Recent years have seen a significant increase of interest among evangelicals in spiritual formation. Authors such as Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and John Ortberg have led the way in reminding us that personal sanctification is not properly a passive affair. Spiritual growth demands intentional practice, active exercise of the spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, worship, study, confession, sacrifice, confession, and frugality. Each of these disciplines is useful for uniting the believer with God and building moral strength. When used with the proper devotional attitude—aimed at growing in obedience in response to divine grace rather than to earn God’s favor—the spiritual disciplines are extremely powerful. However, one of the most powerful disciplines remains tragically underappreciated by Christians today: fasting.
Historically, fasting has been practiced by the great Christian leaders and theologians, including Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Finney. Biblical figures including Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Paul, Jesus and his disciples fasted as well. Yet today I suspect that only a small minority of American Christians fast with any regularity. This is a tragic irony given that one of the besetting sins of our culture is overindulgence. If ever there was a time and place in history where the church desperately needed to develop self-control, this is it.
In case you haven’t thought much about the discipline of fasting, let me address a few basic questions:
1. What exactly does fasting involve?
Fasting is the intentional abstinence from food, and possibly drink, for the sake of spiritual growth. It can be extended to other contexts (e.g., technology, recreation, etc.) and can be applied to particular foods (e.g., meat, coffee, sweets, etc.).
2. Why is fasting important?
Regular fasting: a) builds moral strength (through the practice of self-control), b) trains us to maintain our focus on God through suffering, c) makes a statement of our moral-spiritual earnestness (especially in combination with prayer), and d) reminds us that our bodily comforts are not what is most important. All of these benefits serve to make the believer more Christ-like in character, which of course leads to many other blessings.
3. What is a good occasion for fasting?
Some common occasions for fasting include:
a) Seeking God’s forgiveness – Lev. 23:27 (Day of Atonement); 1 Sam. 7:2-6 (Israel’s repentance of idol worship); Jonah 3 (the repentance of Ninevah); Acts 9:1-9 (Paul’s repentance)
b) Seeking God’s counsel or blessing – Acts 13:2-3 (the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas); Acts 14:21-23 (Paul and Barnabas’ commissioning of elders at the churches of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch)
c) Seeking God’s strength – Matt. 4:1-2 (Jesus fasted when “he was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil”); Matt. 17:20 & Mark 9:29 (in some manuscripts Jesus says “this kind can come out only by prayer and fasting”).
But it is wise for Christians to fast even aside from these occasions. Fasting is powerful for building self-control, and we all need to improve in that area.
4. What about the problem of abuses?
Abuse is no argument. The distortion of a good thing does not justify our throwing it out. Sex, prayer, worship, and even religion itself are constantly abused, but we don’t properly reject those things. However, two concerns deserve special attention:
a) Eating disorders: Those who have had this problem may be advised to avoid fasting for a time, to do so only with strict accountability, or to practice only selective fasting (e.g. refraining from sweets, meats, or other particular foods).
b) Legalism: We don’t allow legalistic abuses of the other spiritual disciplines to discourage us from practicing them, nor should we when it comes to fasting. But we should be on our guard against the legalistic mindset and pride which might ensue, especially if we are unique among our friends in fasting.
5. What approach should I take in learning to fast?
Start with short fasts, one or two meals. Do this dozens of times before going on to longer fasts. You might want to begin by fasting once monthly and perhaps increase in frequency to 2-4 times per month. Many people prefer to pray more often while fasting in order to maintain focus and request spiritual strength. If you get discouraged as you learn to fast, this is normal. As with all spiritual disciplines, observable benefits typically emerge only as a cumulative effect of repeated practice.