Friday, March 17, 2017
I happened to be in Los Angeles recently and noticed an interesting phenomenon at one of the local parks, and generally throughout the city wherever I went … the people are largely thin, or should I say, fit. Oh sure there are a number of tourists like myself who bring the average weight per person up quite a bit, but the locals, the folks who live here, seem to all share a body physique that looks closer to the bill board signs throughout the city, than they do the picture of “southern health” that comes from eating too much bacon and fried foods. It’s weird to see so many people so thin. They say the coastal regions do not reflect the thinking of most of the nation, and in this purely physical regard, that truism hits the mark. But then, L.A. is the birthplace, of the “fad” diet. It is the author of the “super food”. The entire kale industry banks on L.A. for its very existence. Should broccoli ever rise to prominence again, kale might go the way the of the dinosaur. L.A. for better or worse, has the power of the cultural megaphone, and its influence attempts to drag the rest of the nation with it.
But dieting and matching the barbee-doll physique has a few mental side effects for those with lower self-esteem issues. And let’s face it, advertising builds its empire on insuring women retain a degree of self-esteem issues. Before you know it, voila, dietary diseases brought on by extreme states of mind. Anorexia and Bulimia become moderate epidemics. Not confined only to women in the local scene, these diseases spread throughout the land to all areas were women and younger girls, are driven to match the bodies they see spread across every road sign billboard, TV advertisement, magazine cover, or child’s barbee doll. And while most of us would agree a “normal” woman is just not that thin, medical science is not so comfortable with us accepting “fat” as “normal”, so it seems the healthcare industry is content to nag us to do better, even if not to match the bill board sign entirely.
And despite what L.A. might think about it, nutritionists are generally unhappy with even the idea of a “fad” diet. Going all grapefruit all the time, or all potato, or zero carbs, or high protein … pick your poison, so to speak … unbalancing what inherently should be balanced is just not a good idea. But there is another kind of dieting that exists, that has a long historical precedent, and is far more akin to anorexia than it is to a real diet, the idea of just not eating. This does not happen because something in the brain keeps telling you, that you are still too fat. No, this kind of extreme diets tend to happen by lack of food availability (starvation), or something harder to understand, fasting. Starvation is usually something you have little power to correct, you need outside help for that one. Enter Sean Penn. But fasting is a choice people make for some indiscernible reason. L.A. would argue that fasting is nothing more than the ancient equivalent of the modern “cleanse” (another L.A. patented idea). But there is more to it.
At least in Biblical times, before the advent of TV and the land of milk and honey by the Pacific Ocean (with a considerable share of fruits and nuts as well), the fast was done for a spiritual reason. If there was a cleanse component it was intended to be spiritual as well. If there was a weight loss component, it was also an unintended consequence. The fast was not done to lose weight, or strangle the junk out of your colon, it was a form of self-denial for spiritual reasons. Ok. There were a great many traditions the Jewish faith embraced over the years, with more than a few well off the common-sense bus. Perhaps fasting was just something they witnessed from the heathen nearby and somehow the practice stuck. Or perhaps one of the Pharisees got it in their head that this was a key to open up the floodgates of heaven, and with some limited success, everyone else started doing it too. Or perhaps the Romans, or Babylonians, or Greeks, left the Jews little choice from lack of food. But whatever the genesis or evolution, and whatever the motives, fasting was a well understood practice in the time of Christ.
However, just like everything else, whatever value that could be derived from fasting had already been perverted by the Sanhedrin in the method they conducted their fasts. It was something Jesus noticed. And continuing in His theme about keeping what is between you and God, a private matter between you and God, Jesus felt the need to address how the Israelites (or at least the leadership) were doing it wrong. Matthew continues the Sermon on the Mount in chapter six of his gospel, picking up in verse 16 Jesus says … “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.”
A few things emerge from this first admonition of Jesus as it relates to fasting. First and foremost, the practice of fasting is not something Jesus thinks is a bad idea. If it were, His counsel would have been for His people to knock it off. He could of as easily said, guys, there is no need for this kind of self denial at all, eat up, and pray right. But He does not say that. What He does say, is if you are going to fast, don’t do it for attention. Making something that should be private between you and your God a public spectacle gives you the attention of your fellow man, feeds your pride, and disables God from changing in you what needs to be changed because you lack the humility to ask in private.
Jesus continues in verse 17 saying … “But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; [verse 18] 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.” In this case Jesus actually asks us to present ourselves in public as if there is nothing wrong with us, as if we are just “fine” or “normal”; all the while, secretly performing a fast. Keep in mind the practice of fasting is a complete choice. There is no mandate in scripture that says, you must do this every “x” amount of days, or during a particular season, or feast, etc.. This practice is purely a personal one, done for personal reasons. But the self-denial is not done as a sacrifice made to a vindictive God who takes pleasure in our suffering, happy. Nor is it done as a form of trade; if God punishes us enough, perhaps He will reward us with some goodie we want.
The potential benefit of a fast is that it might bring more clarity to our minds, as the toxins that exist in our foods (sometimes even in our water), are flushed out of our systems in a matter of one or two days. Fasting could be as short as 12 hours, or as long as 48, and still keep from doing too much harm to the human body, as long as we resume a healthy eating and drinking regimen when the fast is over. In this sense a fast is quite like the Hollywood cleanse, we are indeed dumping the toxins out of our bodies. The difference becomes the motive and the result. In the Biblical context, we are freeing our minds to be more keenly receptive to hearing and discerning the will of God regarding some decision or challenge we face.
And lest we think Jesus did not put His proverbial money where His mouth is, let us just remember how His ministry began, with the Spirit driving Him into the desert where a forty day fast began. During His fast, Jesus neither ate nor drank. That is a recipe for death. None of us would survive it. Even the portly folks (begin charitable) such as myself, would not survive it as the need for water would be keenly felt in just a few days, even if the need for food could last well longer. And we have no reason to believe Jesus began this fast as large as someone like me. More likely He was fit going in, and emaciated near death coming out. Had angels not sustained Him after His encounter with Satan, I believe He would have surely died from exposure and malnutrition / starvation. This was not a practice He wanted for us, at least not at this kind of extreme.
But even in this extremity, Jesus heard the will of His Father even more clearly. He met Satan with the clarity of knowing His Father’s will, even if His own physical condition was nowhere near where it needed to be for that kind of taxing encounter. In our day, a fast might serve to help bring us the same kind of clarity of mind. It remains no kind of requirement. But it remains a practice we could elect to participate in. An attempt to purify ourselves from the toxins that dull our brains, our senses, and our attention away from a communication with God that we hope to reach new levels of clarity. This is not meant to be some sort of extreme diet. The Bible does not offer it, or present it this way. This is not a Biblical justification for the Anorexic to assume they are just fasting like Jesus did. Again, not designed for that. No weight loss intended.
But to attempt to bring ourselves clarity, to focus our humility, to discern better what decisions we might make without the distractions of what normally consumes us, is the point of a modern day fast. In this sense, and even across all Christian denominations, fasting is practiced very little. Imagine if Hollywood got a hold of this idea, and promoted it to the rest of the nation in the same way, and regularity, as they promote a whole host of other minority opinions as if they were the majority normal; we might have fasting being done in every home in America. It might become the new “kale”. It might be the new “normal” part of the culture every American home and school system should be forced to adopt (by peer pressure if nothing else). To have the power of the cultural bully pulpit used for something that lends itself to spiritual clarity would indeed be the first kind of minority opinion of this type Hollywood would have ever pushed. But have no fear. L.A. is not designed to push spiritual ideas of a Biblical nature. The industry has a different boss.
And the sermon was far from over …