taking care of the temple in which God indwells.”

Modeled after Dr. Towns’ “Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough,” fast participants gave up processed and refined foods as well as those that were man-made or from an animal.

“We truly want that (spiritual breakthrough) to be what happens, for us to break through into a deeper walk and a deeper relationship with God, both in our Bible study and our prayer lives and in everything we do,” Rev. Giddens said.

Too often, the “why” of fasting is ignored or not stated, he said, but it should be so that Christians can connect more deeply to Christ and have a larger impact for the kingdom of God.

“This is so synonymous with the Christian life,” he said. “We tell people all the time that they need to give things up. We tell them not to do things – just don’t do it. But we miss telling them that when we clear those things off the table that we create a larger environment in which God can dwell.

“It’s so that God can dwell in you even more richly than He is.”