When my brother was younger, I found him sticking a paperclip into a outlet. I knocked it out his hand.
“Sam, are you crazy!?”
“What? I just wanted to see what would happen.”
Later that year–unbeknownst to Sam–I was doing my own experiment with my ceiling fan and electrocuted myself. It scared the mess out of me. I was twelve.
In the eighties, when VHS tapes cost about $100 each, my dad started a business where he partnered with local grocery stores to rent them out for him. It was risky, VCRs were pretty new. these were Pre-Blockbuster days. The business folded. The Blockbuster model ended up winning–for a couple decades, anyway.
I think there’s something about experimenting that runs in my family. And most experiments, I can tell you, involve some kind of pain. This, I believe, is why saner people tend not to like to be on the front end of all that.
But I’ve recently done a few new experiments that I think you can get behind. I’ve been experimenting on different kinds of fasts, and what I’ve found is some are better than others.
3 Months of Fasting
Fasting has physical benefits. And some people do it for just that. But it’s also a spiritual discipline.
The spiritual value of fasting is that it helps us refocus from what we feel like what we need to what we really do need. When the devil tempted Jesus with food during His own fast, Jesus responded: life is more than food. Food is important, for sure, but it doesn’t affect our relationship with God. In other words, it’s important, but it’s not the most important.
Fast No. 1: Eating
This is the fast in the Bible. And because of that a lot of people think of it as the fast. But think about it for a minute. What else did they have to give up? What other staple of life was there, beyond food? Not much. And so fasting from food was kind of the thing.
And fasting from food still has its place in the modern world of fasting.
Here’s how your stomach works: you start to feel hunger before you need food. It’s like muscle-memory. This isn’t a bad thing. It helps your digestion stay consistent. But what it means is that your hunger pangs (assuming you’re not actually starving) are a function of habit.
There are two phases to a short (24-48hr) fast. The first part is getting past those automatic I’m hungry feelings. For me this takes about 8-12. During that time, I have to keep reminding myself: this is normal, I’m not really hungry, just stay focused.
The second (and easier) part is pressing through to the end. It’s easier to go without food once you’ve been doing for a little bit. But it’s hard (for me) to keep it to the very end. I tend to make up reasons and weird logic for why I don’t need to go to the set time.
And really, there’s nothing magical about 24 instead of 23 hours. What’s important is that it’s a discipline. You are purposely going without for an important reason.
So, what is that reason? Why do a fast at all?
In the first century, when Paul and Barnabas were setting up the new churches to function without supervision, they prayed and fasted about who to put in leadership.
A fast is about focusing (and re-focusing). It is about choosing to focus on God in the midst of other very real concerns. Going without food (a real concern) is one way to do this.
And, when you do this something strange happens.
In the midst of trying hard to focus, your focus becomes crystal clear. Your resolve seems to shift into an all-or-nothing mode. Ideas and prayers you’re wrestling with become clear. And this is why fasting from food is a spiritual discipline.
Because food is an absolute requirement for life, this kind of fasting will always have the potential to bring our focus back to our Creator.
But it’s not the only kind of fast.
Fast No. 2: Social Media
Don’t laugh. It’s real.
A food fast lasts for a day or two or three. But this kind of fast is entirely different. A fast of something like social media is less intense, but it lasts for a lot longer than a food fast. I did mine for a full month. And that brings with it a new dimension.
My reason for doing this was because whenever I find myself standing in a line, sitting down, waking up in the morning, or whatever, I’m always doing the same thing: checking my phone. And specifically, I’m checking the same social media sites.
For me, the problem was busyness. And fasting from social media helped that.
It’s a lot harder to pray in the mornings when my mind is already moving to what I need to do after that. Solitude and silence are their own spiritual disciplines. And if you find it exceptionally hard to focus on things like prayer, then you might have the same problem I do: too many inputs.
I cut out a bunch of noise when I stopped social media for a month. Here are three things I learned from that:
Life is just as good. I stopped cold-turkey–didn’t tell anyone. And I kept all my friends, real and digital. It was a whole lot less traumatic than I thought it would be.
It took about two weeks to break the habit of pulling out my phone. By week three I was getting the hang of it. And by week four I didn’t have much desire to go back. In its place, I was much more aware of the world around me.
I use social media less now. That was several months ago. I don’t make any effort to avoid social media now, but those 30 days without it helped my brain realize it’s just not that important. I still like the sentimental parts. And so I check in for that. But most of it’s just noise, and we (me and my brain) are better off without more noise in our life.
Less noise means more focus. When I have my prayer time in the morning, I focus quicker and it’s easier to stay focused. When my kids want to show me a silly face, I’m not distracted or annoyed, I just laugh. I’m more connected to my world, and that’s better.
Fast No. 3: Cold Showers
I’ve saved the worst for last.
This, I will tell you, is the only fast that’s actually become addictive. Here’s what I mean.
I’m a lover of the hot shower. It’s where I do some of my best thinking. And I haven’t done away with that. I’ve just started turning off the hot for the last minute or two.
Before you think that’s cheating, try it. It’s atrocious. At least to start with.
The key, I’ve learned, is to make it past 20 seconds. After that it gets much better. The first time I tried it, it was all I could do to stay under the freezing water for 5 seconds. But after a few days, I made it up to 20 seconds, and then 30, and inside of a week, I was at a minute.
So, why does this count as a fast? Because it meets the two part criteria: giving up something you really want (the comfort of hot water, in this case), in a way that allows you to re-focus on God.
That last part–using a cold shower to refocus on God–is about as intuitive as is giving up food to focus on God. But it works (albeit, for different reasons).
The shock of the cold water releases endorphins into your system. As a result, when I’m done, I don’t feel like stepping out–I feel like jumping out.
I did some researching (read: a google search), and learned (found an article that claims) that not only do cold showers make you feel better, but they burn fat and increase your immune system and circulation. No promise there. But I can tell you, if feeling is anything, then cold showers are one of the best things you can do for your day.
Here’s the spiritual part:
I was (again) having one of those arguments in my head (which, for the record, I was winning). Throughout my hot shower, I kept getting deeper in to it. Then, like I’ve started doing, I turned the shower to all-cold. I took big, deep breathes. My mind lit up with endorphins. And that argument, whatever it was about, was not only less important, but no longer interesting. I dropped it–which is what I really want to do the whole time. And my mind was peaceful.
Often times I get stuck like this. I get stuck on something negative, and even though I want to stop diving in to it, I keep coming back to it. Cold showers are like a jolt that give me the extra help I need.
For me, cold showers have become a part of my daily routine. What started as a fast is no longer that. Now, most days when I turn on the cold, it immediately feels right.
Some people don’t think fasts from social media or hot water count. They’re not real fasts. And, in my case, the hot water one turned from a fast to a routine (no longer a fast). But the point is not to twiddle out what is and isn’t technically a fast.
The point is to think less of yourself so that you think more of God. That’s the spiritual component. Each of these fasts vary in length and specific purpose. But in the end, they’re all moving you in the same direction, and that’s what matters.
One More Thing
Jesus said, when you fast, don’t make a big deal about it. Some people turn that into a vow of silence. That’s not what He meant. It doesn’t matter if you’re the sole person on earth who knows your fasting. What does matter is that you don’t turn it into a holy-show about how great you are. In the end, a fast does the opposite: it convince you more of how great God is.
Are you experimenting with a new kind of fast? Or thinking about starting one? Tell me how it went, or what you’re struggling with. These things are always better with friends.