John Penn is the Director of Spiritual Formation and Healing Ministries for The Upper Room. He is a graduate of Drew and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminaries and an ordained United Metbodist minister in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference. He has written widely on healing and is the autbor of Rediscovering Our Spiritual Gifts Workbook. He shared with us his personal experiences of fasting and insights into its spiritual dimensions.

Tell us about your experience of fasting.

I went on a partial fast for forty days. I only took liquids -- no solid foods.

What led you to do that?

It was interesting. I was going through a challenging time in my life. There were a lot of unknowns, a lot of things that I was searching for. I was growing in my faith; I was trying to get closer to God. But the fast itself, I believe that I was called to. I took it a day at a time. I didn't know I was going for forty days. The fasting I had done previously had been for one or two days, a maximum of seven days. This particular fast was a fast that I know God initiated.

What was it like physically during that time? Did you feel hungry?

No, I did not, not after the third day or so. After the seventh day, you get over the hunger pangs and over the question of whether I can do this.

Each day I became stronger. I was in graduate school and teaching, and I did all of my activities and never lost energy. I didn't lose a lot of weight. At a certain point, my body adjusted to the lack of food because it was a spiritual fast. There was that means of grace. I feel that's very, very important.

While you were on the fast, did you have a concrete feeling about being closer to God?

Oh, it was amazing -- yes! I can remember some instances while I was shopping at the grocery store, or doing other normal things, and the presence of God would be so strong, and I would be drawn so powerfully into communion and fellowship with God. I can remember my house, a long ranch house, with grocery bags strung along the floor where I had dropped them because I just had to be alone with God. My prayer time was really intense-lots of weeping. It seemed there was some deep work that God wanted to do, and I was never in a position that was quiet enough or settled enough for God to do anything in me. I think this fast was a yearning, a prayer that I would be whole, able to respond to God's grace, God's love, God's presence. God said, "OK. If you want to do that, there are some things that need to be adjusted in your life-there needs to be, perhaps some repentance." It was a time for me to lay myself bare. I knew I was anyway. But you know how we try to hide from God and try to hold secrets. God was seeking my cooperation to work with God at that deepest level of my need.

So in a sense, a fast is an outward sign of your awareness of your dependence on God Absolutely. I found that I began to hear God's voice clearly. Now when I say that I mean that it is an inner knowing. It was just that I would hear God's voice in heart of hearing or mind. And I was very obedient to it. So when I felt that yearning to be with God, I didn't hesitate.

You dropped the grocery bags.

And I went to pray. My spirit and God's spirit were more aligned, more connected. I was more sensitive to God's presence, to God's call to be in communion. God literally delights in our fellowship. I also discovered that when we are in God's presence, a holy God, we are naked before God, so confession comes easily. I remember crying at times. "Lord, I am yours!" and some point confessing, "Forgive me for keeping you out of my life, and keeping myself at such a distance." And I knew that not only did I long for God but that God also longed for me. When I realized that, my heart was just broken, the brokenness of a love affair. Do you know what I mean? That I had been an unfaithful lover, in a sense. So it was just fascinating that God would love me that much and wanted to be in fellowship with me and I denied God that. So this time helped me come to a place of understanding and it broke my heart. It really did.

Do you continue to fast?

There are times when I am not as faithful to a routine fast, but fasting is still a part of my life. I like to fast from sundown to sundown so I don't miss dinner with my wife, which is a very important meal because of the way we have structured our marriage. So sundown to sundown is best for us.

One of sections of the issue is fasting as sabbath -- of finding some time to stop and be in a different time that is oriented around a different set of values.

I hadn't thought about it like that, but yes, you are right. It reminds me of the year of Jubilee found in the OT, where every seven years debts are cancelled and every fifty years, the Jubilee year, all debts are forgiven, all indentured servants are freed, and all lands that had been sold off were returned to its rightful owners. Fasting fits very well into this concept of sabbath rest for the body, because it allows God to bring renewal to our spirit, soul, and body. This allows God to heal us at the very deepest level of our need. We are renewed and replenished as the land is when it is allowed to rest from planting.

