A prisoner on death row, a peace activist, a college football graduate assistant—all these and more have employed the hunger strike. The striker vows, “I will not eat until I get what I want,” often employing the strike pursuing a good, even just, cause. Their opponents much watch, or at least be aware, that the striker is so vehemently against them that they are willing to risk their life to impart change.

In 2015 Jonathan Butler, a grad assistant with the University of Missouri football team, began a hunger strike citing racial injustice on campus. He vowed not to eat until the university president resigned. Shortly after, thirty-two University of Missouri football players joined him, striking from all football activities and putting the rest of the (lucrative) football season in jeopardy. The head coach and rest of the team joined them the next day. And by the following day the university president and chancellor had both resigned. Butler’s hunger strike worked.

A hunger strike is a powerful thing.

Fasting is not a hunger strike.

Fasting is an act of humility; hunger striking is an act of pride.

Even a noble hunger strike that brings about positive change is built upon pride. It is about self-interest and personal rights. At its root a hunger strike says, “I won’t eat until I get what I want.” But when we approach the Lord through fasting we are not saying to God, “I will not eat until you answer my prayer.” Nor are we trying to show the Lord the earnestness of our request by our willingness to forgo food. 

Rather a fast is about denying ourselves. We give up something we need (food) in order to teach our flesh that we don’t need it as much as we thought. Food is good; God is better. 

For example, when Jesus was tempted to break his fast by miraculously turning stones into bread, he quoted from Deuteronomy, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” What was Jesus’ point? Food is good; obedience to God is better. It is better to starve than disobey. The blessings of God on an obedient life are far greater than the benefits and pleasures of an illicit piece of bread.

In fasting we deprive our flesh of a necessity to demonstrate that our flesh and its needs do not run our lives. We don’t have to act on every whim or craving of our flesh. If we can say no to our craving for food (and we can), we learn we can say no to many other fleshly cravings. There is a sense of freedom that comes when your belly is crying out (literally!) for food and you say it it, “I don’t have to fulfill your every whim!” 

We fast to humble ourselves. We subordinate the needs of our flesh to the needs of our own soul, or the needs of our loved ones, or the needs of our church. These are the things that are really valuable. Our next meal can wait.

“He must increase; I must decrease,” (John the Baptist, John 3:30).

by Matt Schmidly