The Rev. Joe Payton will be the first to tell you he doesn’t know a whole lot about fasting.
But it’s how he ended up where he is today, as the pastor at Riverbend Church, after watching friends do it weekly in 2007. He joined in and began to feel called into ministry.
“It was a spiritual discipline we kind of read right over when I was a little kid growing up in church,” Payton said. “I can't think of a single Sunday where the pastor said we're going to talk about what it looks like.”
So he’s teaching his church and learning alongside them.
Like many other churches in the area, Riverbend is taking part in a 21-day fast known as the Daniel Fast. It’s inspired by a passage in the Bible, Daniel 10:2-3.
Those who choose to participate are only allowed to eat fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains. They can drink only water or natural fruit juice — no coffee, tea or alcohol. No sweeteners, breads, meat, fish, seafood, eggs or dairy products are allowed.
“The purpose of fasting is creating space in our appetites so we can let God fill us,” Payton said, holding onto a plastic bag filled with nuts. “It sounds really spiritual and churchy, but if you think about it, every time a hunger pain comes into your path, you've been taught, ‘That's my trigger to pray.’”
Doing something like this isn’t easy, and it’s not supposed to be. Payton said, “We live in a culture that's saturated by sugar, it’s more difficult than you think.”
But David Stovall is having fun with it. As a member at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, Stovall is taking part in the Daniel Fast and working his way through a 21-day devotional on a Bible app.
“We tried to be kind of creative with it,” Stovall said. “For example, peanuts have a lot of fiber in them and we’ve gone up to Jaemor Farms and got boiled peanuts and actually made boiled peanut hummus out of it.”
They’ve made poblano peppers stuffed with quinoa, mushrooms and tomato sauce as well as Daniel Fast-friendly flatbread he said he’s likely to keep eating even after the 21 days.
It’s not all about having fun in the kitchen and cooking creative meals. It always goes back to his faith.
“The food part of the fast is not the most important part of the fast,” Stovall said. “But the food part of the fast is actually making a sacrifice. We have to sacrifice things in the world for our spiritual health.”
It’s a concept that may not make sense to some — that abstaining from certain foods brings you closer to God. Payton said part of the reason may be because fasting isn’t often explained in the Bible.
“It's very rare in our culture, and yet, if you're a follower of Jesus, he thought it was going to be normal,” Payton said. “He didn't even spend a lot of time expounding on it. He just thought that's something — You're going to pray, you're going to give and you're going to fast. Something every believer would do.”
Churches are now making more of an effort to incorporate fasting into their year. It’s usually a practice that comes around as each year begins. It’s often a teaching process, but it’s something many have embraced.
“This is not a diet,” said Scott Hearn, pastor at Gainesville First United Methodist Church. “It’s a fast. And it’s really about just saying, ‘God, I want to give something up so I can receive more of you.’”
For him, giving up coffee was one of the hardest things about the fast.
He said he did the Daniel Fast with some friends a few months ago just for 10 days and “it was meaningful to me.”
“It makes me much more acutely aware of why I'm doing this,” Hearn said. “And in those moments, it's a real connecting time of prayer.”
Outside of its spiritual side, fasting isn’t just a left-over practice from when times were much harder for humanity — it can be part of a healthier lifestyle.
“If someone is doing that standard American diet, and they go to the Daniel Fast, there's typically very little risks,” said Regina Saxton, registered dietitian nutritionist with Starting Point Wellness. “It's high benefits.”
While cutting out greasy, processed, sugary foods will have obvious health benefits, the spiritual benefits may not be so clear at first glance.
“Culturally it's weird,” Payton said. “Medically it makes a lot more sense than it does spiritually. But the cool thing is, Jesus is OK with us benefiting healthwise with it.”
But there still need to be precautions when taking part in the Daniel Fast.
Saxton said headaches are normal. Lower back pain caused by the kidneys is even normal, too. Weight loss is likely and even simple boredom could sneak up.
But after making it through some of those difficulties, your body should get used to it.
“After that first week, there's a euphoria that comes about you,” Saxton said. “You're freed up from all those toxins now, you don't have the inflammation, your hormones are able to operate the way your body is naturally positioned and made to do and you actually feel no more hunger and even your stomach doesn't gurgle and growl like it did in that first week.”
Payton said fasting is something that’s gotten lost in today’s culture of plenty.
It’s sometimes hard to explain, and the benefits are typically so personal — co-workers often don’t talk about their spiritual health at the watercooler — others don’t see them. So he compares it to a couple of other things that he said make a little more sense to most people: praying and giving.
“All three are the giving away of something,” Payton said. “Giving is a tangible giving of your resources. … Prayer, you're giving away time. I'm setting aside time in my life to talk to something I can't see, to have a relationship with someone who is not tangibly there. So you're creating space in your appetite so that God can then show up.”
Hearn finds the same purpose in fasting.
“This is just a demonstration to you, God, that I'm willing to deny myself certain things so I can have more of you,” Hearn said.
For Riverbend, the results of fasting have already been evident for some in the congregation. Payton said he’s had a few people thank him for teaching on it and helping them navigate through the meaning of fasting and the purpose.
Truthfully, he’s happy to help them because it’s helping him learn more about it himself. And it’s something he’s already seen become an important and special part of his faith.
“To be honest, it spiritually clears the fog of my mind,” Payton said. “I can tell by just seeking God and eliminating some distractions in my life … I've found 21 days is tough on any commitment level spiritually but my mind is clearer.”
Times staff Lindsay Howard contributed to this story.