Monday, April 25, 2011

Awakening: a fresh approach to fasting?

Awakening: A New Approach to Faith, Fasting, and Spiritual Freedom
Stovall Weems

What makes fasting easier? How can you make fasting more effective? Is it necessary?
Stovall Weems provides a pattern for bringing people into the discipline of fasting without making it a burden. He also proposes that following a fast can be effective in producing spiritual awakening. And he stresses the necessity of it if you desire a fresher, more passionate relationship with God.

Awakening has two parts. The first two thirds of the book is the foundational teaching regarding Weems’ approach to fasting. The last one thirds of the book sets out a pattern for implementing fasting into your life.

Early in the book, Weems makes a decent argument for the need of believers to re-emphasize prayer and fasting in our lives. He also makes a passing mention of the role of giving. And he is right on. Believers in the current generations of the church have left the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving to the “holier” people. These disciplines are regarded as special (excluding commuter prayer practice) and not attainable by “normal” people. I believe that Weems makes the point very well that everyone can approach these means of spiritual enrichment.

But beyond agreeing on the necessity, I struggled with how Weems supports his argument. I will say that I believe he is right on target regarding the need of fasting and the role of fasting in spiritual awakening. But I found his supporting argument filled with contradictory points.

Early on he refers to the community of faith he belonged to and spoke the legalistic, “our way is the right way”, approach they took (pg.31). He denounces this performance centric type of faith development. But at other points in the book, he makes his own pattern very performance centric. He begins to apply the same, “my way is the right way” arguments.

On page 76 Weems imagines this interaction with someone. “I can almost imagine someone asking, ‘Stovall, are you saying that in order to come into full alignment with God, I need to fast?’ ‘Yes! That’s exactly what I am saying and Jesus said it too.’” Then on page 102 he makes this statement, “You will get a breakthrough in your area of struggle after you complete the ‘Awakening 21-Day Plan and will enjoy freedom.’”

I don’t disagree with him on the necessity of fasting. I wish I were better at practicing this discipline just for this reason. But at points he makes it sound as if his way of fasting is the only way to make contact with God.

As I read, the distinction that I found him to be making was the difference between what he called Old Covenant and New Covenant fasting. He makes the statement that the purpose and experience of fasting in the Old Covenant (specifically the Old Testament) was radically different from the purpose and experience of fasting in the New Covenant (I am assuming he means the entire New Testament) (pg.64). I think he is way off base here.

First, I would argue that if you claim that the New Testament purpose and experience of fasting is radically different from the Old Testament and that the Old Testament form of fasting was inadequate for the task of having an intimate relationship with God, then the fasting which Jesus practiced, which was the Old Covenant form was inadequate. We are told very clearly that Jesus was faithful to the law. That means the purpose and experience of the law. And that means Jesus observed faithfully everything within the relationship with God regarding the law. If Jesus did not observe the law, then he did not fast, and his expectations of followers to fast would be hollow and invalid. Jesus did observe the law, he most likely observed the fasts, and his expectations for followers would be an example of a greater understanding of the law and the relationship with God through it (Matthew 5:17-20).

Second, Weems states that Old Covenant fasting was for the purpose of mourning, getting God to intervene during a crisis, convincing God to change His mind, and obtaining favor from God (pp. 66-67). And there are specific instances where fasting was implemented for these reasons. But regular fasting, limiting what was eaten or drank to sharpen spiritual awareness, was a part of the normal ritual life of God’s people.

Sabbath required eating only what could be prepared the day before. Some of the festivals were solemn rests when no work could be done, including preparing food, in order to humble themselves. That would be why the religious leaders were condemning Jesus and the disciples for plucking heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath. Fasting is a humbling experience, not an exalting experience. The Old Covenant connects fasting with humility in order to realign human priorities with God’s priorities.

Most of the argument about a difference between the two forms of fasting comes down to intention. Weems makes it clear that the intention behind the fast is what makes the difference. And I agree completely. Fasting is about the condition of our lives before, during, and after. If we are approaching fasting with any other intention than humbling ourselves before God so that God can work in us, through us, and around us, then we will be disappointed and hungry. But I have to wonder what Weems means by intention.

At times it almost sounds like he refers to intentionality as “think happy thoughts” and it will be enough. On page 30 Weems says, “Right thinking leads to right feelings and the way we think right is to renew our minds in the Word of God.” He nods to the need of study of the Word of God but there is very little to expand this practice. Instead it is the influence of thinking “right” thoughts that produces “right” feelings. And this sentence is three sentences behind what I consider to be the most problematic sentence in the entire book.

“You will live more holy on accident by focusing on the goodness of God than you will by focusing on all the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt nots.”

You cannot live intentionally by living on accident. You cannot be holy by accident. You cannot understand the full meaning of God’s goodness without at least comprehending the necessity of shalts and shalt nots. And you cannot live out this later statement, “…if you don’t feel like obeying God then there is something wrong with your feelings.” (pg.90) Weems goes on to say that “the majority of the time we should feel like obeying God.” You cannot obey God without focusing on what God requires. Call it what you will, obedience is still focusing on what we shall do and shall not do.

I believe that Weems is another of the current crop of preachers who is trying to draw an imaginary line dividing religion and relationship, claiming the former is dead and the latter is critical. And that distinction needs to die a quick death, soon. There is no line between the two. It is an effort to eradicate a word that should, instead, be clarified. Religion is relationship. It is the relationship that God offers to us. Religion is the response to the relationship that God offers to us. There is no separation of the two. The more the two are separated, the more the orthodox faith of Christianity will be diminished and undermined to the point of an amorphous and irrelevant social organization with no life-altering power.

I was given a copy of this book free of charge in exchange for an honest review by the WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group.