Celebrating The Spirit Of The Disciplines
Of the two books, "Celebration of Discipline" by Richard Foster and "Spirit of the Disciplines" by Dallas Willard, I like Foster's better. But they complement each other well. Willard is more systematic--why and what; Foster is more procedural--how. My favorite chapter is Foster's on Worship--easily worth the price of the book.
I do think, however useful these books are, actual discipleship is key. Fasting can be addictive since it is a natural high, as many a dieter has inadvertently found out. Thus, some "discover" fasting and binge on it, thinking the Spirit is leading them when they have actually become addicted to the chemical reactions that occur when fasting. This can be a nasty problem to recognize, since those so afflicted blame their activities on God's leading. Anorexia, for example, is now thought to be a denial of an addiction to fasting. We could go on with other examples of how treacherous the disciplines can be in practice, but you get the point. Being around spiritual mentors who know how is invaluable.
The best place for practicing such spiritual disciplines is not in a monastery but in the real life crucible of faith, with the dynamic of the body of Christ in full swing. It is not a matter of eating or drinking, after all. These are only means to an end. And that end is full union with Christ and consummation of joy with His elect.
Advice and Commentary on Fasting
On practical issues, fasting is normally only hard for about a day, which is why the Pharisees were boasting that they only did it one day a week (how macho of them, all cost and no benefit). After a day--for some, just overnight, for others (usually overweight) up to two days--the strong hunger pangs go away. Fasting can be a lot of fun, and the heightened state of consciousness that results can be addictive; so be careful not to fall in love with it like many mystics have.
The main problem and misunderstanding people have about fasting is caffeine withdrawal headaches which get miss-associated. Our advice, stop imbibing caffeine at least a week before the fast, so that you understand where the headaches are coming from. Caffeine is a drug that addicts mainly by pain, rather than pleasure: it offers little "high" but will kick you in the head if you dare abstain, even for a day. Better just get it over with and stay off it (1Co 6:12, 2Pe 2:19) long term, in our opinion. Minus withdrawal from caffeine addiction, fasting is rather easy and enjoyable after the first day of intense temptation to eat. If you fail to discern between the two, you will get little out of fasting except a massive headache.
If you need to do physical labor or have more energy than a normal "water only fast" would give you, consider a fruit juice fast. This is mainly a fast from chewing. Select fasts like this can be more difficult than going "cold turkey" oftentimes, as you don't get the "fast high" that is the reward after a single day, and it is often harder to do things like this in measure than as a whole. Personally, I can water-only-fast for three to 6 days with no discernable effect on my work, but I am not a physical laborer. The longest I have ever fasted is for two weeks, and the reason I broke the fast is that I was walking along a field and amazed that I could perceive every single blade of grass simultaneously (or so it seemed) and could feel every muscle in my body move as I walked. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I could do a flip; something I have never done before, even on a diving board or trampoline. It was then that I realized I was a bit too "high", and that I was indulging myself and putting myself in danger. So I ate. When you break a fast like this, it is not a lust for food--as some imagine--that drives you, but a difficult decision and not done with much gusto. Eating food after a long fast is like entering a fog that comes over your mind, where afterwards you feel like you are running (mentally, spiritually) at 30% of what you were before. If in fact, you do get "hungry" again during a long fast, as Jesus did after 40 days, it means you must eat very quickly for you are about to die.
Thus, fasting has the benefit of learning to deny the flesh in the first day or so, but also is a natural means to gain spiritual or mental acuity to search out the Lord or His way. Just don't mix it up with a massive headache from caffeine withdrawal and you will quickly see its benefits for focusing thought and prayer.
How Not To Fast...
Many people mistakenly perceive fasting as a way of blackmailing God, as a sort of spiritual "hunger strike" to force God into action. This is misguided and wrong. We fast to gain skill at subduing the flesh in safety (as noted in the Bible Study), and also to allow more time and energy for seeking the Lord.
Extra Stuff on Meditation
It is impossible to not meditate. The mind can't not think, it cannot be stopped. Thus, the bible does not tell us to "meditate" as the eastern mystics do, as God knows we constantly meditate. The idea of eastern meditation is to make the insane attempt to empty the mind; which is a dangerous, occult practice that can lead to demonic access. The bible never instruct us to "meditate" on nothing, or in some esoteric or twisted fashion. Rather, we are told what to meditate on, since we are always meditating. Get it? Your mind is like a TV you can't turn off, so pick your channels wisely.
Ps 77:12 (NIV) I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.Either this, or let your thought wander into mental sexual sin or bitterness or hatred, etc. Sow to the flesh, or the Spirit.
For more on this, see the Bible Study on Repentance, if you have not already. It deals with the ongoing practice of meditative repentance in the way of "what we are looking at".
During fasting, mediation has greater yield. A simple analogy is that with the digestive system shut down (and with it, most physical activity) there is more energy to focus, analyze, perceive, concentrate, etc. Just make sure you are not staring at your navel, but at the glorious things of God.
Luke 9:23-24 (NIV) Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it."
Luke 1:24 (NIV) ...Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.
Ps 104:34 (NIV) May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the Lord.
Ps 1:2 (NIV) But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
Rom 12:12 (NIV) Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
Dan 1:12 (NIV) "Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink."
Neh 1:4 (NIV) When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
Acts 16:25 (Jer) Late that night Paul and Silas were praying and singing God's praises, while the other prisoners listened.
1 Cor 9:24 (Jer) All the runners at the stadium are trying to win, but only one of them gets the prize. You must run in the same way, meaning to win.
Rom 6:13 (Phi) ...like men rescued from certain death, put yourself in God's hands as weapons of good for his own purposes.
Disciplines Bible Study