I love good food. I love to cook good food and to eat good food. I spend a lot of time thinking about food and I have found that food has an important role in bringing people together. Good food is a manifestation of grace and God’s abundance, in the same way that bad food is an expression of corruption and brokenness. But, Christians are asked to remember that food isn’t what ultimately sustains us. We are dependent on God for our existence and we choose to depend on him to sustain us in every way. This truth is the foundation of fasting as a Christian discipline.
The Bible contains dozens of examples of fasting. Patriarchs and prophets like Moses and Daniel fasted in the Old Testament. And fasting continues as a spiritual discipline throughout the New Testament because Jesus also fasted. In Matthew chapter four Jesus is fasting when he is led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by Satan. When Satan tells him to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger, Jesus responds by quoting a portion of Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
I want to expose three sometimes popular misconceptions about fasting, so that we can describe a genuine Christian view of fasting and then explore some practical steps into this discipline. My hope is that these points will also be helpful in explaining to others how and why we fast as Christians.
What Fasting Isn’t:
1) Fasting is not a religious obligation.
We don’t participate in fasting so that we can check it off a list of rules for Christian living. In fact, while there are lots of examples of fasting in the Bible, it isn’t described as a commandment. Rather, especially in the New Testament, that Christians will fast as part of their expression of worship is assumed by the Biblical authors. Even Jesus, when describing fasting in Matthew 6:16, begins by saying, “When you fast…” Notice that he doesn’t say, “If you fast…” Jesus assumes that his followers will engage in fasting. But, we don’t do it to fulfill a religious requirement.
2) Fasting is not a hunger strike.
Sometimes prisoners try to force prison officials to improve conditions for them by determining not to eat until their demands are met. They know that the public would hold the prison officials accountable for the deaths of the prisoners, so they use the threat of their deaths as leverage. In my city, a group of government employees camped out in a public park and engaged in a hunger strike in order to demand better health benefits and higher salaries. It was an extreme type of protest in which they hoped to force the government to acquiesce to their proposal. Whatever the context, a hunger strike is an attempt to force the authorities to do what you want them to do. Sometimes, Christians think about fasting this way: “I’m going to stay hungry until God gives me what I want.” But, in fasting we aren’t trying to manipulate God or twist his arm to get what we want. We don’t have to go hungry to make ourselves heard by God.
3) Fasting is not a spiritual credit system.
I collect frequent flyer miles when I travel. When I have spent enough money on airline tickets, I can cash those miles in for free flights. And eventually my status with the airline increases giving me access to better lounges and upgrades. One of the coffee shops that I frequent has a similar system. Whenever I buy a coffee, they punch a hole in my card. When I have bought ten coffees I show them the card and I get a free coffee. Fasting isn’t like that. I’m not collecting credit with God by fasting so that I can ask him for something when I really need it.
What Fasting Is:
Fasting is ultimately a form of worship. In the same way that we sing worship songs or pray as forms of worship to God, fasting is also a form of worship. We fast because God is worthy of worship, and he has given us fasting as one way to express our worship.
When we worship for the right reasons, we also experience the benefits that God intends for us in worship, and that is true of fasting as well. Fasting strengthens our souls the way physical exercise strengthens our muscles. Jesus prepared for his experience of temptation in the desert by fasting, and when Satan came to him he was able to reject his temptations. As with any spiritual discipline, the more we engage in it, the more our longings are transformed and we begin to want more of what God wants for us. If we do it well, fasting changes us and glorifies God.
The most comprehensive passage in the Bible about fasting is found in Isaiah 58, where God describes the kind of transformation that he expects in the lives of his people who fast. In this passage God also rebukes the misconceptions I described above about fasting. The people have used fasting as a religious obligation, a hunger strike, and a credit system, and they complain when it doesn’t work out the way they wanted. In response God emphasizes how their faithfulness to God, including fasting, should be expressed in their changed lives:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? – Isaiah 58:6-7
The central lesson of fasting is expressed in those words of Jesus in the desert in Matthew 4:4 “Man shall not live by bread alone; but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” That is a lesson that cannot be truly internalized between fistfuls of food. We express our dependence on God, and learn deeply the lesson of our dependence on God, when we fast the way that believers have done for thousands of years.
Five Steps Into Fasting:
I have found these five steps helpful as a pathway into Christian fasting.
1) Declare your intention to fast. I should first check my heart and understand that I should fast as a way to worship God because he is worthy of worship and so that I can benefit from the strengthening and the lessons that fasting can offer. That includes avoiding the misconceptions of fasting as a religious obligation, a hunger strike, or a credit system. Sometimes if people learn that I am fasting they will ask what I am fasting for as if fasting can only be done with a particular request in mind. Sometimes I may fast in that way, hoping for an answer to a question or a resolution to a particular problem. Esther is a Biblical example of that kind of fasting. But just as not all prayer involves asking for something, fasting doesn’t have to be with a particular request in mind. Ultimately, the reason for our fasting is that God is worthy of worship and we want to express that with our bodies through fasting.
2) Determine the form of your fast. There is no single right way to fast. Generally, when the Bible describes fasting it is describing the obstaining from all food and drinking only water. There are notable exceptions to this rule, however. Moses didn’t eat or drink anything for forty days and Daniel obstained from certain kinds of foods. You should decide beforehand what kind of fast you will participate in. Will you obstain from all foods or just some? Will you drink just water or other beverages as well? If you are fasting from food, you will want to take care not to start with something too extreme or too easy. We can also choose to obstain from other things besides food. Fasting from social media, or caffeine, or sugar, or speaking can be powerful expressions of worship as well.
Another decision to make is about whether your fast will be individual or corporate. As Jesus warns shouldn’t fast for the purpose of making a display of our religiosity, but inviting other people to join in a corporate fast can be an effective way to stay motivated and to join with the body of Christ to worship together. There are plenty of examples of corporate and individual fasting in the Bible. In the book of Jonah, when the Ninevites fast in repentance, even the animals participate!
3) Decide on the duration of the fast. The Bible doesn’t give us mandatory days or times to fast, but generally we should make a decision beforehand about how long our fast will be. Fasting for 24 hours from dinner time on the first day until dinner time on the second day is a popular way to begin fasting. In effect you are skipping just two meals, which just about everyone should be able to manage. If you are just starting out fasting, you should take care to gradually increase the duration of your fasts and to follow good health advice about what foods to start and end a long fast with. I have sometimes fasted from sunrise to sunset over many days, which is a perfectly acceptable way to fast, and it is form of fasting that my Muslim neighbors can easily understand. Traditionally, during the season of Lent before Easter, Christians have chosen to fast from a particular thing for the duration of the season. This is a very ancient practice and it is an excellent way to engage in fasting.
4) Pray. There is no rule about how to spend our time fasting, but if the goal is to express our worship of God and to internalize the lesson of our dependence on him, then prayer should be an important part of that, as the Biblical examples of fasting confirm. You might pick a particular verse or a passage of scripture to meditate on or memorize; or you might spend time listening for God’s voice about a particular question. I often return to Mathew 4:4 and repeat it to myself while I am fasting, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
5) Give thanks. If we want to avoid the trap of thinking that we have accomplished something great by fasting or that God owes us something because we have fasted, we should remember to thank God for the privilege of worshipping him, especially as our fast ends. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to arrogance and entitlement.
May we join with the patriarchs and prophets, with the ancient church and with Jesus himself in fasting as an expression of our worship. May we be strengthened and transformed by the power of the Spirit as we fast, and may we learn the lesson of our ultimate dependence on God.