Fasting! For many non-liturgical Christians, the thought of fasting triggers strong emotions of disdain, as though the experience was overtly alien or unnatural. Memories of failed attempts to abstain from food for a given number of meals rekindles guilt. Yet Jesus was unmistakably clear about this painful topic: “ The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast ” (Matt. 9:15). This means that fasting is–or ought to be–part of the normal Christian life. Stated differently, normal Christians fast; only abnormal Christians seek to avoid it.
This article suggests ways to embrace fasting as a valued part of the normal Christian life. So, fill a large glass of water, put the soda and sandwich back in the fridge, and enjoy some calorie-free “food” for thought!
What is Fasting?
Fasting is deliberately abstaining from something important—typically food, in one form or another—for a given period of time. A true fast is always a self-denying choice, with food purposefully left in the fridge, in sharp contrast to running out of food and having nothing to eat.
Fasting almost always pursues some spiritual or physical benefit (perhaps both).
Fasts range from abstaining from selected food items during liturgical fasting periods (especially the Lenten fast before Easter) to water-only fasts. The “Daniel fast” (see Dan 1:12), consisting of veggies and water, is highly valued by many Christians, especially those not eager to attempt the water-only “Jesus fast” (see Matt 4:1–2). Daniel’s fast, in fact, closely resembles the liturgical fasts still faithfully embraced by a billion Christians worldwide.
During the forty days of Lent (“Great Lent”), millions of the faithful also “give up” targeted sources of pleasure or entertainment:
- social media
- time-consuming hobbies.
Such religiously inspired acts clearly express a beneficial form of self-denial. Still, they do not constitute fasting as used in this article.
Why Do People Fast?
Non-Christian motives for fasting vary widely, from eastern-religion asceticism to humanistic, self-centered fasts for various physical, mental, and “spiritual” benefits. Secular fasting gurus abound, promoting their latest bestselling books on National Public Radio—books that cost much more than a combo meal at your favorite fast-food restaurant. Running contrary to our society’s incessant addiction to more , a growing number of non-religious people are now embracing less !
As defined in this article, all fasters abstain from some or all food for a greater good.
For Christians, that greater good centers on four things:
- Answered prayers
- Becoming more like Christ
- More sensitive to God at work in their lives
- More victorious in their daily living.
Many Christians also pursue the secondary motive of becoming healthier people.
Physical health and spiritual vitality are never two mutually exclusive options on some lifestyle multiple choice question. Both improve as Christians fast; they are inherently complimentary in a life fully devoted to Christ’s lordship.
For those who actually believe that Jesus meant what he said, fasting is not an option. He gave specific instructions about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount: note that Matthew 6:16 states “and when you fast” (not if you fast) .
Jesus also foretold that, after his ascension, his disciples would fast! Three of the four Gospels record this comfort-challenging prophecy and implied command: Matthew 9:15, Mark 2:20, and Luke 5:35. Those texts contain no hint of an opt-out clause because of sugar-withdrawal headaches or caffeine-withdrawal shakes.
Christ’s disciples are characterized by fasting, especially when major decisions must be made (see Acts 13:2–3 and 14:23).
When I first began to fast monthly, I did not do so to devote myself to prayer. Rather, to my great surprise, prayer flowed almost effortlessly from my soul—as naturally as embarrassing odors flowed from my mouth and other parts of my body. As noted above, I fast primarily because Jesus said his disciples—the real ones, all of them—would do this!
He was, in effect, commanding me (and you) to engage regularly in some form of food abstinence. And I fast because it is profoundly, holistically good for me. Most of all, I fast to hear his voice, to know his heart, and to be surprised by both—again!
How Long Should We Fast?
Even if we accept fasting as part of the normal Christian life, key questions immediately surface.
- How much is enough?
- Does one meal count?
- What about two meals?
- Do we all need to fast for forty days to be like Jesus?
- Is fasting physically dangerous (especially if diabetic, etc.)?
So many questions arise about a spiritual discipline Christians in the West know so little about.
Varied answers abound for the how-long question.
As noted above, liturgical churches usually fast forty days during the pre-Easter Lenten season. Those who advocate the “Daniel fast” often set a ten-day to twenty-one-day fasting period.
Others promote no-food diets for a limited number of meals. Few, if any, recommend the no-nothing diet modelled by Saul of Tarsus (the apostle Paul) when “blinded by the Light” and totally dumbfounded in Damascus (Acts 9:9). Bible-based models are obviously quite diverse, as are medical-based models.
Prior to my 2011–to–2013 weight loss, the longest I ever fasted was one painfully abandoned meal. Early in 2012, however, I became consumed by a novel goal: “I will tithe my days through fasting three days this month . . . every month!”
These were—and remain for me—no-food days of exploring God and my own body, of confronting my cravings and food-focused destructive habits, of marveling at the fact that I rarely feel hungry, especially on day three.
I always break my fasts loving Jesus more, feeling food’s power over me shattered, and my prayers, thoughts, and goals dominated by God’s presence.
I began embracing (in ignorance) an approach to fasting with some scientific support in both the popular and scientific literature. Apparently three-day fasts with zero or near-zero caloric intake are really good for us!
What immediately amazed (and still amazes) me was the clear, centered, and cravings-free peace of day three. To date, I have not gone beyond a three-day fast. My spiritual, mental, and physical goals are satisfied, month by month, within those 72-hours.
Can We Truly Master Hunger and Cravings?
People who know my fasting lifestyle have asked how hungry I feel during those three days each month. My honest answer remains, “I’m almost never hungry!” Since I normally eat only two meals a day, I am already “fasting” part of every day.
The transition from my normal 16-hour “intermittent” fast to a 72-hour (three-day) fast is largely a hunger-free experience. Honestly, I wrestle more with hunger during non-fasting days than during those special hours of purposeful restraint. Even so, I am very grateful for that breaking-my-fast meal at the end of the three days.
Cravings are not hunger! True hunger is physiological; cravings are usually psychological.
God designed food to satisfy our bodies, not our minds! Far too many Christians bypass the Great Physician, preferring to self-medicate their inner wounds with food.
We must understand the purpose of food, for that understanding will empower us to value fasting as God’s way to bring holistic healing and comprehensive lifestyle change. In other words:
The purpose of food is
to push back true hunger,
so I can live and love,
and work and serve,
without weakness or distraction.
The purpose of fasting is
to embrace true hunger,
so I can cleanse body and soul,
and fellowship with Him who said,
“Man shall not live by bread alone.”
Until early 2012, I had little experience with true hunger. Even now, I struggle to distinguish hunger from the powerful pull of habits and the seductive sensation of cravings. I need three full days of fasting to relearn the difference.
Those three-day fasts crush my cravings and break my food-focused destructive habits —at least for another month! Giving thanks to God for his provision at the end of Day Three is an incredible joy.
A Final Appeal
Those who earnestly seek to follow Jesus must incorporate some form of food-focused fasting into their lives: view it as part of an authentic Christian life. From a biblical perspective, refusing to follow Christ into the emptiness of fasting is as unthinkable as refusing to follow him into the death-waters of baptism. Today, “when the bridegroom” is gone (Luke 5:35), our Lord is calling his follower to live out a fasting lifestyle.
1 Adapted from chapter 10 in my book, Sweaty, Sore, Sometimes Hungry: The Painful Joys of a Living Sacrifice : © 2019, Resource Publications. Copies of this book are available at steep discount, while supplies last. Contact me at 972-987-9045 or at [email protected] to reserve a copy. Alternatively, you can stop by my office in the Harrison Graduate School on the SAGU campus.
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