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
  • Moses
  • Elijah
  • David
  • Ezra
  • Esther
  • Daniel
  • the early Christians in the New Testament
  • Anna
  • 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.

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How Do I Draw Closer to God?

How practicing the spiritual disciplines can shape one’s intimacy with God.

Trina Dofflemyer takes a look at why spiritual disciplines – fasting, prayer, solitude, and others – are an important practice in the Christian's life.

Is it possible to capture the essence of a soul in a portrait? The master painter scaled the scaffolding propped against the wall of the monastery dining room. He painstakingly added a few brush strokes of color to his wall canvas. Climbing down, he stepped back and contemplated his work.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s renowned notebooks reflect his lifetime of study to anatomy, the science of movement, and perspective to fulfill his ambition of capturing the essence of the soul in his art. Through his fifteenth-century eyes, he was bringing to life one of the pivotal moments in the history of Christianity: Jesus had just told his disciples that one of them would betray him. In his Last Supper mural, Da Vinci labored to capture the disciples’ souls at that precise moment.

Sadly, the new technique Da Vinci used to paint the mural did not fare well for longevity. Pollution, humidity, and the dirty city air corroded and be-smudged the details. Over-zealous “restorers” covered the original peeling strokes by Da Vinci with their own blotches of paint. In the eighteenth century, Napoleon’s troops used the dining hall as an armory and stable, marring the painting by throwing stones and scratching at the figures. During World War Two, an allied bomb landed next to the dining hall, but the proactive placement of sandbags saved the painting.

Da Vinci’s bold and brilliant colors turned dull and flaked. The lines of expression in the Apostles’ faces were altered and blurred. The authentic Last Supper laid buried beneath centuries of abuse by nature and humankind. The “souls” of the disciples darkened and lacked their clear and vibrant spirit suggested by the original master artist.

God refers to human beings as his masterpieces,[i] but as Da Vinci’s Last Supper, everyday realities can dull and darken one’s relationship with God. Christians may find their souls feeling far from God.

Our ringtones abruptly waken us in the morning, and nonnegotiable responsibilities push us through the rest of our day. Our phone notifications ding incessantly and meetings eat up our hours. We take trips to social media to escape and distract. At night, we find ourselves unable to turn off our whirling minds and focus on conversation with the Divine.

Why is God’s voice beginning to sound so far away?

We consume what we want, where we want it, served exactly how we want it – right now, please! Lack of closure causes us anxiety, so we binge-watch entire series on the weekends. No need to wait for cliffhanger resolutions. We are encouraged to practice instantaneous self-pleasure as the key to happiness.

Why do I find life so unfulfilling and empty of meaning?

Our minds are preoccupied during the day with the images flashed on our screens and the words spoken by the prophets of our culture. At bedtime, we try to read our religious texts, but fall asleep from overload and exhaustion. We begin to hear pointed accusations against the Bible where it does not line up with “respected” cultural norms.

Why am I losing my faith in God?

Although there have been several partial attempts through the centuries to restore Da Vinci’s Last Supper to its original genius, in the 1980’s art experts attempted yet another process, this time to completion. For over 20 years, through magnification lenses the size of postage stamps, restorers cleaned and scraped over 500 years of dirt, glues, mold, and paint layers, tiny paint speck by tiny paint speck. [ii]

Today, once again, the Apostles’ expressions of anger, confusion, or grief immortalized in the Last Supper keep watch over the refectory. While observing the process, one author noted, “The dingy colors have given way to the daring and brilliant palette of Leonardo. Exquisite details are emerging in the still life on the table and in the wall decorations surrounding the painting. The most impressive changes, however, concern the Apostles…. [The restoration] reflects the true lines of Leonardo.” [iii]

When the soil of the world clings to the soul, one’s relationship with the Master Artist is tarnished. Christians try to paint over, patch up, or anchor down what is left of their relationship with God, dealing with life in their own strength and in their own wisdom. They, too, are in desperate need of restoration.

Practicing the spiritual disciplines shapes one’s intimacy with God. These ancient practices 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. These habits strengthen a relationship with God.

Donald Whitney defines the spiritual disciplines as “those personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth. They are the habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times.”[iv] Whereas each author’s list of the individual disciplines varies slightly, the most commonly spoken of disciplines are Bible study and meditation, prayer, worship, serving, stewardship, fasting, silence and solitude, and confession.

In the beginning, God created the spirit of humankind for fellowship with Him. Even though each one of us has sullied and turned from a relationship with our Creator, He is a God of restoration. He can recreate the artistic beauty of a life and refresh one’s fellowship with Himself through Jesus Christ. God tells us in Jeremiah 30:17, “I will restore you to health and I will heal you of your wounds,” tiny paint speck by tiny paint speck if need be.

Through the spiritual disciplines, the Holy Spirit is able to open the eyes of Christians to where they may have damaged their relationship with the Heavenly Father. As Christians clean away the smudge and pollution that has covered over their reflections of Jesus Christ, their relationship with God gradually becomes as He designed it to be. He alone is able to bring out the beauty He intended each person to live out in relationship with Him. He alone can reveal His purpose for each one’s life.

As Christians incorporate the rhythms of prayer and scripture meditation and worship into their daily lives, they begin to draw closer to God. They recognize His Presence as they walk along their pilgrim way. He brings to light the lines drawn by His own hand, and the soul begins to reflect the beauty and brilliance of the Master Artist.

[i] See Ephesians 2:10.

[ii] National Geographic, “The Last Supper” November 1983, pages 664-685, by Carlo Bertelli

[iii] Ibid, page 684.

[iv] Whitney, Donald. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, page 17.

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