Fasting—voluntary denial of food, drink or some other normal part of life for spiritual purposes.
For the most part, we want what we want, and we want it NOW. We are a compulsive and obsessive society bent on instant and continual gratification. Everything we want seems to be at our fingertips. Food is inexpensive and available at a moment’s notice twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If we don’t have the money to buy the latest gadget we want, we can use plastic and pay later. We don’t need to wait to get what we want so denying self seems downright cruel. Isn’t that the way it is?
When we fast, we deny ourselves of something fundamental and learn that we really can have control over our wants and desires. We don’t have to be ruled by our hunger or our thirst. We learn that there is other “food” to feast on, other “drink” that will satisfy. (John 4:13) “One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Duet 8:3
Jesus practiced the discipline of fasting (Matthew 4:2) and spoke of fasting with the assumption that his followers were practicing it as well. “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18). He knew there was much to be gained spiritually by this kind of self-denial and knew that, with the proper inner attitude, the rewards would overshadow the cost and there would be no need of dramatic attention getting. This was a secret and satisfying communion between the follower and their God.
When we fast we typically refrain from eating or drinking, though there are other kinds of fasting (e.g. media, sex, work, talking) that are equally beneficial, for a certain period of time to allow God to work in us fully. Instead of focusing on food, we turn our hearts to prayer. Instead of letting a big meal distract us and comfort us, we turn to God as our teacher and comforter. We find that what God has for us is satisfying and nourishing in a deeper way than mere food and drink, and we see that our dependency on him is vital.
Perhaps in fasting, more than any other spiritual practice, we make space for God. In the process we begin to see what controls us that isn’t of God and steps can be taken to break the bondage that has been allowed to form in our lives. The freedom we find radiates beyond the thing from which we fasted and allows us to walk through life with the open hands of a trusting child of God.
Fasting is one of the disciplines that takes practice for it to be helpful for some people. So don’t just try it once. Keep at it and see what God might do in you through this act of obedience.
1. Some begin by fasting from one meal on a regular basis. Allow the signals of hunger to turn you toward God in prayer. If you are fasting for a particular reason, e.g. to be in solidarity with those who suffer, or as you await an answer to prayer, let those same signals return you to that place of solidarity or dependence or whatever it is you feel you have been called to experience.
2. A weekly 24-hour fast is very doable and can be practiced by ending your eating after lunch on one day and resuming at lunch the next. Drinking plenty of water and juice to keep hydrated is a good idea for beginners.
3. Longer and more severe fasts may be attempted later, but do so with prayer and with the guidance of someone who knows you well and who has some experience practicing this Spiritual Discipline.
4. This practice must be coupled with prayer and a continual focus on God to be of any spiritual consequence. It would be helpful to keep a journal as you fast to record your thoughts and inner attitudes and to see how they develop over time.
5. Read the Fasting chapters in Celebration of Discipline or Soul Feast for some practical considerations and steps.
Scripture references on fasting
Ezra 8: 21-23; 10:6
Job 33: 19,20
Psalm 69:10; 102:4
Daniel 9:3, 20-23, 10:3
2 Samuel 12: 16,17
Jonah 3: 5,10
Matthew 4:2, 6:16; 9:15
Acts 13:3, 14:23
1 Corinthians 7:5
2 Corinthians 11:27,28
- Foster, Richard; Celebration of Discipline, chapter 4, Fasting.
- Thompson, Marjorie J., Soul Feast: An invitation to the Spiritual Life, Chapter 5, The Practice of Self-emptying: rediscovering the fast.
- Willard, Dallas; Spirit of the Disciplines pp. 166-168.