Fasting for Life: Medical Proof Fasting Reduces Risk of Heart Disease, Cancer, and Diabetes - Francis E. Umesiri (2016)

Part 2. Fasting for the Whole Person

Chapter 12. FASTING FOR LIFE

I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

—PSALM 27:13, NKJV

Fasting as a religious act increases our sensitivity to that mystery always and everywhere present to us. . . . It is an invitation to awareness, a call to compassion for the needy, a cry of distress, and a song of joy. It is a discipline of self-restraint, a ritual of purification, and a sanctuary for offerings of atonement. It is a wellspring for the spiritually dry, a compass for the spiritually lost, and inner nourishment for the spiritually hungry.

—FATHER THOMAS RYAN, AUTHOR OF THE SACRED ART OF FASTING1

IT IS FASCINATING TO NOTICE A CONDITION THAT SEEMS to surround discussions of fasting, even from a scientific perspective—the topics of disease, pain, aging, and depression. In most cases, almost all studies I have referenced show that fasting has some beneficial effects. Still, fasting in and of itself does not directly cure any disease or relieve pain. However, it appears to set in motion other biological “chain reactions” that do have a positive impact on disease or pain.

Therefore, the very idea of fasting calls to mind our humanity, frailty, and mortality. As we age we grow old, develop wrinkles, contract diseases, and eventually die. We ask ourselves, “How could that happen? It seems like it was only yesterday that I looked so young, so healthy, so strong, and so invincible.” Life hurtles by so quickly. And while our bodies need food to sustain life, too often in Western cultures—and others around the world that imitate our meat-laden diets—we eat too much and too often. Suddenly that which is meant for our good becomes our undoing. Take chronic obesity, which leaves people at high risk for other chronic diseases. It seems to happen quickly, as one ailment leads to another.

Often left unsaid in the delicate situation of those struggling with overweight conditions is how many people use food to medicate themselves against pain, disappointment, or frustration. One sad event here and a dream that fell apart there can lead to binge eating as a way of escape and dealing with pain. Some habits we develop can serve to make us complacent about life, about our health, and about staying fit. We may shrug, “I’m sure there is still time to work on those. Right now I just want to get through today.” Often the pounds add up so slowly that we don’t even notice until we are carrying around forty or fifty extra pounds—or more. For many, it seems that we just wake up one day and realize how heavy we have grown. How did that happen? When did that happen?

In such a situation we can vow to shed some of that weight, only to discover the exercise and other effort involved take a lot of time. Other priorities can make it difficult to concentrate—kids that need to be taken care of, a spouse who needs time, or pressing job responsibilities (after all, that’s what puts food on the table). When life overruns us in this way, it seems others like to define us by this extra weight. Friends or family members may make snide remarks and gossip. Society as a whole seems united in its unremitting condemnation or judgment. Sometimes it’s not even so much about what is said, but about what is left unsaid. An affirmation denied, a deserved praise not given, or an earned promotion not offered. But this human framework is not our identity. “This weight isn’t me,” you say. “How can they be so mean? If only they knew my story or how hard I have fought to shed these extra pounds. If only I could go back and change a few things.”

Land of the living

This less-than-perfect reality of our daily life in community with other people represents what the psalmist called “the land of the living.” I think that phrase probably referred to the fact that we live in a defined place and time, and with specific people and circumstances. We live in a particular place, not in a vacuum. We work with colleagues at the workplace, live in a home with spouse and children, worship with others at church, and drive on the same road with other drivers. We live in the land of the living. We are here with others; we are not alone. We suffer not only by the trials and pains we endure, but also by watching and sharing in the pain of those we love.

Likewise, when we are happy, we are also not alone. We have friends and family who rejoice with us when we graduate from high school or college, when we wed, or at the birth of a new child. Even when we depart this world, we usually don’t go out alone; we have living relatives and friends who gather to send us on our journey into eternity. We quarrel and make up. We love and occasionally hate. We forgive and are forgiven. We give and receive gifts. Surely we live in the land of the living.

Still, the fact that we live in a fallen world means things can get messy. We are involved with life in all its dimensions and intricacies. The conditions of life in the place where we are may be different from conditions elsewhere. But each of us lives right here, in this place, with these people, at this point in time. We may not have chosen all the people with whom we have to live, but we still have to live a full life wherever we are located. And we can’t always control the conditions of our lives, let alone the condition of others in this place. These conditions may change very quickly too.

Take that marriage that started so romantically. You couldn’t have been surer that this was the right person for you. When you said, “Yes, I do,” you meant it with every fiber of your being and with every iota of joy. You gave it your all too—emotionally, financially, and with all your heart and body. The conditions of this place of marriage seemed so right, so pure, and so divine. Then a few years later you woke up and realized that conditions had changed. What happened? Your spouse seemed so invested and so in love; it seems like only yesterday. Today that same spouse seems so disconnected from you. You wonder: “What went wrong? Why the sudden request for a divorce? I thought I addressed those occasional complaints. I thought we were working through our differences. Just when I had mentally and spiritually surrendered myself and my future to this person, I am suddenly facing divorce. How do I get started all over again? This is so unfair.”

