Recently I completed a three-day fast, so I thought it might be a good idea to share a few thoughts about fasting, which I hope may be helpful both to those who are novices and those who are veterans at the practice.
Fasting is one of the “spiritual disciplines” historically practiced by Christians (and persons of other faiths as well). In his classic work on the topic, Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard defines the “spiritual disciplines” as “activities of mind and body purposefully undertaken to bring … our total being into effective cooperation with the divine order.” There are many spiritual disciplines, and they are sometimes distinguished in terms of those involving abstinence of some sort (e.g., solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice) and those involving certain kinds of engagement (e.g., study, worship, celebration, service, meditation, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission).
All of these disciplines are rooted in scripture and effective for spiritual growth, but some are more important than others. The discipline of fasting is especially powerful for building self-control. It was regularly practiced by numerous biblical figures (e.g., Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Paul, and, of course, Jesus and his disciples), important Christian leaders and theologians since biblical times (e.g., Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Finney), and many other religious leaders and philosophers (e.g., Zoroaster, Confucius, Hippocrates, the Buddha, Mohammed, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle). However, fasting is not a popular discipline among Christians in our culture today. This is unfortunate, given the benefits of fasting, particularly in building the strength to withstand the various temptations of indulgence that are so prevalent in our times.
So what exactly is fasting? Fasting involves 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.). As for the benefits of fasting, they include the following:
- Fasting builds moral strength through the practice of self-control. Like any other virtue (or “fruit of the Spirit”), self-control is a moral skill that one develops through practice. Fasting is one of the more effective ways to nurture this virtue.
- Fasting trains us to maintain our spiritual focus through suffering. Denying oneself food is uncomfortable, perhaps even extremely so depending on how long and thorough the fast. Training the mind to focus on God through such discomfort is a tremendous preparation for doing so when facing other (i.e., non-voluntary) forms of suffering.
- Fasting makes a statement of our moral-spiritual earnestness. Whenever I fast, I ask God to receive my practice of abstinence from physical nourishment as a declaration of my need for spiritual nourishment and strengthening. Thus, when accompanied with prayer, fasting is makes this plea especially emphatic, which I believe God honors in special ways.
- Fasting is humbling. My wife once observed that, ultimately, fasting is not so much about food as it is about pride. I’ve been practicing this discipline for about fifteen years, and it never stops being difficult, which of course shows me how weak, dependent and desperately needy I am. That’s a blow to pride. And that’s always good medicine for the soul.
- Fasting reminds us that our bodily comforts are not what is most important. And in our materialistic, self-indulgent society, that’s a reminder we all constantly need.
These are just some of the benefits of fasting. When you fast, you will no doubt discover other benefits as well.
So what are some good occasions for fasting? Fasting doesn’t call for any special occasions since, like prayer and Bible study, it can be incorporated into the normal rhythm of one’s spiritual life (e.g., weekly or monthly). But in scripture we find certain occasions where fasting seems to be especially appropriate:
- 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 (the apostle Paul’s repentance)
- 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)
- 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”)
When discussing fasting, some people express concern about certain abuses. For example, what about those who have eating disorders? And what about the temptation to legalism? In response, I note that 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.
But regarding those with eating disorders, they may be advised to avoid fasting for a while, to do so only with accountability, or to practice only selective fasting (e.g. refraining from sweets, meats, or other particular foods).
Lastly, if you are just starting out, I recommend doing a few short fasts—one or two meals—several times before going on to longer fasts. And, as for further reading, check out Richard Foster’s chapter on Fasting in Celebration of Discipline. This classic work is chock full of practical wisdom about all of the spiritual disciplines, but the chapter on fasting is especially good.