When we abstain from the things of the world, we discover that the real source of our life is God. Our bodies do not belong to us. We have been bought with a price by the redeeming blood of Jesus. The Year of Jubilee allows the owner (God) to reclaim us. The debt of sin is forgiven. Fasting allows God to reclaim us again and again.

Would you recommend ways to get started for those who want to fast for the first time?

One should certainly read A Celebration of Discipline, by one of my favorite authors, Richard Foster. Marjorie Thompson's book, Soul Feast is a resource that will be helpful to those who want to learn more about fasting as a means of grace.

I would not necessarily choose food immediately, to abstain from. Our lives are so cluttered, and there are so many things that are more important than our fasting or abstaining from food that I would abstain from something that has really kept me from fellowship with God. Another good thing is not to abstain from, but to include. For instance, read the Bible on a daily basis. Add something of spiritual value. You will have to give up something in order to have the time to study the Bible.

Are there ways your fast was similar to a biblical experience like Jesus in the wilderness?

The fact that I went for forty days was not intentional. I'm not sure that Jesus intended to fast for forty days. I do believe that we should make those connections, and we should look at how that affected Jesus. Jesus came to some really concrete realizations during that time. He did not have to do it on his own to be what God wanted. I think that he learned that perhaps in the struggle with Satan or the struggle with self, with flesh. He learned that he could really depend upon God. I think that is what a fast teaches us, that God is really the source or the sustenance of our lives, that God sustains us in a unique way. In a powerful way.

Jesus could have gone the miraculous route -- which, for him, was the easier way.

He didn't choose to turn the stones into bread. He didn't choose to show his power by jumping off the mountain. I think he discovered that. So for me, fasting is a discovery of not only God's will, but also our strength to follow that will. You learn that grace really is sufficient to live a holy life, to live a life in obedience to God. I think we learn that more and more because in fasting, you are really trusting in God to sustain you. You're moving away from the natural things that you have come to depend on. And we choose the not-so-ordinary way to live for a moment in time, to become more what God is calling us to be. Once we enter into the fast, we realize that God is wooing us. We have a desire, yearning to be in God's presence. And once we respond to that yearning, we discover in the fast, that God is desirous of us as well.

You said earlier that God yearns for us and that opens up a different facet of God. If we emphasize only that God is self sufficient, and omnipotent and transcendent, we can ignore the idea of God earnestly seeking us, desiring something that we have to offer. And it adds to God to make God more whole.

That's a tremendous concept.

Yes, it makes God more whole when we are in fellowship with God. Because there would not be any point if God would not need us, because God has chosen in every aspect to be in fellowship with us. We are co-creators with God. We share ministry with God, through Christ. Through Christ, God woos us for God. That's why prevenient grace is never just that little grace that runs ahead. That prevenient grace is always there. I think prevenient grace is still operative, not just in the salvation act. I believe that prevenient grace is operative every time we are at a new juncture or new venture or going deeper and deeper into the love of God. We are people of grace and people of spirit and grace is the thread in the tapestry. So grace is the thread knitting us to God.

Anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Fasting or any of the means of grace if they are only for ourselves, are only half measures. When I fast for lunch, I give the money I would have spent for food to the poor, which connects to Isaiah 58, the real fast. I incorporate that giving into my fast, as I do in my prayer and walking. When I walk I pray for all the homes that I pass. I pray for all the families. When I fast, I fast also for the poor. Coming out of the African American tradition, I think about the famine and poverty in Africa. Part of my fasting is always to include Africa and the poor. We need to move beyond ourselves to others. Otherwise when we just focus in on ourselves, the means of grace are not as dynamic, as God-centered or Christ-centered. It's more self-centered. I think we need to go that next step, for it to be considered not necessarily a holy fast, but much more a whole fast.

That's my ministry, healing and wholeness. I am more whole because I have included others. So don't just pray but take some action. I think that will help people be more disciplined in their practice of fasting or praying or any means of grace. Fasting allows us to remain faithful to God as both the source and primary focus of our life. Fasting is the spiritual practice that allows us repent and to prepare to live more fully in the Spirit.

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