Many of the classical spiritual disciplines (prayer, confession, simplicity, and the like) strike contemporary Christians as good, helpful spiritual habits, and so they are. But there is also more going on. Encountering God in disciplined, life-giving worship ignites a fundamental movement in the believer from self-deception to self-awareness, a movement aimed at developing a deep knowledge of both who we are and who we are called to be in Christ. This is why most of the disciplines have a not entirely pleasant “edge” to them.

Take, for instance, the discipline of fasting. We may like to believe that we are patient, long-suffering people. I’d like to think such is true of me. Yet what often happens when we fast? Along with our hunger, a variety of hidden issues bubble to the surface: we chafe at inconvenience, we snap at those around us, we crave specific sensations, we demand satisfaction. The temporary deprivations involved in fasting crack us open like nuts, revealing some of the hidden realities that lie within us, truths hidden from our direct consciousness by our dependence upon food, distractions, amusements, and so on. After a few hours of fasting, our whole consciousness echoes the scream of our bodies: “I want to eat, and I want to eat now!” — though in fact most of us could refrain from eating for hours or even days with little physical harm. In this way the discipline of fasting serves as a means of grace that God lovingly employs to expand our self-knowledge and deflate our self-deception, to help us discern more clearly who we actually are and who we might become.

It is not only in their traditional forms that these disciplines can be helpful. For instance, some people have discovered the challenges and benefits of the classical discipline of fasting not by giving up food periodically but by giving up entertainment media for a season. During one semester at Eastern University, the school where I used to teach, some forty students of mine agreed to take part in a “media fast.” They agreed to fast from all forms of media over a seven-week time span—no music, no films, no radio, no television, no texting, no Facebook, no YouTube, no internet, no video games, no CDs, no DVDs, and extremely limited use of cell phones and email (no more than fifteen minutes a day). Some participants initially reported that they felt quite anxious. Others struggled with boredom. Many found that other, non-media temptations increased. At the beginning of the fast there was much distress on every side!

Yet for almost all participants, after a week or so these initial difficulties subsided as deeper things began to happen. Many students reported that God, the world, and they themselves began to look different. The media fast created time to read the Bible in a much more concentrated manner. Conversations with others became more frequent and generally deepened. Students’ awareness of the effect of their environment upon them heightened. They became more attuned to what had shaped their thinking, speech, and behaviors. Many found themselves more sensitive to the Holy Spirit.

With the absence of almost all distractions and diversions, they could not hide from themselves. Behavior and thought patterns that had been ignored or unrecognized for years suddenly rose to the surface of their consciousness. Areas that needed the healing and transformation of the Holy Spirit clarified. Concrete change began to occur in students’ thinking, speaking, and behavior as the Spirit spoke into the silence of these new learning spaces. Many participants said at the end that this fast had sometimes been deeply painful, but also redemptive and restorative. Their hunger for God deepened as other, lesser hungers were reined in.

Why not try a media fast this week? Perhaps it could be something as simple as looking at email only three times a day. Or not reading emails from six on Saturday to six on Sunday. Be creative. And keep your eyes open for the grace of God to show up in unexpected places.

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This series has been adapted from Steven D. Boyer and Chris Hall’s The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable. Hungry for more? Please visit Baker Academic for more information.

Originally published December 2016.