We have been using our Thursday posts to examine some spiritual disciplines. Previously we have looked at the practices of silence and solitude, both basic and necessary habits that help us develop other disciplines. Today, let’s look at an oft-misunderstood spiritual discipline, fasting.
As I write each blog I spend some serious time looking for an appropriate graphic to use with each post. I have a couple of sites that allow me to download photos without charge. So, I went to my mainstay site and search the word “fasting.” I found about 60 pages of photos about either speedy things or fast food. I wonder how the modern concept of “fast food” has affected our understanding of fasting. I think our culture’s emphasis on speed and eating abundantly have discouraged us from the ancient practice of fasting. Fast is usually the way we approach food. We want food when we want it and without delay. We gulp without even tasting it, which maybe be necessary since we want it fast.
Fasting is something quite different. Fasting is not about my wants and it is not speedy. Our contemporary understanding of fasting is the abstinence from something. That could be a substance (like food) or an activity (like participation in social media). While these might be culturally appropriate at times, they stray a bit from the biblical perspective.
The biblical understanding of fasting is always abstinence from food. While many of us need a fast from social media, the real focus is giving up food for a time to focus on God. Think about it. Does abstaining from social media have anywhere the effect than fasting from food? Social media will never be a necessity for sustaining life, but food is a necessity. Fasting from food truly deprives the body of a life-giving substance and causes the believer to depend even more on God. Food is the issue. Food strikes at who we humans are and points us to the One who provides for and meets our needs. Generally, a fast is a private activity between a believer and the Lord. We do see examples of public fasts throughout the Bible, but we can probably understand these as public calls to God’s people to fast in privacy.
Fasting is putting aside food for a while so the believer can seek out God in a deeper way. The Bible reveals three basic kinds of fasts:
- The normal fast, an abstinence from food. Jesus did this for 40 days in the wilderness (Luke 4:2).
- The absolute fast, an abstinence from food and drink. Paul fasted this way in Acts 9:9. Note: in the Bible, an absolute fast was never more than three days.
- The partial fast, an abstinence from certain foods. Daniel and his friends used this fast in Daniel 10:3.
Adele Calhoun defines fasting as “to let go of an appetite to seek God on matters of deep concern for others, myself and the world (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, p. 14).” Fasting usually contains confession and a seeking of the Lord in a prevailing time of prayer. Often fasting was used in seeking the Lord’s will for direction in life. Every time we see fasting in the early church, it was to know the mind of God and to discern his will. My own limited experience is that fasting does slow down my life. It forces me to choose godliness when my grumbling stomach creates discomfort and moodiness. It clears off spaces in my life so there is opportunity to appeal to the Lord and seek Him.
Our American culture is food-driven, ironically amid a starving world. Only in America do we have game shows about food because food is so common here and so taken for granted. We have been convinced that even missing a snack will cause us undue suffering and deprivation. Fasting helps me put food in its proper place, a blessing from God that is to be shared with others.
I am a diabetic so, literally, every bite I take is taking a form of drugs. Several years ago, I talked to my doctor about fasting. After a conversation that assured him I was knowledgeable about both my disease and fasting, he encouraged me to go ahead. So, if you have fears or doubts here, talk to your doctor.
I suggest that you learn to fast slowly. Try fasting one meal a week. Remember, as you fast you give that time used for cooking, eating, and cleaning up to the Lord. Then you might want to add a couple of more meals. For most of us, the regular practice of fasting might mean a 24 hour fast. I find that my blood sugar levels work well if I fast a Jewish day, sunset to sunset. But, that is what works for me. You need to find your own pattern.
Fasting is only commanded in the Bible in the Old Testament as part of the observance of the Day of Atonement. That fast was only one day a year. However, what really grabs me in the Bible about fasting is Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 6:16-18. Four little words keep this practice alive for me: “And when you fast.” In Matthew 5-7, Jesus explained what life in the kingdom of God would be like. I think he assumed that anyone seeking God would fast to teach themselves that God is who is important, not the food we put in our bodies. Fasting challenges our propensity to worry about little life issues that have minute bearing on kingdom life (Matthew 6:25-33). Fasting is a tangible way to seek first the kingdom of God.
Not every spiritual discipline is for every Christian, but I think this is a discipline that all believers should contemplate and consider for practice if only occasionally. Some spiritual disciplines we really “like.” Some challenge us to put more on the line for the cause of spiritual transformation in the likeness of Christ. Would fasting help you take the next step toward Christlikeness?
Scripture: Read and reflect on Matthew 6:1-34. What is the passage teaching you about God? What do you think God wants you to do because of this passage?
Dig Deeper: Read The Power of Prayer and Fasting: God’s Gateway to Spiritual Breakthroughs by Ronnie Floyd.
Now It’s Your Turn: What are your questions about fasting? Please share your ideas so we can all grow together.