Welcome to January - that hopeful month in which untold numbers across the nation make resolutions to put off their bad habits and take up good ones. We’re only two weeks or so into the new year and already a plethora of ads for gyms memberships and weight loss programs have flooded everyone’s mailboxes - both e-mail and “snail mail” versions. The turning over of a new year also marks the time when many evangelical Christians will begin a 21-day spiritual exercise known as the “Daniel fast.” Thousands of normally indiscriminate diners will purposely give up their usual devil-may-care dietary fare for all the vegetables, fruit, legumes and water they can stand. It’s all for the purpose of drawing closer to God in prayer - with the added perk of dropping some unwanted pounds.
“So who is this Daniel guy and why is there a fast named after him?” you ask. If you’ve read much of the Old Testament you’re not asking that question at all. But in case you haven’t, here goes. Daniel was a young Jewish man who had the misfortune of being carried off into exile when the Babylonians invaded Israel around 605 BC. However, the Lord gave Daniel much favor in the eyes of his captors and he soon found himself selected to receive training to be in the personal service of King Nebuchadnezzar. So were three of his Hebrew buddies. They even got new Babylonian names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego - or, as the late comic Richard Pryor used to say, “A Bad Negro.” But I digress.
As trainees for imperial service, Daniel and his friends were privileged with a meal plan from the king’s own commissary. This presented the young men with a serious dilemma, however, as the food wasn’t exactly kosher. The Bible describes the king’s food as “choice,” which sounds to me like it wasn’t very heart-healthy, either. More to the point, the meat had been sacrificed to the gods of the Babylonians. What’s a good Hebrew to do? In Daniel’s case, he made a very wise appeal to the man responsible for his training. “Sir, I’m a little concerned about the royal food and wine the king has so graciously provided us, so I’d like to propose a test. How about letting us Hebrews eat only vegetables and drink only water for the next ten days? If we don’t look healthier than these other guys in our recruiting class, we’ll eat the king’s food from then on. Otherwise, we’d like permission to “keep kosher” while we’re here in Babylonia. What do you say?” Amazingly, Daniel’s appeal was granted and the test was on. While the rest of the trainees chowed down on Baby-lonia-back ribs, Chaldean cheese fries and all the king’s vino they could drink, it was only veggies galore and water for the God Squad. Sure enough, at the end of the ten days, Daniel and his friends looked much healthier than their peers. That’s because they actually were healthier.
You see, Daniel and company were used to eating lots of vegetables and whole grains back in Israel. Oh, and lamb, of course. The point is, they were accustomed to ingesting lots of roughage; most Americans are not. Why, there’s probably more fiber in the cardboard box that our overly-processed food comes in than in our actual food. A typical American “Daniel-faster” is introduced to much more fiber in his daily meals than he’s probably eaten over the previous 11 months put together. This presents a dilemma of the kind the ancients rarely faced; I like to refer to it as “methane rising.” This could be the title of one of those battle action video games, now that I think about it. After a few days of eating more beans, peas, and cruciferous vegetables in one sitting than they’ve see in a year, people are blowing up all over the place.
Gastronomic difficulties aside, the story of Daniel’s attempt to remain faithful to God in the midst of Babylon is how eating lots of fruits and vegetables, otherwise known as “food,” became associated with fasting in the contemporary American church. I’ve explained the grocery list for a Daniel fast, but where does the 21-day period come from? Well, that’s also found in the Book of Daniel, chapter 10 verse 1-4:
“In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia, a revelation was given to Daniel (who was called Belteshazzar). Its message was true and it concerned a great war. The understanding of the message came to him in a vision. ‘At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.’” (NIV Bible)
Daniel was now much older and had survived multiple adminis-trations. He was so burdened by the nature of God’s revelation to him, that he began to pray with unusual fervency, even for him. He returned to the spartan fare of his youth and didn’t bother much about his external appearance. His focus was to humble himself and pray until God answered him on behalf of the destiny of the Jews. It took 21 days, but finally the answer came. The Book of Daniel chapters 10, 11 and 12 record one of the most stunning revelations of prophecy ever given to a servant of God. Daniel’s willingness to fast and pray with focus and determination brought the break- through he needed.
I’ve poked a little fun at the way I and my fellow believers carry out the “Daniel fast,” but the reality is that fasting, even a partial fast such as the one taken from Daniel’s example, is a powerful spiritual discipline when accompanied by prayer. Sometimes the only way to get the answers you need from heaven is to fast earthly things as you pray.