Each year, as January approaches, New Year’s resolutions are made, whether or not they work out, but in recent years, local church congregations have begun taking in their own traditions to start the year off on the right foot.
Highlands Church and Christ Community Church are among the growing number of local churches to take part in 21-day fasting and prayer programs from Jan. 5-26.
“We do it at the beginning [of the year] because we believe what you do first gives God the ability to bless the rest,” said the Rev. Hal Hardy, with Highlands Church. “It’s almost Matthew 6:33, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you,’ so I’m not chasing after things, I really want to seek God, and he’ll add the things in my life.”
Like resolutions, the programs are meant to start the year off in a productive way and the fasts can vary from person to person, with not all of them pertaining to food.
“I let them discern and figure out what they would like to do or maybe what the Lord is leading them to do,” said the Rev. Jason Skipper, with Christ Community Church. “Some of our people would give up certain items. For instance, they may give up sugar or sodas. Some of the people do what is referred to as a Daniel Fast, which is eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, eliminating meat and stuff, then some people do what we call a soul fast, which would be giving up social media or some sort of technical thing that they’re able to do without hurting their lives.”
Both Skipper and Hardy are taking part in a Daniel Fast, which has a basis in the Book of Daniel and, in general, involves avoiding meat, bread and sugar.
“That’s in relation to Daniel 10, where Daniel fasts 21 days,” Skipper said. “The heartbeat behind it is really to grow closer to the Lord, and when you fast, I really think there is a sensitivity you have with the spirit. As you deny some of the natural desires and appetites, there’s a spiritual appetite that increases and an awareness of the Lord.”
While food is the focus of most fasts, Hardy said the more important aspect is abstaining from something to spend more time in prayer.
“I tell people, if you make it about diet, you’ve already missed the big picture,” Hardy said. “It’s not about a diet, it’s about, ‘I’m drawing away from things I normally take part in to draw closer to God and some things that I think I’ve maybe let slide or walked away from.’”
Both pastors said in their years of leading fasts, that a large percentage of the congregation participates. Skipper said half to three-quarters of members at Christ Community Church take part in some sort of fast.
“It’s like the spiritual awareness or antennas go up and you just become more aware,” he said. “I told our church Sunday it’s actually kind of an oxymoron: when you fast, things slow down. I would call it almost a decluttering. No one likes clutter, and when you fast, spiritually, it’s almost like things become uncluttered in your own heart, your own soul and even mentally. It just gives you clarity of thought because your spiritual senses increase.”
In recent years, fasting – particularly intermittent fasting, or only eating during a certain period of hours – has grown in popularity. Skipper said fasting to diet misses the prayer component. But Hardy said there are also health benefits to the spiritual practice.
“Take the spiritual aspect out of it, I’ve studied on this, it’s amazing the health benefits of different types of fasts,” he said. “The medical community would champion that, give your body a chance to reset itself for a day a month. Three days a month is what I’ve heard and read many places.”
Outside of just the health benefits, Hardy said each year, he sees spiritual growth in the congregation and attributes fasting to changes in his own life.
Hardy said he and his wife had been trying for years without fruition to adopt a second child.
After what he described as an “emotional rollercoaster” of having adoption leads that ultimately didn’t go anywhere, by the end of the year, he was ready to give up until his wife pointed out that they do not make big decisions before fasting.
During his fast, Hardy said he felt a knowing to give it until his birthday on March 2 to make a decision.
Then, at a working lunch with his wife just days before his birthday, she received a phone call.
“Who was that?” Hardy said.
“There’s a little girl,” his wife said, “and it’s at this location, this area of the state, but she’s not from this area of the state, she’s from out of state in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”
Hardy was elated.
“When can we meet her?” he asked.
Hardy’s wife looked up from her phone. He saw tears in her eyes.
“On your birthday,” she said.
Hardy’s birthday now has extra significance for him.
“I met my daughter on my birthday,” he said. “But, that word, it came out of a time of 21-day prayer fasting, and I’m so thankful that I didn’t quit.”