The beginning of the year is a good time to reassess our spiritual practices, to make adjustments to the disciplines we already do, and to adopt new ones to help us grow in our relationship with God. In the previous article, we looked at prayer and particularly the use of the Lord’s Prayer. In this article we will look at the largely neglected practice of fasting.
Our self-indulgent culture does not see the point in fasting, and even many Christians put forward objections: it’s unhealthy, it’s legalistic, what we eat has no bearing on our spiritual lives as long as we eat with thankfulness, and a host of other arguments about why it isn’t necessary or even . And while there are elements of truth in some of these objections, the deeper reality is that fasting has been a part of biblical religion for millennia.
Fasting in History
The Old Testament contains numerous examples of fasting. These take a variety of forms and are done for various purposes, such as mourning sin (e.g. Lev. 16:29-31, Dan. 9:3), seeking divine favor (e.g. 2 Sam. 12:6, Esther 4:16), and for understanding the times (Dan. 10:3 cf. 10:12). In the New Testament, Jesus fasted and He expected His followers to fast as well: note that in the Sermon on the Mount, He gives instructions for when, not if, you fast (Matt. 6:16). In the first century church, believers fasted every Wednesday and Friday from dawn until 3:00 PM.
The Catholic and Orthodox worlds have practiced fasting as well. These fasts, often of longer duration, generally involve in abstaining from certain foods, such as the old Catholic practice of not eating meat on Fridays. The entire season of Lent and Advent are traditionally spent in this kind of fast.
Although Protestants have practiced fasting, it has never been a major part of Protestant spirituality. Early Protestants reacted against it as an unscriptural imposition by the Catholic Church. We see this in the Affair of the Sausages that signaled the beginning of the Swiss Reformation (1522). While some high church Protestants such as Anglo-Catholics retain fasts within the church calendar, most Protestants have effectively rejected fasting as legalism, in part out of reaction to the rigid rules for fasting in the traditional Catholic Church. While some individuals have continued the practice, it has fallen by the wayside for the average Christian in the Western world.
In the Global South, the region we used to call the developing world, fasting is a much more regular part of Christian life, and these are the areas where we see the fastest growth of the Gospel. For example, in some regions in Africa where God’s Kingdom is advancing with power, Christians fast every Wednesday, breaking their fast in the evening together at a prayer meeting/Bible study.
So, fasting has been practiced throughout church history and is currently a basic Christian discipline in the areas of the world where Christianity is growing the quickest and having its greatest impact. The question is, why? What is the purpose of fasting? What are its benefits?
Fasting can have positive effects on all levels of life. Physically, caloric restriction has been tied to longevity, and fasting gives our digestive system a rest. When we are digesting food, the body increases blood flow to the digestive organs to absorb nutrients. Fasting allows that blood flow to be redirected to the brain, and many people report increased mental clarity and focus while fasting.
Fasting also can help us increase in discipline. In college, I regularly did a 36 hour fast from Thursday dinner to Saturday breakfast, and I found that I was far more focused and productive with my time the entire week. The self-control required for habitual fasting had a positive effect on my level of self-control in the rest of my life.
On a spiritual level, fasting allows more time for prayer and Kingdom work we might not otherwise be able to do, since we have freed up the time we would have spent in preparing and eating food.
Although we usually think of fasting only in relation to prayer, in Luke 2:37 and Acts 13: fasting is associated with worship as well, reminding us that its purpose is to help us to connect with God. Fasting brings us face to face with our radical dependence on God. We have so much stuff and so many resources available to us that it is very easy to rely on these things to carry us through difficult times. Voluntarily stepping away from food reminds us that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Fasting disciplines both our souls and bodies–appetites, desires, and use of time. It reminds us that our priorities in life are always to be spiritual, and it can help to increase our dependence on the Lord in bringing our bodies into submission to Him.
As we learn dependence on God, our power in prayer and our authority over spiritual forces grows as well. Jesus tells us that some kinds of demons will only come out with prayer and fasting (Matt. 17:21). Beyond dealing with the demonic, fasting and prayer is essential preparation for ministry: Jesus fasted before beginning His ministry, as did leaders in the Early Church. The reason for this is again connected to spiritual power. Shodankeh Johnson, head of New Harvest International Ministry in Sierra Leone, West Africa, believes that weekly, corporate fasting is essential for spiritual breakthroughs. This has been confirmed in the experience of mission agencies that have followed Shodankeh’s advice on this .
Learning to Fast
Consult with your doctor before engaging in fasting, particularly if you have any medical conditions or are on any medications. Scripture lists several approaches to fasting, ranging from abstaining from certain foods to abstaining from both food and drink (including water) for up to three days. Fasts in the Bible last from a single day to up to 40 days. Given the range of options, there are almost certainly types of fasting you can engage in safely. Minors should also not fast without medical approval and close supervision.
If there are no medical conditions involved, here are suggestions to get you started.
- Start small. Don’t plan on a 40 day fast consuming water only. You can always work your way up to more rigorous fasts if you feel yourself led to do that.
- The easiest way to begin is with either a dawn to dusk fast or a 24-hour fast. If you choose the latter, don’t be legalistic about the time; the idea is to go from dinner to dinner without eating. For example, when you finish dinner on Tuesday, do not eat again until Wednesday dinner. You can extend this to 36 hours, so dinner Tuesday to breakfast Thursday, if you like, but it is probably best to start with the 24-hour fast.
- You may drink during the day. Juice, broth, coffee, etc., are all OK, or you may choose to drink only water or water and tea with nothing in it (i.e. non-caloric drinks). Be aware that you may get headaches from coffee. I do not recommend diet sodas, however, as the artificial sweeteners produce the same insulin response as sugar, which may make your fast considerably more difficult.
- Vitamins, etc., are fine to take as well if you’d like.
- You can and should be flexible about how you get started. See how you respond and adjust from there. Some people will find the 24- or 36-hour water fast very easy; others will barely make it through a 24-hour juice fast. The important point is to start somewhere and adjust as needed. Eventually you will find an approach that you can practice consistently. Once you become habituated to that, you may make additional adjustments as well.
If there are medical reasons that prevent you from fasting from food, consider fasting from something else, e.g. electronic media, television, or anything that will help remind you to turn your thoughts to God and of your dependence on him. Or consider giving up desserts, alcohol, caffeine, meat, eggs, dairy …. There is undoubtedly something you could fast from. It’s only temporary, after all.
The New Year’s Challenge
I know of no one and no ministry that is not looking for spiritual breakthroughs this year. Commit yourself to a one-day a week, 24-hour fast, and invite others in your church, ministry, small group, etc., to join you. Ideally, you could meet to break the fast together with Bible study and prayer as is done in West Africa, but even if that is not possible, try the fast, take it seriously, and see if some of the benefits described above, including spiritual breakthroughs, happen in your life and ministry.