Category Archives: Fasting

The Discipline of Fasting

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.

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[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.]

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Filed under Discipline, Fasting

Fasting

The church has a long history of fasting, especially during Lent. Now is an appropriate time to look at the discipline of fasting. Lent is the 40 days prior to Easter (not counting Sundays). It is a time when through self denial we especially take note of the death of Jesus and his victorious resurrection.

Fasting is Biblical
Jesus fasted regularly (Luke 4:1, John 4:31-34). He spoke of fasting as something that was expected (“When you fast…” Matt 6:17).

Fasting is Combined with Prayer.
Daniel prayed and fasted (Daniel 9:3). The Israelites prayed and fasted when returning from exile (Ezra 8:21-23). The early church fasted and prayed when seeking guidance (Acts 13:2-3).

Fasting May be Corporate, Especially When Seeking God’s Mercy.
The whole city of Nineveh fasted (even livestock!) after the prophet Jonah warned them of their pending destruction (Jonah 3:6-9). Judah fasted when destruction was imminent (2 Chron 20:1-4). During Esther’s time the Jews fasted when Haman plotted against them (Esther 4:1-3).

No Extra Points for Fasting.
Jesus saves us by grace through faith. We can’t save ourselves by fasting or by any other discipline. Some people think that by their work of self denial they can make God do something that He wouldn’t do otherwise. That is self centered, and doesn’t move God. Some think they can sin and then fast to cancel it out. Again, this doesn’t impress God. God prefers mercy over sacrifice (Hosea 6:6), and justice over fasting (Isaiah 58:3-8).

Fasting Should be God Centered and Combined With Obedience.
Fasting can have health benefits, but the main reason we do it is to seek God’s face. 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.” (quoted in Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, p 55)

Fasting Allows God to Work in Us With Power.
Fasting is a type of special dependence on God. God can use it to work in us with power and authority. Jesus said that certain types of demons cannot be exorcised without prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29).

Fasting Will Reveal the Sin Inside of Us.
Richard 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.

Give Something Up, Add Something to Replace It.
Usually the focus on fasting is on giving something up. Thus, a person might fast food. An additional focus can be to add something new to replace what has been given up. Thus, a person might spend more time in prayer, Bible reading, or in service to others. For example, if you fast TV, you could replace the TV time with prayer.

You Can Fast Anything.
Some people can’t do a food fast because of heath issues. Is there something else in your life that is too high of a priority? It may be a good candidate for fasting. TV, facebook, blogging, theology books, coffee (these are all things that could apply to me). Ask God to show you something to fast and He will. Replace the time you spent doing the activity with something else, like prayer, worship, or service.

Done in Private
Fasting should only be between the participating parties and the Lord. The only people who should know about your fast are those who must know. If you fast to try and impress others, that will be your only reward (Matt 6:16-18).

Fasting has a long History in the Church
Our society has become accustomed to ease and a “have it now” mentality. Fasting is a largely neglected discipline. But the church has fasted since the beginning, as the book of Acts records. The Didache (an early church manual written around AD 100) encouraged fasting every Wednesday and Friday.

Wesley Advocated Fasting
John Wesley fasted every Friday and sometimes on Wednesdays. He encouraged all of his Methodist pastors to do likewise. For those who don’t like Wesley, you can look to Augustine, Luther, Calvin or Spurgeon – who all advocated fasting. As this is the Wesleyan Arminian blog, Wesley gets his props here. :)

Wesley was convinced that fasting, abstaining from food or drink, was a practice firmly grounded in the Bible. People in Old Testament times fasted (Ezra 8:23). So did Jesus and his followers (Matthew 4:2; Acts 13:3), and Wesley saw no reason why modern Christians should not follow the same pattern. His plan of fasting sometimes allowed for limited eating and drinking. He found that fasting advanced holiness. (John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life, Charles Yrigoyen)


Tips for an Extended Food Fast
(largely borrowed from Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster).

  • Don’t beat yourself up if you fail on the fast. 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.

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Filed under Fasting, Lent