In the land of golden arches, pizza huts, donut shrines, and we can’t forget the temple of gluttony (Shady Maple!), fasting seems very out of place. We are bombarded with messages telling us if we don’t eat three meals and lots of snacks in between, then we are on the brink of starvation. Moreover, with 24 hour news coverage, constantly connected electronics, and social media, we live in a land that is consecutively more connected and disconnected at the same time. Is fasting the answer to these problems? What is fasting, and how do we do it?
The dictionary definition of fasting is this: to abstain from all or some kinds of food or drink, especially as a religious observance.
From a biblical standpoint, fasting refers to abstaining from food and drink for spiritual purposes – always centered on spiritual purposes. As opposed to modern variants of fasting for vanity or to gain power (think hunger strike) or for medical purposes. For the Christian, fasting is all about God, it’s all about drawing close to our Heavenly Father and spending time with Him. It is never manipulative, or about getting our way. Many of the great patriarchs of the Bible fasted: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Paul, and even Jesus.
In the Bible, the normal way of fasting involves abstaining from all food, whether solid or liquid, but not from water*. In our modern day, when we are connected to electronic devices 24/7 or hooked on the news media many hours a day, fasting can involve cutting ties to these things. Disconnecting from the world sometimes is a good thing. Fasting is all about forgoing what hinders us from connecting to God. So fasting can go beyond just food, but that’s a great place to start.
Let’s look at what Jesus says about fasting. Matthew 6:16-18 records these words of Jesus on fasting:
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.
Fasting should be a joyous time. It’s a time to connect to our Heavenly Father. We do not want to draw attention to ourselves, or tell people we are fasting. This should be something sacred between you and God.
Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
If we make a big production of our fast, then people will be impressed with our devotion, and that is all the reward we will receive. Instead of the rewards of drawing closer to God, our reward will be here on earth instead of stored in Heaven.
17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Instead, we should carry on like nothing is happening. The only difference is that the time we spend on whatever we are fasting from should be spent with God. So take a walk at lunch, get outside, go to your prayer closet, or go wherever you need to; to have time with God. Leave the cell phone behind!
In another passage, John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus why His disciples were not fasting. Some look at this as evidence that we, today, don’t need to fast. But look at what Jesus said:
15 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
Jesus is saying that there will be a time when all His followers will need to fast. That time started when Jesus ascended to the Father.
Fasting is all about you and God. It’s a time to bring your life to bear before Him who KNOWS you best. It should be a blessing, it should be an encouraging time, and it should set you on a forward course with what God wants to do in your life.
So we now know what fasting is. How do we fast?
Since there are no laws to bind us, we are free to fast on any day, any time, and in any way we like*. There are different ways to fast from food; one way is a total fast from all food (like Jesus in Luke 4:2), but not water. Another way is a partial fast from certain foods (like Daniel in Daniel 10:3). Fasting is usually considered a private matter between you and God, and so you should consult with the Holy Spirit on how you should fast, or ask Him what you should fast from. If our fasting is not about God, we have failed. Physical benefits, success in prayer, the enduing with power, even spiritual insights– must never replace God as the center of our fasting.*
A good place to start, if fasting from food, is the partial fast. Just fast from one meal a day, or fast for 24 hours from lunch to lunch. It is ok to drink fruit juices or water during the fast. After a week or 2, you may be ready to try a full 24 hour fast, from morning to morning. To break a fast from food, eat a very light meal of fresh fruits and vegetables. If family obligations permit it, devote the time you would normally spend eating to meditation on God’s word and prayer*.
At times fasting can be something we do corporately, like during the 21 Days of Prayer. A group fast can be a wonderful and powerful experience where we all come together with one mind and purpose. It helps us to know we are not alone, it keeps us focused, and it brings us comfort. If you are able, please consider joining your church family as we set aside 21 days (Dec. 31 – Jan. 22) to pray and fast, while seeking God’s face for the new year.
*Foster, R. J. (1988). Celebration of Discipline. Harper San Francisco.