by Derek Spink
“In a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of place and out of step with the times.” - Richard Foster
Many people in both the sacred and secular communities may be confused by why Christians would fast, what fasting is, and what fasting is not. Let’s look at a quick breakdown of these questions:
- To enjoy intimacy with the presence of Jesus today (Mark 2:19-20)
- Jesus modeled it (Matthew 4:2)
- A long history to stand on (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23, plus the Patristics and later spiritual giants)
- For physical health (even secular physicians commend its benefits)
- For spiritual breakthrough (I Corinthians 6:12; 9:27; “When you take control of your physical appetite, you develop strength to take control of your other appetites.” – Elmer Towns)
- For the benefit others (we intercede on others’ behalf—Ezra 8:21, and our deprivation develops within us a new, acute awareness for others’ needs and hurts to which we can respond tangibly)
What is fasting?
- An act of worship (Luke 2:36-37)
- An act of humility (John 4:32; we place ourselves in a vulnerable position before God, trusting he will nourish us with spiritual food)
- A gift from God to strengthen our spiritual vitality and victory
- An opportunity for us to become more attentive to God (we recognize our inadequacies and his adequacy)
What is fasting not?
- A legalistic adherence to ritual (Isaiah 58:3-5)
- A way of ‘fixing’ problems in my life or convincing God (God will not be manipulated or cajoled)
- A way to demonstrate piety/spirituality (not a public exhibition, as Jesus taught in Matthew 6)
- Mandatory/compulsory (especially for salvation)
Having a healthier understanding of those basics, we can now embrace two natural questions as follow-up:
What is a proper fast?
Biblically, we have no specific guidelines as to what a ‘proper fast’ should look like, which makes sense because we see such a variety of fasts throughout scripture, each it seems with their own purpose. Jesus gave only one qualifier/rule for his followers: Don’t be like the Pharisees. In other words, don’t do it for show; don’t just put on a false spiritual veneer. Do it unto God, not to impress others. For both prayer and fasting, Jesus instructs us not to make a scene (Matthew 6:5-6, 16-18).
How can I fast?
- A ‘normal’ fast—no food; just water/juice
- An ‘absolute’ fast—nothing ingested at all; intended to be short-term, very serious health risks possible
- A ‘partial’ fast—certain foods or certain times of day
- A ‘non-food’ fast—giving up time with Facebook, TV, other habits, etc.
Remember: whether we forego food or entertainment, we must replace it with something else. So, instead of eating or playing a game or following social media, we spend time in prayer/meditation, scripture reading, or even serving the needs of others.
Food fasts are not for everyone. Depriving the body of food for any extended period can have serious health risks for some people (e.g., expectant mothers, those with diabetes, or others with a medical history). If that is you, then you should consult with your doctor before beginning a food-fast. Even though fasting is healthful to many, God’s nature and character would never command a physical exercise that would harm people either physically or emotionally. But, even if you are one for whom fasting may not be physically possible, you can still enter into the spirit of fasting even while remaining on your essential diets (as evidenced by the various types of fasts described above).