As we read through the New Testament, particularly the Gospels and Acts, we encounter the practice of fasting which is seldom given much attention in the local churches with which I am familiar. There is nothing particularly mysterious about fasting; it is simply abstaining from eating for a specified period of time.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul indicates that a married couple may choose to set aside normal sexual activity during a fast, though this is not required. A fast can be absolute (no food or drink whatsoever) or partial. Most fasts, particularly longer ones, allow water or other clear beverages.
While I’ve found Christians to be generally interested in fasting as a topic, few are disposed to practice it. Jesus did not command His followers to fast, but His use of the phrase “when you fast” (Matthew 5:17) suggests that He expected they would. Additionally, the book of Acts indicates that fasting was part of early church practice and in 2 Corinthians, Paul refers twice to his own habit of fasting.
Among the reasons to fast, I would place following Christ’s expectation and the pattern of the early church at the top of the list. But there are other reasons to consider.
Fasting allows us to sharpen our focus on God in a conscious way. The hunger pangs which we experience serve as frequent reminders that we are actively seeking God and submitting ourselves to Him. Most of the time, even when we give thanks before eating, the satiation of hunger is just a natural part of our day without spiritual implications. Occasional fasting draws our attention to the link between God as the source of life and His role as the sustainer of life.
A reminder of the spiritual
One of the great benefits of fasting is that it liberates us from the everyday slavery of pleasing ourselves. We are so used to thoughtlessly satisfying our physical appetites that we become habituated to the idea that these appetites must be served. Fasting reminds us that the spiritual transcends the physical.
The last benefit of fasting that I will mention is its ability to raise character issues which need to be addressed. Stress usually reveals negative aspects of the inner self. Fasting is a controlled source of stress and can help us spot our weaknesses. Things like impatience, anxiety, ungratefulness, and temper will become evident and we can use this awareness to intentionally address those areas.
What if an invitation to eat comes during my fast time? No problem, you can truthfully say, “That’s not convenient for me, how about next week?” People usually are flexible enough to adjust to your schedule. If someone needs your company or counsel urgently and has no time other than a meal time, break your fast. Ministering to a brother (or a stranger) in need is usually more important than your fast.
Can you lose weight fasting? In our multi-task culture, we love to combine things. I would counsel you against combining fasting with dieting. If you need to lose weight, find a healthy way to do that and stick to it faithfully. The spiritual benefit of fasting is watered down when we try to use it to attain physical results.
What does fasting say about me? Be careful not to use fasting to impress yourself with your own spirituality or will power. It is easy to fall into that trap.
Does fasting “test” God (which we are instructed not to do)? No. Fasting does not obligate God to do anything. Some have tried to use fasting to manipulate God to do something for them, but God does not “owe us” because we practice this or any other spiritual discipline.
What if someone finds out I’m fasting? Jesus warned against making a show of fasting, so we shouldn’t brag about it, but being paranoid about others finding out is not healthy either. Overemphasis on secrecy can be as much a point of pride as boasting. It’s virtually impossible to hide fasting from family members and difficult to keep from workmates. Don’t make a big deal about it either way. It’s just something you do. People will get used to it.
A few practical tips regarding fasting
Know your spiritual goal before you start. It may be as general as desiring to humble yourself before God or as specific as seeking guidance regarding some “next step” in your life. Whatever it is, identify it before you start.
Start small. Skip one meal to begin to get a sense of what to expect. Gradually increase your fasting time, but know why you are doing it. Just as long prayers don’t impress God (Matthew 6:7), neither do long fasts.
Check with your doctor. This is not a significant issue if you have “normal health,” but fasting can be hazardous if you have health issues, particularly those related to the regulation of blood sugar.
Consider partial fasts (especially if you have health issues). We don’t fast to prove something to God (or anyone else). Fasting from a particular food item or food group may accomplish your spiritual goals if you have the appropriate attitude.
Break your fast with healthy, fiber-rich foods. Longer fasts may produce a strong desire for fats, salt and sugar. Avoid overindulging these cravings as you end your fast. Try a salad with whole-grain bread instead.
The last word
I don’t know any people who have seriously tried fasting and wished they hadn’t, but I know several who have not that wonder if they are missing something.
Editorial Note: This article was adapted from a chapter in Ron’s book “Refresh: 19 ways to boost your spiritual life” published by Gospel Folio Press available in softcover and e-book formats.