As unfair as it may seem, millions have lived through the gradual dissolution of the bonds of love. Those ties that birthed a marriage change to bitterness and hatred in the ensuring divorce proceedings and child custody battles. The conditions of this land of the living have changed dramatically. It can sure get messy—precisely because, among other factors, our lives and journey are intricately connected with other people living in this same place.

Alien territory

Thinking of the land of the living, I can’t help but view it as this huge, sometimes alien territory that we must navigate during our pilgrimage. We are exploring this land called life. Life itself is a journey. Think of Abraham in search of the land of Canaan and his explorations of the land when he arrived. An exploratory journey like that is packed with excitement. There is the anticipation of what lies ahead, the fulfillment of arriving at the next step in the journey, and the joy of conquering a new land. Yet it is also packed full with challenges—the unexpected, unforeseen circumstances, fear of the unknown, and the danger of arriving at a new place, fresh and vulnerable.

There is no escaping reality. We are going to have our moments of victory, joy, and celebration. We are also going to have times of challenge and testing. There are going to be seasons in life when everything seems to be working so well: the kids are doing well at school, friends recognize your work, and the family is in good health. However, everyone faces transitional seasons in life; those are the times when you haven’t quite reached your destination, but you are not in the same place either.

The “in-between” moments are tough. For example, you may have finally started that business you long dreamed about. While everything seems to have taken off, you aren’t seeing any profits either. It is one investment after another. These transitional seasons can be hard. You ask, “Should I give up the business now and start something more profitable? Or wait patiently for the investments to slowly bring in profits?” Friends and family are not always very helpful. Indeed, they can be so impatient that you become agitated.

Maybe you don’t own a business, but you have invested yourself in your kids. They were everything to you. You worked hard, and saved a lot, and all for their sake. You were glad to do it. Not only was it worth every penny, you would also do it over again in a heartbeat. But now they are grown up and about to leave home. You woke up one day and realized that you have not really planned for this day. You gave up your life for their good, but now you have to learn to live again. You have to find a new hobby or a new cause in which to invest. You haven’t quite finished working on your new self, but you are no longer the old you. You have derived joy and significance in being a mom or a dad. But now, you ask, “What am I?”

Sometimes we arrive at the end of the journey and find that the destination isn’t what it was cracked up to be. We have worked so hard to get here, but feel so empty or numb. This graduate degree represented a lifelong goal; now that you have it, it doesn’t seem to make much of a lasting difference. Or, as many seniors do, you think about giving your all for so many years and accomplishing so much and changing so many lives while serving God and humanity. Yet you wind up seemingly forgotten, ignored, or wracked with disease. It doesn’t seem fair. Young people carry on as though you haven’t been around that long or don’t know that much. Your wisdom seems to be ignored. Your heart is filled with memories and maybe even new dreams, but your body doesn’t seem to be able to support active pursuits. All this shows that life’s journey is filled with thorns as well as thrills.

The life we have.

Still, this is the life we are given, one that is fraught with uncertainty and often disappointing or disillusioning realities. No wonder David wrote: “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13, NKJV). Living in this land requires bravery. We can’t lose heart and chicken out. We must live right here, right now, in this place and time, and with all the people with whom we explore this land. We set out exploring this land each day, believing that we will see God’s goodness. After all, we don’t refuse to take vacations because we may encounter the unknown, or because of the possibility that the visit may turn out not to be as magnificent as we had imagined.

Meditate on this truth: God brought you to this place. He has allowed us to be where we are, with these people. Consequently we must take life by the horns and get about the business of living. We have to believe that there is goodness to be experienced, even in our location. In every season of life we must believe that we can see God’s goodness. That is true whether you find yourself in a season of blessing and increase, or in a transitional time when you may question your self-worth, or when you reach the likely end of life and stare eternity in the eye. This land of the living is God’s gift to us. Accept it and live intensely and enthusiastically, fully present to God and what He is doing in every corner, wherever you turn.

If you have suffered divorce or the anguish of death, don’t refuse to love again because of the fear of pain and disappointment. Instead, invest yourself into the love moments God has given you today. We must all live life to the full, because tomorrow will take care of itself. We hope for His goodness in this new land of love. We can’t refuse to have children for fear of how they may turn out tomorrow. After all, none of us can control tomorrow, a fact expressed succinctly by James: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into this city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit,’ whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow” (James 4:13–14, MEV). Still, we can give our children (or grandchildren) all our love and blessing today and trust God to see the goodness of the Lord in their lives tomorrow. I like the way author and publisher William Feather (1889–1981) put it: “One way to get the most out of life is to look upon it as an adventure.”2

In speaking about the “goodness of the Lord,” David alludes to the fact that there is another sphere of reality that impacts our physical world; namely, that the spiritual life is every bit as important as our physical life. When we appreciate the spiritual dimension of life, God becomes more than a vague, distant concept. When we see Him as a very real person, we take God seriously. David seems to suggest that God is ultimately in control. Some of the trials and circumstances along our path through life may seem thoroughly out of control, but David seemed to believe that God’s sovereignty ultimately guided him.

