In every society, people have blind spots. They become so immersed in their culture that they can't see what is painstakingly obvious to others. Such was the case a few years ago when some brothers from the Zambian International Theological College came to West Virginia.
After visiting with believers in several African nations, I wanted to give them the opportunity to visit us. Our church raised the money to bring a few to a statewide conference.
When they arrived, we wanted to give our guests the best we had to offer. A few families hosted them; everyone made sure they didn't miss a meal.
Two weeks into their visit, a pastor said quietly, "I have a question for you. It seems as though in America every meal is a feast. You people don't eat, you feast. I have never seen so much food."
Ouch. I thought these gentlemen would enjoy the opportunity to sample America's varieties and quantities of foods. After all, it was only for a few weeks.
Surprisingly, though, it wasn't our gluttonous practices that bothered the pastor most deeply. His next question socked me between the spiritual eyes: "We've been here two weeks and we eat three or four times every day. When do you take the time to fast?"
He didn't have to say another word. I had to admit that we Americans don't fast much. I wasn't aware of one church in West Virginia that fasted regularly.
Ironically, the lack of discipline to fast and pray doesn't square with the scriptural record. Consider a few verses from Matthew 6:
"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others" (verse 5).
"But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen" (verse 6).
"But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face" (verse 17).
Jesus never said "if" you fast or "if" you pray. He assumed His followers would do both. Every church prays during their worship services and they usually take an offering. But what happened to fasting?
One cannot help connecting the spiritual dots between our national obsession with food and a lack of fasting. Food has such a stronghold on the American church that even its leaders don't abstain for spiritual reasons.
Fasting is God's way of transforming us. Much like prayer, it's a mechanism God uses to change us into who He wants us to be. He doesn't ask us to fast for only His sake, but ours as well.
"There's really no way to describe it," said a pastor from our church who followed a fruit-and-vegetable diet for three weeks. "We thought better, prayed better and ate better, but most importantly we learned to discipline ourselves in the area of food."
This experience is not unique. Fasting can bring mental and spiritual peace while making us aware of the symbiotic relationship between mind, body and spirit.
There is no easy three-step plan to follow. Yet just skipping one meal and devoting that time to prayer can give you an idea of the benefits. I am convinced America's Christians will achieve closer connections to God when they aren't so stuffed with food.
Steve Willis is the lead pastor of First Baptist Church of Kenova and the author of "Winning the Food Fight," to be released in January 2012 by Regal Books. For Baptist Press stories on Willis and First Baptist Kenova's experience on the 2010 ABC mini-series "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," go to http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=32746 and http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=32563.
Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net