How to Practice the Spiritual Discipline of Fasting
Spiritual disciplines are ancient practices that pour God’s grace into one’s being and draws one closer to the Creator by scraping off the dirt and abuse of the everyday world. Today, we look at the discipline of fasting.
During a recent shopping excursion, I was trying to choose between several different colors of a tunic. “I only need one,” I murmured. The sales associate nearby instantly countered, “It’s not about what you need. Oh no! You can buy them all!” Tempting, to be sure.
Yet when we focus on self-fulfillment through material possessions or sensual experiences, the next day we awake to find our souls a bit emptier. The spiritual discipline of fasting teaches a Christian that intentional intervals of self-discipline in meals or specific activities actually restores and strengthens one’s soul.
What is the Spiritual Discipline of Fasting?
Oxford University Press defines a fast as to “abstain from all or some kinds of food or drink, especially as a religious observance.”[i] Christian fasting is not a form of self-punishment or a way to detach from the body; rather, when disciples of Jesus fast, their motive is to be God-focused. Christians voluntarily abstain from food, drink, or other activities to deepen their communion with God and strive toward spiritual maturity.
The most common form of fasting involves abstaining from all food, but not water, for a designated time. Sometimes Christians practice a partial fast, which involves eating simple food or juice.
Christian fasting is not a form of self-punishment or a way to detach from the body; rather, when disciples of Jesus fast, their motive is to be God-focused.
Scripture Teaches the Spiritual Discipline of Fasting
Scripture mentions fasting over sixty times and illustrates a range of approaches and intensities for this spiritual discipline. Biblical fasting could last from a partial day to forty days. It could consist of abstaining from all food and drink or from certain types of food and drink.[ii]
The following biblical characters have fasting interwoven within their narratives:
- the Israelites in the Old Testament
- the early Christians in the New Testament
- Jesus Christ
- the Apostle Paul
The biblical purposes for fasting included:
- repentance for sin (personal or national)
- the need for wisdom or direction
- in times of mourning
- the need to find favor with authorities or governmental powers
- during intense periods of prayer
- during times of personal or national tragedy
- as part of a life rhythm and spiritual practice
- within the context of ministry preparation or ongoing service to God
Jesus Christ not only fasted, but he assumed his disciples would fast as well. Commenting on Jesus’ words in Matthew 6, Augustine wrote that a Christian’s entire striving in fasting should be directed towards inward joys as God conforms them to the image of His Son.[iii]
Suggestions to Practice the Spiritual Discipline of Fasting
Some are unable to fast due to medical reasons. If you are under the care of a physician or have any health concerns, please check with your health professional before undertaking any type of fasting. Your Creator certainly understands any health limitations or other challenges you may have.
- Remember that the Bible describes a range of approaches to practice this discipline. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s direction for your individual situation.
- The motive for Christian fasting is for spiritual purposes, not for physical cleansing or health, although improved physical benefits may be a side effect.
- Keep it simple. The spiritual disciplines are about balance, not extreme asceticism.
- Drink plenty of water. Stay hydrated.
- Expect to feel tired and adjust your activities.
- Be cheerful (see Matthew 6:17-18).
- If you are new to fasting, perhaps start with just one meal.
- Fasting from food does not include fasting from medication.
- If possible, spend the time saved from meals in other spiritual practices, as in prayer or reading scripture. If you are responsible for preparing meals for others, double cook a meal earlier in the week.
- A fast may also take the form of abstaining from specific activities in order to be more attuned to spiritual practices. Examples include social media, a bad habit, addictive forms of entertainment, or a favorite beverage or food.
- Many faith traditions encourage fasting on certain days or seasons. For example, during Lent, the six weeks of the liturgical calendar leading up to Easter.
- Fasting is difficult, but it reaps meaningful rewards.
Practicing the spiritual discipline of fasting deepens a relationship with God
The practice of voluntary and temporary self-denial of pleasurable foods and activities in order to focus more on God and his Word…
- refreshes our dulled spiritual senses
- strengthens our self-control
- deepens our humility towards God and reveals our need of him in every area of our lives.
- renews an attitude of gratefulness for what God has provided
- brings a keener sense of God’s Presence to our souls
This practice is neither a legalistic requirement nor a tool to manipulate God to do what one thinks needs to happen. Fasting is a voluntary spiritual practice to strengthen one’s perseverance and obedience to God. For those patterning their lives after Jesus Christ, this discipline is a way to honor our Creator and to “feast” on his Presence, the One who restores and strengthens our souls.
Dallas Willard wrote, “Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food. Through it, we learn by experience that God’s word to us is a life substance, that it is not food (“bread”) alone that gives life, but also the words that proceed from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). We learn that we too have meat to eat that the world does not know about (John 4:32, 34). Fasting unto our Lord is therefore feasting–feasting on him and on doing his will.”[iv]
[i] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/fast accessed 10/29/2019, Oxford University Press, accessed 11/1/2019.
[ii] For examples, see 1 Kings 19:1-9; Judges 20:26; Ezra 10:6-17; Esther 4:15-17; Daniel 10:2-3; Matthew 4:1-2; Matthew 6:16-18; Luke 2:36-38; Luke 5:33-35, Luke 18:9-14; and Acts 13:1-3.
[iii] Paraphrased from The Works of St. Augustin, “Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount,” page 47, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Hendrickson Publishers, edited by Philip Schaff.
[iv] Dallas Willard in The Spirit of the Disciplines, page 166.