And why not? After all, God knows this land of the living more intimately than any of us. He knew every inch of the land and the conditions of this place long before we arrived. Perhaps He knows something about the “place” that we don’t know yet—that we can make it. There may be resources available in this location that we can’t imagine exist. Still, He knows. Perhaps there are other people whom He has prepared to come alongside us in the new land. How will we find out unless we get there and live the life He chooses for us to live? This is one of the reasons fasting has been practiced for generations. People attuned to spiritual realities seek to condition their bodies and humanity to listen less to self and more to God. He knows what we need and where we are heading. In the place of fasting we quiet down enough to listen to the One with the navigational controls—a kind of celestial GPS.

An activating source

Finally the land of the living implies that “life is the country that Christians live in,” as noted author Eugene Peterson puts it.3 Life: that spiritual quality that makes us human. That hard-to-explain, vital force that keeps us alive, growing, thriving, and exploring this country. Life is that divine ingredient within that endows us with inner strength, hopefulness even in the midst of possible gloom, a sense of wonder, a sense of thankfulness for being human, and a largeness of being that is freeing and exhilarating.

Life is that activating force that wakes us up in the morning, puts a spring into our steps, a song in our hearts, and tears of joy in our eyes. Life is that daily, all-encompassing invitation to embrace not only all that we are, but also all that God is to us. After all, life was God’s very first gift to humans at the beginning of time—the first “breath of life,” which He breathed into our human progenitor. Life is the vast country we have been called to explore, to enjoy, and to cultivate. Life is that which gives meaning and significance to our “daily-ness” and our ordinariness.

Life is what puts enduring joy and hope within the soul of a woman in labor, a smile on the face of a sacrificing father, and peace for the student toiling through one homework assignment after another. We live our ordinary lives in this land of the living, made worthwhile and livable by that God-given quality called life. When life leaks out of us, then living in this land of the living becomes a chore, a misery, and a struggle. When that happens, we are left with nothing but emptiness and nothingness. When life leaks out, then the daily routines become dreadful and dreaded. Minor irritations take on oversized proportions of pain and anguish. Careless offense and omission by loved ones become life-scarring, unforgivable moments.

Solomon, the wise preacher, described this sad state in this proverb: “A merry heart does good like a medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones” (Prov. 17:22, MEV). Dry bones are deadly. The bone marrow is where the body regenerates white and red blood cells. It is safe to say that life-regenerating stem cells are also located in the bone marrow. However, this treasure of life within us is clothed with an earthen vessel. Life itself is good and complete, but the vessel in which it is contained isn’t leak-proof. The vessel gets old and worn. Over time it develops minor cracks here and there, which are not quickly mended.

These cracks aren’t always physical. There are those caused by heartaches, disappointments, loss of loved ones, requests denied, love unrequited, wayward children, and unpleasant or traumatic encounters. There also is the unbridled consumption of food and toxins, substances that damage our vessel. When left unfixed, each crack becomes another minor life-leaking point. Over time these leaking points accumulate and become significant. Sometimes these cracks develop from weariness amid everyday routines. Stay-at-home mothers become worn out, feeling unappreciated and resentful. A teacher becomes disillusioned after years of painful sacrifices that seem to go unnoticed and uncelebrated. A faithful worker becomes embittered after years of being passed over for promotions. A caring pastor becomes cynical after years of indifference (or even betrayal) from parishioners.

Here is the danger: the mom still goes about her duties every day, the teacher still teaches, that worker is still at work as usual, and the pastor is still at church preaching, teaching, and counseling. Yet life has leaked out of their being and therefore out of their service. While schooling, serving, worshipping, eating, and writing go on, they no longer take place in the land of the living.

The value of fasting

Fasting helps us seal these leaks and recover life. Fasting creates a condition in which we are most sensitive to spiritually addressing those life-leaking events that are characterized by pain, scars, disappointment, or excessive toxins. In fasting the spirit gets renewed. So does the physical body. This is why fasting has long been a powerful spiritual discipline practiced by everyone from ancient Jews to early church fathers to current Christians worldwide.

While fasting does not erase life-leaking events, it helps in the spiritual process of sealing them and restoring our inner strength and vitality so we can keep going.

Scientists have proven that fasting can help the physical body to renew and refresh, as I reviewed in the first part of this book. So, imagine the effects fasting can provide for the inner life and the spirit and soul. For the remainder of this book, I will focus on the whole person—especially the role fasting plays on inner wholeness and peace. I’m sure you would agree you want a healthy body. Yet you also should desire wellness in your inner being, which includes peace within and spiritual wholeness. Continue to the next chapter for my discussion of the role of fasting in spiritual renewal.