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Results are not the point

This is an excerpt from a Christianity Today editorial about the fasting movement:

Results are not the point

The tremendous numerical success of the current fasting movement warrants a careful look (see "Hungry for God," page 32). Though there is much self-sacrifice to be admired and emulated, there are nevertheless some troubling factors—the first of which is a strong, goal-oriented ethos.

One of the most popular books in this current fasting movement asserts boldly that "to fast properly" is "to fast for results." Most of these books pass along a number of motivational anecdotes of those who fasted to achieve some goal: a desired job, conquest over a phobia, raising of funds to pay off a ministry debt. But while the authors of these popular books also offer safeguarding statements about God's sovereignty and warnings against trying to manipulate God, the balance of their writings is clearly more oriented toward seeking results than in simply deepening our relationship with God.

By contrast, the Quaker theologian Richard Foster and the Calvinistic Baptist John Piper offer strong cautions against this instrumentalist approach. Writes Foster in his classic, Celebration of Discipline: "At times there is such stress upon 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 hand.

"Fasting must forever center on God. It must be God-initiated and God-ordained."

In A Hunger for God, Piper likewise decries "the horrible horizontalizing of holy things" and says that in his teaching on fasting, "Jesus is calling for a radical orientation on God himself. He is pushing us to have a real, utterly authentic, personal relationship with God."

Modernity is quick to ask us to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of everything we do. But the spiritual life offers us no calculus by which to determine effectiveness or success. It only offers us relationships: both with our Creator and with our fellow creatures. And relationships do not submit to quantification.

Fasting is a symbolic act, not a logical act. Like the mysteries of baptism and the Lord's Supper, the symbolism of fasting can be destroyed by too-rigid analysis or elevated into idolatry. The meaning of fasting is simply our hunger for God and for God's righteousness expressed with abandon, specifically with the abandonment of normal good things as we pursue the one who pursues us. But like all symbols, its meaning can only be grasped as we live through it.

David Wanstall, 29/01/2008