This past week, I practiced a partial media fast for my course on the spiritual disciplines. This means that instead of checking my e-mail, blog feedreader, or Facebook account after I woke up each morning, I refrained from accessing the internet until 12:00 noon.
I have practiced fasting on occasion in the past, usually when I am seeking wisdom about a particular decision. These have been food fasts for a certain period of hours or number of meals. And once, in my senior year of college, I gave up Dr. Pepper for seven months because I could no longer ignore that it was a mindless addiction.
But in each of these instances, I can’t say I used those opportunities to truly be with God. The fast from Dr. Pepper was an attempt to not let my thirst for the soda master me, but I merely replaced it with something else. And when I did fast from food for the purposes of waiting on God for a decision, I can’t say that I knew how to wait on God for that thing. When I noticed hunger pains, I would throw prayers up to heaven about the decision I needed to make and would bracingly remind myself that man does not live on bread alone. But I didn’t know what it meant, as the verse suggests, to live on the words that proceed out of God’s mouth, and my prayers were more like Hail Mary passes thrown up to the ceiling than they were opportunities to converse with God, to be honest and to truly listen.
In approaching the media fast last week, Richard Foster seemed to be showing me a different way to regard the whole experience. He says in Celebration of Discipline that “more than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.” He asks us to pay attention to our response to the fast: “Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear — if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger; then we will realize that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ.”
As I read this passage, I couldn’t help but notice how easy it can be to miss the real fruit of our fasts if we focus merely on abstention from the thing committed to. If I fast from Dr. Pepper but fill up my addiction with raspberry iced tea instead, have I really learned anything about my addictive inclination? If I am hungry for food and spend the entire fast counting down the minutes until I can eat, have I really learned about my overdependence on food for sustenance and comfort?
The same could be asked of my media fast last week. When I couldn’t connect to the internet, what did I feel compelled to do instead? I found myself wanting food and phone calls: food provides comfort and distraction, and phone calls provide affirmation and connection. In the absense of e-mail, Facebook, and blog-reading, I wanted to receive comfort, distraction, affirmation, and connection in some other way. It would have been easy to turn to food and phone calls during that time and still feel proud of my ability to abstain from computer usage. But what would I have gained? I would still have filled myself with something that soothes a concern or fills a hole, instead of asking God how He can soothe that concern or fill that hole with the truth of Himself. I would not have gleaned the true fruit of the fast.
This may, in fact, be what it means to subsist on the words that proceed from God’s mouth: to bring to God my compulsions, to ask Him what they reveal about my needy, compulsive heart, and to ask Him how He fills that need by the truth of who He is and how He regards me.