Some have their fifteen minutes of fame. Henry Tanner had his forty days.
In the summer of 1880, the Minneapolis homeopath shocked the medical establishment by fasting on stage in Manhattan, under round-the-clock supervision. Tanner had something to prove, as journalist Steve Hendricks tells the story in his recent book The Oldest Cure in the World. Tanner believed in the “restorative biochemistry” of fasting — that going without food for extended periods could be “regenerative” or even “curative.” By depriving the system of food, and relieving the burden of digestion, the human body could turn its energy elsewhere. Give the gut a break for days, even weeks, and the body could “cure itself” from a number of conditions.
For Tanner, this was no mere theory. He claimed to have fasted for forty-two days in 1879 and been healed of several ailments. When his report was doubted, he offered to go forty days again, the following year, this time under full surveillance.
So, for forty days, Tanner ate no food and drank only water. Doctors claimed he would die in ten or twelve days. From Day 6 to 40, the New York Times and other major outlets reported on Tanner’s progress. In the end, Tanner succeeded both in accomplishing the feat and playing well to the crowds who came daily to the theater.
Thanks to a Little Fast
Fasting as a cure for disease has a long and varied history, though often at the civilizational margins. Hendricks writes,
Skip dinner tonight, and by the time you rise tomorrow, your body will have spent a few hours making the most intricate fixes to cellular components that were damaged during the day, and it will have recycled other parts too far gone to be fixed. Defects that might have turned into cancer or a stroke will have now, thanks to a little deprivation, been refashioned to yield a healthier cell. These processes occur in us every day when our only fast is from the midnight snack to breakfast at dawn, but they’re accelerated enormously when we extend the nightly fast, and fasting for multiple days supercharges them. (30)
Who knew that giving our stomachs a break might actually do our bodies some good?
Yet in our age of abundance, even decadence, such claims can be unnerving to consider. Very likely, this was not your mother’s counsel. Have we long assumed not eating to be the path to sickness and disease, while slowly eating ourselves to death?
Eat God’s World
God made us to eat. And he created a wonderfully edible world.
The opening chapters of Genesis tell us that God made trees “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9), and he designed us to eat his world, both plants and animals (Genesis 1:29; 9:3). For millennia, humans did just that, until God led a special people out from Egyptian slavery and assigned them various dietary restrictions. From Moses until Jesus, under the terms of the old covenant, God taught his people — and the nations, through them — of their sin and need for him, and anticipated the coming of his Son.
With the coming of Christ came the fulfilling of the old covenant, bringing it to its appointed consummation. Jesus inaugurated a new covenant, for people from every nation. In the course of his ministry, Jesus “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19; also Romans 14:20), and yet his own approach to food was not simplistic, but varied and flexible — marked by the kind of resilience we might expect the “fearfully and wonderfully made” human body to be capable of (Psalm 139:14).
When You Feast
Some of us might be surprised to learn that Jesus feasted. But he was, after all, a first-century Jew. The nation’s collective life turned on annual feasts — and three in particular, which the Gospel of John mentions Jesus participating in (John 2:23; 7:2; 10:22; 13:1). Jesus attended nonnational feasts as well, like Levi’s “great feast” (Luke 5:29) and the famous wedding feast at Cana (John 2:8–9), where he blessed and enhanced the feast by turning water to wine. In his parables, Jesus compared his kingdom to such feasts (Matthew 22:2–9; 25:10; Luke 12:36). Unlike his cousin John, who was known for abstaining, Jesus came “eating and drinking,” and was slandered as “a glutton and a drunkard” (Luke 7:34).
Significantly, in Luke 14:13–14, Jesus assumes his followers will celebrate occasions of feasting: “When you give a feast,” he says — not if, but when — “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” So too Christ’s apostles, without commanding any particular Christian feasts (Romans 14:4–6), assumed that Christians would, at times, feast (2 Peter 2:13; Jude 12). Feasting, in gratitude to our God and with delight in him, honors him as the all-sufficient Giver. We rejoice in him in and through the joy of food and drink, with friends and family.
Yet in all that commendation of feasting, those of us today, living in the breadbasket of modern abundance, will do well to hear the implicit warning our Lord leaves in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. He introduces the rich man, who we learn now to be in torment in Hades, as one “who feasted sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:19). The caution for us, among other aspects of the parable, is feasting every day — a temptation all too real in the modern world.
When You Fast
Of course, Jesus assumes not only that we will feast, but also that we will fast. In Matthew 6:16–17, he says to his disciples, “when you fast,” not if. And without explicitly commanding his followers to fast on specific occasions, he promises, in Matthew 9:15, “they will fast.” (We see the promise play out in Acts 13:2–3 and 14:23, when the early church, with her groom away, takes up the old practice now made new.)
