It is very sad that the modern Church – mainly of any nondenominational or evangelical variety – has completely forgotten and neglected the spiritual discipline of fasting. There are many conceivable reasons why this may be the case. Richard Foster, in his now classic work Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (1989: pgs 59-60), says the reasons may be because of excessive examples of fasting historically and the cultural narrative that we must have three large meals everyday and snacks in between or we are on the verge of starvation. I think Foster is correct, but I also think one of the main reasons is more simple that that: we are selfish and we are controlled by our appetites. In American society we are the epitome of what Paul described to the Philippians: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19 NRSV). Every world religion has some variation on fasting in their history. Even completely secular voices with no concern for faith and spirituality recommend fasting as a medicinal thing. This was true for Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, and I saw a popular magazine in the checkout line just a few weeks ago about fasting!
It is well past time that we as followers of Jesus reclaim this important and powerful spiritual discipline as part of our spiritual lives. Afterall, Jesus said “when you fast…” (Matt 6:16). He did not say, “if you fast…”! I will begin with definitions and descriptions, proceed to give a biblical and historical account of fasting, and end with practical considerations for actually putting it into practice.
What is Fasting?
Fasting is the practice of abstaining from something (primarily food) in order to focus closer on God in prayer. The purpose of fasting is gaining control over appetites and impulses and turning in repentance to God. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun defines Fasting in her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (2015: pg 245): “A fast is the self-denial of normal necessities in order to intentionally attend to God in prayer. Bringing attachments and cravings to the surface opens a place for prayer. This physical awareness of emptiness is the reminder to turn to Jesus who alone can satisfy.”
Richard Foster distinguishes between three different kinds of fasts from scripture and church history: normal fast, partial fast, and absolute fast:
- Normal fast: abstaining from all food, solid or liquid, but not from water for a set period of time
- Partial fast: a restriction of the diet, but not total abstinence from food.
- Absolute fast: abstaining from all foods and liquids completely.
Biblical & Historical Case for Fasting
As Richard Foster says, “the list of biblical personages who fasted reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of Scripture: Moses the lawgiver, David the king, Elijah the prophet, Esther the Queen, Daniel the seer, Anna the prophetess, Paul the apostle, Jesus Christ the Son of God” (Celebration of Discipline, 60). Biblically, the fast had two primary purposes: repentance of sin and inward preparation to complete a God-appointed task. Fasts could be done individually or collectively and even nationally.
The primary example given in scripture of fasting is what was detailed above as a “normal fast.”
Judges 20:26: “Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went back to Bethel and wept, sitting there before the LORD; they fasted that day until evening. Then they offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being before the LORD.”
1 Samuel 7:6: “So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the LORD. They fasted that day, and said, ‘We have sinned against the LORD.’ And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.”
2 Samuel 12:16: “David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground.”
1 Kings 21:27-29: “When Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in the sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: ‘Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Becuase he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in hi days; but in his sons’s days I will bring the disaster on his house.'”
Ezra 8:23: “So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.”
Nehemiah 1:4: “When I heard these words I saw down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”
Judith 4:13: “The Lord heard their prayers and had regard for their distress; for the people fasted many days throughout Judea and in Jerusalem before the sanctuary of the Lord Almighty.”
1 Maccabees 3:47: “They fasted that day, put on sackcloth and sprinkled ashes on their heads, and tore their clothes.”
There is precedent also for a partial fast, but it is far less represented than the normal fast is (Dan. 10:3). There are examples of absolute fasts:
Esther 4:16: “Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, father all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is agains the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
Acts 9:8-9: “Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”
Moses, Elijah, and (perhaps) Jesus all engaged in an extended 40 day absolute fast (Deut. 9:9; 1 Kgs. 19:8; Matt. 4:2). Some think that since the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones to bread without making any mention of water that this indicates that he drank water in the tempting, but I am not convinced. I think Christ abstained from both food and water because his fast is reminiscent in the text of Moses and Elijah’s fasts which were both absolute fasts.
The law prescribed only one official fast each year for the people. It was on the day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27). Other fasts could be prescribed by the king or for special occasions (Joel 2:15; 2 Chron. 20:1-4; Ezra 8:21-23). Even the pagan king of Nineveh calls for fasting where the cows have to fast too! See Jonah 3:6-10.
The Didache, an early Christian manual of worship and devotion, prescribed fasting twice weekly on Wednesdays and Fridays. John Wesley building on this teaching encouraged a revival of this practice and would not ordain anyone to Methodist ministry who did not fast on those days as prescribed. All of the great reformers of the Protestant Reformation fasted and encouraged others to as well: Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley. And other key figures through church history have done the same following their lead: Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, Charles Finney, and more.
Practical Considerations for Fasting
Always consult with your medical provider before beginning fasting of any kind. Do not fast if you are sick, traveling, pregnant, nursing, or under unusual stress. If you have a medical condition (diabetes, gout, liver disease, kidney disease, ulcers, hypoglycemia, cancer, blood disorders, et al) that might interfere with fasting consult with a competent medical professional and only proceed with a fast at their approval and supervision. Do not fast without proper preparations and do not attempt an absolute fast without feeling a special nudge from God and even then seek the direction of wise counsel and do not seek it for longer than 3 days.
Stay well hydrated when fasting. If you are new to fasting start small. Consider fasting one meal and spend time with God during that time you would have spent eating. You will probably feel more tired and low energy on the days of your fast. Prepare before hand by adjusting your schedule as needed. Do not eat a big meal before a fast and do not eat a big meal to break the fast. Ease into the fast and ease out of the fast. After fasting from only one meal consider starting your fast after dinner and fast until dinner the next day missing two meals. Also consider practicing a partial fast of some kind during the Lenten season.
When you fast bring your Bible and a glass of water. Relax and breathe deeply. Be patient with yourself.
Resources and Recommendations
- “How to Fast Safely: 10 Helpful Tips” from Healthline.com
- Rev. Daniel Merz, “A Reflection on Lenten Fasting.” USCCB.org.
- Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), “The Discipline of Fasting.” OCPSociety.org.
- Kallistos Ware, “The True Nature of Fasting.” GoArch.org.
- Fr. Milan Savich, “The Meaning of Fasting in the Orthodox Church.” Orthodox Research Institute.
- Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, Chapter 4: Fasting
- Lynne M. Baab, Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites
- John Piper, A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer
- Jan Johnson, Simplicity and Fasting
- Scot McKnight, Fasting, The Ancient Practices Series.
- Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, chapter 5: The Practice of Self-Emptying: Rediscovering the Fast
- Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us, Revised and Expanded Edition, pgs 245-249.
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