Ramadan is no joke.
I do a 30-day graduated fast twice a year. On that fast, I eat only fruits and vegetables for three weeks, whittling down to zero meals per day by the final week. I drink tons of water and take nutritional supplements several times daily. Since I’m shoving something in my mouth every hour and a half, I’m never hungry, and I feel very healthy.
Ramadan is another story. It is one thing to gradually wean one’s self from food over the course of the month, but it’s another altogether to go cold turkey for 14 hours per day from both food and water. And to break sleep and get up at 4 a.m. every morning to eat breakfast before dawn. And then to go to the mosque to pray and eat after sundown late into the night — folks don’t typically get home from the evening prayers until about 11 p.m.
I’m on day 14 — almost the halfway point. My schedule has been so scattershot with travel that I haven’t been able to make it to a mosque yet. Nonetheless, lightheadedness brought on by lack of water and sleep has become my new normal.
I asked Daisy Khan, Imam Feisal’s wife and the Executive Director of the American Society of Muslim Advancement: “What about sleep? How do people do it?” She explained, during Ramadan we live like angels. Angels don’t need sleep. They don’t need food or water.
“But how do they do it, physically?” I pressed.
“Spiritual energy,” Daisy said.
Immediately, I remembered Luke 4:1-13 — Jesus in the wilderness. No food and water for 40 days straight; Jesus didn’t get to break his fast every evening. He didn’t get to wake up at dawn for breakfast. On most days, I’m daydreaming about water by 10 a.m. I cannot imagine how thirsty Jesus must have been by day 14. But when Satan slithered up to him and used his hunger to challenge the core of his identity: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread,” Jesus looked the Devil in the eye and said: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” In other words, “No deal.”
Then after two more temptations, Jesus began his ministry “filled with the power of the Spirit.” (Luke 4:14) Spiritual energy!
Three things about Jesus’ fast stand out to me now:
- Satan used a powerfully felt need to tempt Jesus.
- At the heart of the temptations was the impetus to prove his identity and to receive his authority from someone other than God.
- Jesus proved nothing and made no deal with Satan, and the result was the filling of the Spirit to launch his ministry.
Over the past two weeks, I have heard Satan’s slither.
At about 7 p.m. every day, all I can think about is food and water. At about 7:25, I glance at the clock for the 50,000th time and fight the temptation to fudge it. After all, the actual sundown is only an hour away. No one will know. God cares for my body, right? There’s grace, right? I’m not even Muslim, right? Ugh!
And a deeper thing is surfacing in me. In his book, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Walter Wink explained the way the Ephesians 6:10-12 “powers and principalities” run the spiritual realm in cities, nations, and civilizations. Wink admonished us to understand that these powers are fallen. They exist to dominate and oppress.
I moved to Washington, D.C., a little over a year ago to join the Sojourners team because I felt called to engage these powers directly. In the past week alone, I’ve sat across the table from Senators and White House officials and pressed them on issues of the budget and immigration reform. On most days, that kind of engagement would lead me to feel pretty darned good about myself. But, Wink warned us to recognize the ways we have taken the powers’ and principalities’ “domination systems” into our own being — into our own souls.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve noticed that in the normal course of a day — any day — the Power of Politics, which rules Washington ,D.C., tempts me to prove my identity — to turn rocks into bread; to grasp at authority, not trusting that spiritual authority can only come from God; to secure my own future, not trusting that my future is secure in the hands of God.
Ramadan’s revelations have not been pretty.
It’s not that Ramadan has caused this ugliness. Rather, Ramadan has stripped me bare, so that when my inner ego would usually rise up and demand recognition —something else is beginning to happen. I am too tired and too thirsty and too hungry for those things to matter enough to fight for them. I sit there and feel the impulse rise, but then I ask a deeper question: “What is most important right now? You have limited energy. Is this how you want to spend it? If not, let it go.” Usually it isn’t worth it. In fact, usually, these impulses only lead to the breaking or fracturing of relationship with my community and with God.
I’ve thought about Daisy Khan’s words a lot over the past week: “During Ramadan we live like angels.” As an Evangelical Christian my belief in human depravity leads me to believe it is not possible to be perfect like an angel is perfect. But what if perfection is not about doing everything perfectly? What if living like an angel is more about reconciling broken relationships? And what if Ramadan’s blessing is that it makes us aware of the sludge in our souls and the impulses to dominate, and thus to become a source of interpersonal oppression?
Oh, God. Help me to “live like an angel.”
Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author ofLeft, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politicsand author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat
Angel sculpture at Melbourne cemetery, Neale Cousland / Shutterstock.com