Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it. – John Wesley
Many Christians do not fast regularly. Often when we do, it’s for reasons other than seeking God. Fasting has a bad reputation. Our culture is hedonistic when it comes to food. We have plenty, and feel entitled to eat when we feel like it. And sometimes we have a vulgarized view of fasting, because it was abused during the middle ages by those who took it to the extreme.
But there is a Biblical place and Christian precedent for fasting. Jesus fasted regularly, and he spoke of fasting as something that was expected (“When you fast…” Matt 6:17). The most famous example of fasting was when Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. Other scriptural examples include: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna, and Paul. Many famous Christians have fasted as well – including: Augustine, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley, Spurgeon, Finney, and others.
Fasting in the Bible typically means to abstain from all food (but not water) for a period of time, for the purpose of seeking God’s face. Scripture also gives examples of a partial fast. Daniel did this when he abstained from meat, wine, and delicacies for a period of three weeks (Daniel 10:3). A few time in the Bible an absolute fast (both food and water) is described. Esther asked her people to do an absolute fast for three days when Haman was plotting against them (Esther 4:16). Absolute fasts were not the norm, and were usually for a short period of time. They were always a desperate measure to seek God’s mercy.
Although scriptural fasting typically means to abstain from food, there are a few examples of things fasted besides food. As part of the Nazarite vow, there were certain things that were abstained from during the duration of the vow – such as wine, cutting hair, and touching dead things (Num 6:1-27). Paul also considers the idea that married couples can abstain from sexual relations for a short time for the purpose of prayer (1 Cor 7:5).
Fasting is usually a private matter. It is between you and the Lord. The only people who should know are those who must know. If you fast for the purpose of impressing others, that will be your only reward (Matt 6:16-18).
Although fasting is typically private, it can be done corporately. This is especially the case when a group of people of one mind want to ask God for mercy and healing. The whole city of Nineveh fasted (even livestock) after Jonah warned them of their pending destruction (Jonah 3:6-9). John Wesley records in his journal in 1756 that the king of England asked for the entire country to pray and fast in order to avoid a threatened invasion from France: “The fast day was a glorious day…every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God heareth prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility.” In a footnote Wesley wrote: “Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted.”
Fasting is not a commandment. Nowhere does scripture make it obligatory. As Christians, we are free. If we fast, we ought not to do it as a tradition or compulsion, but as something that God through his Spirit gives us a desire to do. While it is not commanded, it is pretty clear that Jesus proceeds on the principle that Christians will fast at certain times.
The primary purpose of fasting is to center ourselves on God, to worship him and to listen to him. When we fast, we wait to hear from God. If He speaks to us, we obey and do what He says. Charles Spurgeon wrote: “Our seasons of fasting and prayer at the tabernacle have been high days indeed; ever has Heaven’s gate stood wider; never have our hearts been nearer to the central glory.”
Fasting has a secondary purpose – it will reveal the sins that control us. Foster writes, “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit for the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Christ. We cover up what is inside of us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately…Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger; then we will realize that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in the knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ.”
Fasting reminds us that it is not food that sustains us, it is Christ. “We are sustained by the word of God.” In reality, fasting ought to be a time of joy, not somber misery. Fasting is an opportunity to center on Christ, for him reset our priorities, for him to show us what is important and what is not.
Fasting is not just giving up food. It is giving up food and replacing the time normally spent in preparing and eating with something better – more time with God. Fasting goes hand in hand with prayer. It can also include extra time reading God’s word, worshiping him, and serving others. Fasting can be particularly helpful during a time of intercessory prayer for another person.
How do you fast? Here are some practical tips (from Foster’s book) of what to do and not do:
- Don’t beat yourself up if you fail when fasting. Ask for God’s help, and try again.
- Don’t try to stock up with a big meal before fasting. It is better to work into it with light meals of fruits and vegetables.
- Start with a short fast of just a meal or two “…it is wise to learn to walk well before we try to run.”
- Drink lots of water.
- During a long fast, the first few days will be the most difficult. You will feel hungry. The body is like a child, and needs to be put in its place. The body will be ridding itself of toxins, you may have bad breath for a day or two. If you fast caffeine you may have withdrawal headaches.
- As you fast, you will see a progression from the superficial aspects of fasting to the more rewarding ones. You will go from congratulating yourself to reflecting on Christ, to surrender and prayer.
- “By the sixth or seventh day you will begin to feel stronger and more alert. Hunger pains will continue to diminish until…they are only a minor irritation.”
- “Anywhere between twenty-one and forty days or longer…hunger pains will return. This is the first stage of starvation…the fast should be broken at this time.”
- When you end an extended fast, do it gently. Your digestive system will be out of practice. End the fast with a small meal or two, and with healthy and easily digested foods.
[This blog post is part 3 in a series about the Christian disciplines, based on Richard Foster's book Celebration of Discipline. All quotes in this post (other than the Bible references) are from the book. The series introduction is here.]