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Common Myths about Fasting
by Dr Alex Tang
In recent years, there has been an upsurge of interest in the spiritual disciplines especially in the spiritual disciplines of fasting and prayer. Christianity Today (April 5, 1999) in a special news report noted that more than 1,000 people attended Campus Crusade’s fifth annual Fasting and Prayer conference in Houston last November, U.S. Prayer Track sponsored a 40-day fast in March, The National Association of Evangelicals is promoting 40 days of prayer and fasting beginning September 21 for its 43,000 member churches and an estimated 600,000 teens took part in World Vision’s 30 Hour Famine, February 26-27.
There is Scripture basis for fasting. The bible mentions absolute (complete) fast which means abstinence from both food and water (Deu 9:9,18 ; Ezra 10:6; Acts 9:9) and partial fasts, abstinence from certain foods only (1King 17; Dan 10:3). The duration of the fast can be one night (Dan 6:18); one day (1 Sam 7:6; 2 Sam 1:12); three days and nights (Esther 4:16; Acts 9:9, 17-19); seven days (1 Sam 31:13; 2 Sam 12:16-23); fourteen days (Acts 27:33-34); twenty-one days (Dan 10:3-13) and forty days (Exodus 24:18; 34:28; 1 King 19:8; Matt 4:2).
Why do people especially Christians fast? As the editorial comment in Christianity Today (April 9, 1999) notes with a play on words: ‘Not a Fast Fix: It’s hard to fast, and even harder to do it for the right reasons’. Richard Foster, in his classic, Celebration of Discipline (HarperCollins, 1978,1988), writes, “ At times there is such stress on the blessings and benefits of fasting that we would be tempted to believe that with a little fast we could have the world, including God, eating out of our hands.” Proponents of fasting have touted its many health benefits.
In this article, we shall look at some common myths about fasting.
Myth #1: Fasting helps us to lose weight.
Many people think that fasting, like dieting, helps us to lose weight. In a sense, it does for during the duration of a fast or a diet, our food intake is reduced and if the fast is prolonged, we may lose some weight, mostly water. But this weight loss is not permanent, as a frequent dieter can tell us. Soon after the fast or diet is over, we often regain or even increase in our weight. There is a tendency to eat a little extra after a fast. And the underlying reasons for our less than ideal weight is still present – gluttony, lack of exercise, stress and many ‘sweet tooth’s.
In prolonged fast, most of the proteins burned come from the liver, spleen and muscles. Ketosis is present and neutral body fat is rapidly catabolised. When the body fats are used up, protein catabolism increases, the blood glucose level falls, electrolyes imbalance occurs and death soon follows.
Myth # 2: Fasting gives our bodies a rest
Since most of us fast between meals we think that our body is at rest during that period. Hence it is logical to think that to have a prolonged fast is to give our bodies a rest. Unfortunately our bodies never rest. At any moment while we are alive, there are thousands of process going on in our body; hormones are being secreted, enzymes are working, neurotransmitters are activating receptors and the mitochondria in our cells are storing energy. All this needs a continuous flow of energy, which is from the food we eat. Cessation of this supply during a fast put an additional stress on our bodies as it mobilizes its energy from the body stores. Fasting is not restful to our body. It is stressful.
Myth # 3: Fasting purifies our bodies
There is a view that when we fast and stop eating, we will ingest fewer toxins and gives our bodies time to get rid of accumulated toxins and wastes in our bodies. In the eighteenth century fasting is advocated as a ‘house-cleaning method’ for body and soul.
This view is erroneous in two ways. Firstly, we do not ingest many toxins in our food. Our food is usually already processed, and in spite of the scare tactics by consumer associations and environmentalists, our food is relatively safe for consumption. Secondly, our main organs for detoxification, the liver and kidneys are functioning continuously. In its healthy state, the body is toxin free and waste products are continuously excreted through the kidney, lungs and intestines. In fact, fasting itself produces more toxins in the form of nitrogen products and ketones, which need to be detoxified and excreted immediately.
Myth # 4: Fasting is good for our bodies.
As can been noted from the discussion above, fasting is stressful to our bodies, forcing our bodies to mobilize our energy stores and increase the level of nitrogenous toxins in our bodies. Reginald Cherry, a Christian physician and author of The Bible Cure (Creation House, 1998) noted that he has not witnessed any permanent physical benefit from fasting. Cherry prescribes fasting for his patients but he views it mainly as a spiritual tool.
Prolonged 40-days fast is especially risky as proteins are being used as the main source of energy and this can lead to electrolytes especially potassium imbalance. Electrolyte imbalance can lead to arrhythmias and death.
Myth # 5: Fasting is for everybody.
Even though it is a good spiritual discipline, not everyone should or could fast. Babies and young children should not be made to fast. The elderly should be very careful if they want to fast. Diabetics, those with chronic health problems, and people on medications should consult with their doctors before they fast. Pregnant women are not encouraged to fast.
Myth # 6: Fasting makes us more spiritual.
Most of us are brought up with the axiom ‘that there is no such time as a free lunch’. Thus when God comes to us with the offer of free grace and salvation, we become very confused. Can such a great gift be obtained without strings attached? For some of us, even though we understand the concept of justification by faith, we feel we need to do something to justify the grace; the more difficult the act the better. Fasting as a spiritual discipline is difficult and makes us suffer. There are times when we feel that the suffering we undergo during a fast makes us closer to God.
This article is not to discourage us from fasting. It is to debunk the myths that fasting is not stressful to our bodies. It is also to emphasise that fasting must be done for the right reasons. Fasting should be done for intercession (Exodus 24:18; Ezra 10:6); humbling of self ( 1 King 21:27-29; Ps 35:13); seeking guidance ( 2 Chr 20:3; Ezra 8:21-23) and repentance (Neh 1:4-7; Ezra 10:6).
Dallas Willard writes in The Spirit of the Disciplines (Harper Collins, 1988) “ Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food. Through it, we learn by experience that God's word to us is a life substance, that it is not food (“bread”) alone that gives life, but also the words that proceed from the mouth of God (Matt 4:4). We learn that we too have meat to eat that the world does not know about (John 4:32,34). Fasting unto the Lord is therefore feasting- feasting on him and on doing his will”
Soli Deo Gloria
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