As a Jew, Jesus himself observed the annual fast, that is, the Day of Atonement, with the whole nation. We might assume he also fasted on other spontaneous occasions, as modeled in the Old Testament. Most notably, Jesus fasted forty days in the wilderness, in preparation for his public ministry (Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:2). Significantly, the Gospels only mention his hunger and him not eating. Unlike the miraculous fast of Moses at Sinai (Exodus 34:28), no mention is made of Jesus going without water. Which likely means this was a natural, fully human fast — one like Henry Tanner would demonstrate humanity capable of.
God designed our bodies not only for food — to eat and enjoy his world — but also to be able to go long periods of time, longer than most of us are comfortable thinking about, in fasting. Fasting accompanies heartfelt prayer in expressing special longing for some particular divine provision or help, and going without such a basic comfort of daily life highlights God’s value beyond his blessings and focuses our affections afresh on him.
As with feasting, Jesus both models and commends fasting, and leaves us a caution. In the parable of the Pharisee and publican, he takes aim at “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). Among other boasts, the Pharisee declares, “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12). The publican, on the other hand, acknowledges himself a sinner and begs God for mercy. Jesus then comments, hauntingly, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (Luke 18:14).
Jesus’s warning, reminiscent of the condemnations in Isaiah 58, reminds us that the act of fasting can be hollowed of its God-honoring meaning and made into an effort to twist his arm. Similarly, we find in the letters of Paul a handful of warnings against the misuse of fasting (Romans 14:3, 6; 1 Timothy 4:3; Colossians 2:16).
Whether You Eat, Fast, or Feast
While Jesus commends (and cautions) both feasting and fasting — and assumes his followers will do both — his model prayer for his disciples brings everyday moderation to the fore: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11).
Far and away, most days are daily-bread days. They are occasions neither for feasting nor fasting, given neither to indulgence nor abstaining, but rather devoted to a virtue that can be one of the hardest of all in times of plenty and lack: self-control. The Christian’s day-in, day-out relationship to food is one we navigate in the fuzzy, though real, bounds of moderation, in between the punctuations of fasting and feasting. That is, we receive God’s regular provision of food with enjoyment, marked by thanksgiving and self-control (1 Timothy 4:4–5).
Many of us today neither feast well, nor fast at all. Oh, we feast. We live with such abundance, much of it edible, that we can hardly keep from daily overindulgence, without pushing against the grain of our society. We feast often, and without even recognizing it. What used to be feasting is now just the “standard American diet” (SAD). Without some countercultural moxie, many find themselves drifting toward obesity unawares.
But if our assumptions and habits have conditioned us one way, then we do have hope for training our stomachs differently.
Train for ‘Metabolic Flexibility’
Here we again accent the amazing biology of the human body. Our bodies can be far more resilient than we’ve learned to expect, and with some thoughtful conditioning they can become even more so, ready to flex for both fasting and feasting, to both enjoy occasions of abundance and endure times of famine. We can train ourselves to go longer without food than we’re prone to think. As Jay Richards writes in Eat, Fast, Feast, “God fitted the human form to thrive in a host of different ecosystems and diets, as we would expect of a Creator who called us to multiply and fill the whole earth” (11).
Richards advocates what he calls a “fasting lifestyle” in which we condition ourselves, over time, to be “metabolically flexible.” With less thoughtless everyday feasting, and more regular fasts (beginning with a meal, then two, then working up to a few days), many of us (some medical conditions notwithstanding) can train our stomachs, and souls, to be like the apostle who testified,
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11–13)
Christians in general, and perhaps Protestants in particular, haven’t always excelled at such learning — which is not simply a learning of the mind but of the body. In our good and right emphasis on God’s astounding grace in Christ, have we undersold the astounding abilities of the God-designed human body? And have we failed to put our metabolic flexibility to spiritual use, through Christian fasting, not just intermittent fasting for bodily health?
Every Meal Holy
How fitting that Paul’s penetrating charge to consecrate our every action to God’s glory mentions such trivial (and massive) realities as eating and drinking: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). And not just to the God of monotheism, but the Christ of Christianity: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
In the end, we may discover all sorts of human wisdom in countercultural daily moderation, flanked by a learned metabolic flexibility primed for occasional feasts and fasts. Such seems far more enduringly human than our modern context of excess and overreaction. But as Christians, our goal isn’t merely to be more human looking backward (to Eden). We long to be more human looking upward, to the God-man, now risen and glorified, seated at his Father’s right hand. And we look forward, beyond the final conquest of sin and the curse, to the city that is to come, where we will, at last, fully enjoy God in the unencumbered humanity we were destined for. “The Lord Jesus Christ . . . will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20–21).
We pray, with Jesus, for the daily bread of moderation. We hear his commendation, and see his example, of occasional feasting and fasting, and consider their God-glorifying potential. We hear his cautions about everyday feasting and about pharisaical fasting. And we again consecrate ourselves, and our stomachs, to him, “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” the one who strengthens us.
This content was originally published here.