Fasting is a useful but often neglected discipline for the Christian. Fasting is abstaining from something, usually food, or some foods, to focus on God. Going without food for a period of time doesn’t sound like a very fun way to focus on anything, which is probably why fasting is so unpopular! And yet, it has an important part to play in the Christian life. Not only did Jesus fast (Matt 4:2), but he simply assumed that his followers would do the same and so provided the following instruction:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18, emphasis added)
We live in a culture that tells us we can satisfy every appetite we have, immediately. As you might have noticed, the spiritual exercises recommended in 2020discipleship directly confront this attitude. The most obvious and regular demand to have an appetite satisfied is in the area of food. The discipline that confronts this preoccupation is fasting.
Fasting can occasionally refer to other areas of denial, but here we will briefly discuss its most common form— abstaining from food. Today, this discipline is widely misunderstood, and even more widely ignored. Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline) notes two factors that explain this:
- we are fearful of becoming like the fanatics of history you focused on the visible asceticism of fasting and took it to unnecessary and unhealthy extremes.
- We have been convinced by advertising that anything less than three square meals a day will result in our malnourishment.
Perhaps there are a couple more. There is a concern that fasting may actually encourage our cultural obsession with food and body image, rather than challenge it. Of course, if it would be physically or emotionally unwise for you to fast, for whatever reason, then please exercise good judgement and refrain from participating in this discipline. There is also a concern that we shouldn’t be rejecting things that are good. Food is a wonderful thing, as are many of the things our appetites long for. Fasting is not a denial of the goodness of these things – rather it is a way of confronting the attitude that thinks all good things should be given to us whenever we want them.
So why fast?
Fasting is a way of postering ourselves differently in relation to some of the good things in life: humbly; prayerfully; questioningly; sadly; expectantly; thankfully. Fasting can accompany a range of attitudes and add unique intensity to them. It is also a discipline that Jesus, the early church, and every generation of disciple sense, have carried out.
Donald Whitney (Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life) suggests a wide range of reasons for fasting: to strengthen prayer; to seek God’s guidance; to express grief; to seek deliverance or protection; to express repentance; to expressed concern for the work of God; to minister to the needs of others; to overcome temptation; and to express love and worship to God.
Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook) identifies a further reason. Against a cultural backdrop that breeds a sense of entitlement, “through self denial we begin to recognise what controls us. Our small denials of the self show us just how little taste we actually have for sacrifice or time with God.”
Getting the motivation right
The temptation to see fasting as an instrument of piety, manipulation or even self flagellation is real. We need to understand that fasting isn’t a way to make God hear us better or to do what we want. God isn’t changed through the process of our fasting – we are. Fasting is not the mark of a super–disciple, but a normal part of the life of Christians throughout the ages. Similarly, fasting for the sake of our own vanity (i.e. to lose a few kilos!) would be false motivation.
How to Start
Consider skipping lunch or an evening meal on a day when you can instead spend that time differently. You might consider using that time to read, reflect or pray. Just skipping a meal in order to keep on working will be unlikely to sharpen your focus on your intended object. On the day that you finish your fast, take some time to journal your thoughts on the experience. What did you notice as you fasted? Did you actually focus on the thing you planned to when you decided to fast for that period? What could help you in your next fast?
The following readings, referred to above, are also recommended: