I hope your practice of silence and solitude this week awakened a hunger for more – I think these intertwined practices tie with submission as being the most countercultural. Last week I tried to hint at the relationship between the two – submission being the thought habit, silence/solitude being the practical habit – and perhaps this week you were able to experience h0w each is dependent upon and enables the other.
This week we’ll explore the ancient practice of fasting: its history, its purposes, and its practice.
The historical practice of fasting: a main course, or icing on the cake?
When you survey the list of spiritual disciplines this course covers, you may notice that the list includes some that seem to be obvious expectations of the Christian life, such as prayer, study, giving money (in the context of simplicity), service, and worship. Others seem to be going the extra mile, like solitude & silence, guidance, and this one – fasting. I think most Christians view fasting as something extra but not required, at least not in the same way as prayer or service may be constitutive or required.
But there is actually no division between the “required” disciplines and the “extra” disciplines. Both the Old and New Testament reveal that believers made no such distinction in their practices of solitude, fasting, prayer, meditation, service, and worship alike. Generally when the Bible mentions fasting, it means abstaining from all food but not from water, although it does witness to a range of fasting practices:
Here is a quick list of Scriptural examples you’re welcome to explore further: Esther 4:3, Daniel 9, Ezra and Nehemiah’s fasting for repentance after they saw the destroyed wall of Jerusalem, Nineveh’s corporate fast in response to Jonah’s prophecy, Jesus’ private fast from both food and water for 40 days in the wilderness, and the church at Antioch’s (Acts 13:1ff) corporate fast. Fasting can be private or public, and can be either complete or selective abstinence.
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, fasting is referenced as simply a practice that was done – not a practice we absolutely must do, or a practice that is completely optional, but a practice that is done often. Fasting is a practice that grows the eternal life within us, a practice that makes us capable of unthinkable intimacy with our God. In fact, all the disciplines presented in Scripture are not just helpful but transformative in equal but different ways. We just may be more comfortable or more familiar with how certain disciplines work than others.
So although I really don’t know how it happened, fasting is one of those disciplines that over time has appeared optional rather than foundational for living the Christian life, when the reality is that it is foundational and just as widely mentioned in the Bible as any other discipline.
The purposes of fasting
To recognize our need for God
We fast because we want to reveal and focus on our hunger for God. National events or individual events may be catalysts for fasting, but the primary reason is always to focus on God as the true bread of life. When I first began practicing the discipline of fasting, I found this also to be the quickest benefit to surface. Very quickly, I realized that I had a spiritual hunger for the words of God that was even more central to survival than my hunger for food. Yet I honored and fed my hunger for food without fail – while I often just ignored any spark of spiritual hunger for the words of God or for time with God, because there was often something else that seemed more urgent, or more pressing. But as Jesus said, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The spiritual hunger is the primary hunger we need to feed – even our physical hunger is secondary, because God himself has the power to sustain us. We don’t need food in the same way that we need God, who is our creator and sustainer and redeemer. Yet while we cannot tolerate physical hunger, we easily tolerate spiritual hunger. And if you ignore the natural pangs of hunger, they will eventually fade and you will eventually starve.
I was recently diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, which means I can’t eat anything with wheat in it (bread, pasta, anything made with flour, cookies, baked goods, etc.) – which means I am half-starving most of the time. But I have learned that you can ignore physical hunger, causing it to become less acute and making it even easier to ignore. Often I really don’t know when I’m hungry or not, because I’ve gotten used to being slightly starving most of the time. Until I’m exhausted or highly irritable – and then I think, what is wrong with me? Hmm, maybe I’m hungry. I don’t feel hungry, but it is true that I haven’t eaten much today, and I conceptually know that my body needs food to work well… so I decide to eat something, and I feel a little better. That must have been it. But because I have been ignoring those normal feelings of hunger, I don’t feel hunger directly – I have to think about it.
The same is true about our spiritual hunger. When we ignore it, or get distracted habitually, we eventually don’t even feel the hunger for God anymore. So when we notice symptoms of being disconnected from God, such as great anxiety or obvious self-absorption, we think, what’s wrong with us? We may even be moved to medicate ourselves out of the symptoms – but that only further masks the real problem. We don’t realize that sometimes (no, not all the time) our psychological, physical, or even circumstantial symptoms are simply rooted in a hunger for God. We come up with some other secondary reason, like, I have too much responsibility in my life, or, I just need to end this friendship – which isn’t the cause at all, it’s just the symptom.
Fasting is how we uncover our true and primary hunger for God. And the more we get back in the habit of feeding that hunger for God by spending time with him, the more acute that hunger will be when we once again become disconnected. When that hunger for God is satiated, the next time it will come back stronger, such that it will be obvious that we haven’t spent time with God and we will do it more quickly next time because we will have experienced how it feeds us. We’ll habitually feed ourselves with God’s presence, just like we habitually feed ourselves physically – three square meals a day, plus snacks.
To reveal our true motives
Fasting reveals our true motives and our true heart. Especially in our culture, as good as food is and as much as our physical bodies were created to need food, we can use food to distract us or cover up what may be uncomfortable to face. When we fast, we immediately see the true condition of our heart, good and bad.
I’ll use myself as an example: all my life I’ve struggled with being overly critical. I’ve done all sorts of soul-searching and restoration work and prayer and guidance to understand where that came from, and I trust that God is working to root it out of me, with my help. Now, when I have a full belly, a good night’s sleep, and all of my resources about me, I have enough ability to cover it up, or to put on love anyway, despite my gut-level first thought, and this critical spirit is almost invisible to me, and maybe to other people as well. But when I fast, I am immediately critical and I don’t have the ability to cover it up anymore. It’s just inescapably right there.
Knowing that we are saved by grace gives us the freedom to be fully honest with ourselves and with God about the reality of our heart, because there is no condemnation. God wants to help us root this out, whatever it is. True sanctification, true abundant life, is when our hearts are truly loving, joyful, patient, peaceful, self-sacrificing, with no effort – it is not just having enough energy to cover up the true state of our heart, to look good to ourselves and to others. Jesus saw this in the Pharisees, and called them whited sepulchers, or whitewashed tombs. [I can't help myself with this linguistic aside: The NIV translates the term "whitewashed tombs," but you just can’t do better than the King James' "whited sepulchers." If someone calls you a whitewashed tomb, you can understand the point and maybe be offended, but if someone calls you a whited sepulcher, you really feel like you’ve been sworn at. It's somewhat onomatopoetic, isn't it?] We are not to be whited sepulchers – we don’t have to cover up the filth inside from our Father – he does not condemn us, he’s the only one who can help us clean the inside of the cup. That is freedom.
We need to fast so that we can see the true state of our heart, when we don’t have a full belly and full resources about us, so we can invite God to help us clean up.
Increased power in prayer
Many biblical examples combine prayer with fasting, so I’ll highlight just a few. Daniel prays and fasts on behalf of his people (Daniel 9:3), the prophet Anna fasts and prays in the temple about the coming of the Messiah (Luke 2:37), and Paul leads a newly formed congregation in fasting and prayer to consecrate them to God (Acts 14:23).
But you want to be careful about using fasting as a way to make God do what you want. If you’re seeking an answer that he’s not ready to reveal, you’re not going to force his hand just by fasting. But you will be brought into the stream of his purposes and his will, and hopefully get a clear answer, such as: “Now is not the time for the answer. I want you to depend on me more. I want you to get help for your addiction.” Etc. This is a great pitfall I tend to fall into in prayer – I sometimes think that if I pray very definitively with great faith, God has to do what I ask. But fasting combined with prayer reveals our heart all the more, and we become less prone to just asking for what will make our life easier, but instead become capable of bearing suffering for a purpose. We see his larger goal and his larger purposes for the entire world, and realize the whole world doesn’t exist for our temporary comfort. So that’s one caution – we fast and pray to get tapped into his will and his purposes, not to just make God give us what we want. And if you do discover you’ve fasted and prayed for something that is ultimately selfish, there’s no shame in it. Just be thankful that you now know it’s selfish, and you don’t have to waste any more hidden longing for it. You were open with God, you asked honestly for what you wanted, he showed you it wasn’t good for you, you heard him, and you can be thankful. Another step in freedom.
Our prayers are more powerful when we are aligned with the will of God, and when we are fasting, that heightened hunger seems to translate easily into a heightened intensity and hunger in prayer. And that heightened focus, perhaps, makes us more attuned to the will of God as well as closer to the heart of God – our strong hunger takes us there. The idea of intercession is a mysterious one: God wants us to ask for things, and actually sometimes withholds his hand from doing something until we ask. That baffles me, that God has chosen to wait for us, but it’s undeniable that he does. He has chosen to work out his will through our cooperation and participation. If that’s true, and we want to take that responsibility seriously, fasting clarifies, focuses, and empowers our praying.
The practice of fasting
We can practice fasting individually, either in response to a particular event (such as an emergency, an important decision, a clear direction from God, or for someone’s else’s intense need), or as a spiritual habit, through lifestyle fasting (one meal a week, or one day a month) or through liturgical rhythm (some method of fasting during Lent, for example).
Or you can fast as a group – again, either during an event (such as a corporate emergency or planned calendar day such as the National Day of Prayer) or within a community practicing a fasted lifestyle, such as the various houses of prayer that are popping up all over the country.
One expression of fasting that is becoming more and more widespread is the fasted lifestyle, based on what Jesus said to his disciples: they should feast while the bridegroom is with them, but when he is taken away, then they will fast. Some feel called to visibly live out this waiting for our bridegroom by regularly fasting one day a month. This is not a required form of fasting, but a specific calling to be a visible witness that’s needed in the world, just like those who live in community, or those called to servant ministry, or those called to any particular role in the body of Christ. We aren’t all called and equipped to do every role, but we are all called and equipped to serve one role, and the more we can identify and focus that role, and leave other roles for other people, the freer and more effective we will be.
How to begin
Sometimes the desire to fast is initiated by the Lord, and sometimes it’s simply a desire to incorporate the practice. The important thing is that you don’t have wait until you’re absolutely positive. Fasting is never a bad thing to try!
Here are some progressive examples of fasting:
24-hour fast – use food prep/eating/cleaning up time to read Scripture and pray
36 hour fast – water only
Three to seven days – for this level, I’d strongly recommend you wait for clear direction from God. Personally, I’ve never done an absolute fast for longer than three days, but those who have tell me that the first three days are the hardest, because that’s how long it takes for our bodies to detoxify. Apparently it gets easier by the fourth day. I’d recommend reading the Fasting chapter in Celebration of Discipline for more instruction on advanced fasting.
This week, we’re going to try a 24-hour fast – from sundown to sundown. Pick the day easiest for you – when you don’t have a lunch date or other commitments involving food. Use the time you’d spend on food preparation and eating for meditation and prayer, and be aware of the true condition of your heart. Cultivate that hunger for God, who sustains you physically and spiritually. And write down what you notice. If you’re accustomed to fasting, you’re certainly welcome to fast longer than 24 hours, of course!
I’d love to hear about your experiences with fasting this week, so please do feel free to post. As always, you can email me directly at email@example.com.