Jonah Project 36

Jonah 3:7

This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink . . .”

In a feel good culture, people tend to avoid fasting, because fasting does not feel good. At least at first. Why deprive myself of food or drink or sleep or sex or pleasure or material goods or anything that will increase my good feelings? It goes against the grain. It doesn’t make sense. Until you fast. 
When we fast, we begin to realize how dependent we are on mere morality. Put temporal stuff such as good feelings at the center and see what happens. W. B. Yeats tells us what happens in his poem, The Second Coming (Slouching Towards Bethlehem):

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

When the center is made of mere morality, it cannot hold us. Whatever we put at the center of our lives is what we worship. Fasting unveils the center. When the center of our life is weak, it cannot hold, as ancient Nineveh found out in 612 BC, the year Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire was sacked, destroyed and never to be rebuilt. 150 years earlier, Jonah came to town with a message of doom. As we’ve heard, the people of Nineveh, from least to greatest, took this message to heart. They immediately began practicing one of the oldest spiritual disciplines on planet earth, the discipline of fasting, practiced by every major religion around the world.

Amazingly, in the Book of Jonah, we hear that even the King gets into the act, making a royal proclamation that everyone and every animal was to fast from food and drink. Such an event just wouldn’t go over very well in the United States today. Imagine our president calling our nation to fast by presidential proclamation. How many would take this seriously? Let’s really stretch our imagination, and consider that the president had gotten wide bipartisan support for such a proclamation, with both the Senate and the House unanimously agreeing to this decree. Would the American public begin fasting? I think not. 
Most of us do not like being told what to do or what not to do, especially when it comes to basics such as eating and drinking. We are individualists and can make up our own mind about what is central to our lives. Thank you very much Mr. President and Congress, but let’s keep your political decrees and all government out of our kitchens and dining rooms.  

That is what is so amazing about what took place in Nineveh in the time of Jonah. The people listened to the king’s decree. Everyone fasted. Everyone gave up eating. Everyone gave up drinking. In essence, the people said, “what the king has decreed is more important than life itself.” Without food and drink, we die.

Another King, more recently than the king of Assyria, also made a wise proclamation about fasting: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:16-18).”

According to Jesus, fasting was not optional, but an assumed regular human practice, along with prayer and sacrificial giving. By this regular path toward God, we keep turning away from what is shallow, superficial, empty and ultimately non-fulfilling. By the discipline of fasting, we see what counterfeit gods we’ve moved to the center of our lives, and once again, make space for God to truly be our Center. By the way, the phrase, “counterfeit gods” comes from an excellent book by Timothy Keller, titled, Counterfeit Gods:The Empty Promises of Money, Sex and Power and the Only Hope that Matters (Riverhead,2009).  

When we fast, we discover a new Center by living out the good instructions of our wise King of kings, removing the little gods of pleasure, position, power, passion, politics, perfectionism, and a whole host of other idols. We begin to make room within our hearts for eternity, allowing God’s love to move into the middle, a Center which truly will hold our lives together when “things fall apart.”

Photo by Thomas Robinson, Hawk in flight over Yosemite National Park.