On Fasting

Mike writes this week’s entry about the historic practice of Lent: fasting. Dave adds some notes he’s gathered over the years about the Bible on Fasting and some contemporary responses to its practice. Like all “spiritual disciplines,” its main purpose is to make space for God in our lives.

“Even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. (Joel 2:12-13) 

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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.   (Jesus, in Matthew 6:16-18)

Fasting—not exactly the most popular of the spiritual disciplines. Yet, Jesus did not say, “If you fast.” He actually said, “When you fast.” Most of the earth’s Christians for most of the church’s history have fasted regularly—for spiritual reasons—not to cleanse their bodies of unwanted toxins or in order to lose weight. 

Thinking about fasting takes me back to when I was a young boy growing up in the Greek Orthodox Church. Orthodox Christians are supposed to fast every Wednesday and Friday from meat, fish, dairy, and eggs unless it is a special no-fasting time. My family didn’t do that, but we did fast on Fridays along with the Catholics, Anglicans, and some of the Methodists. My father’s tavern (Sares Bar) had a Fish Fry every Friday evening—so we tailored the Friday fast to suit our economic reality. I still enjoy fish and chips.

We did get serious about fasting a couple times a year, and the forty days before Easter was one of those times. Sunday school was the venue for making sure we big-eyed, dark-haired, olive-skinned Greek kids made the commitment. I remember the papers being handed out during class. There was a picture of the Orthodox Cross on one side (that made it official) and all these lines for writing on the other. When I listed the food items I would be giving up during Lent, I did it out of obligation thinking somehow I would become a better person and that God would be pleased with my sacrifice. I could be very specific about what to abstain from: chewing gum but not licorice; chocolate but not hard candy; my brothers but not my sister. (That’s a joke, but you get the idea.)

Sometimes I don’t think I have progressed much beyond that. During my times of fasting as an adult, there are times I will long for a piece of pizza—not so much because I’m hungry, but for the sheer pleasure of taste. At those times, I wish I had been more specific at the outset (for example: fast from all Italian food except pizza). So, God uses fasting as an adult to re-inform me of how hedonistic I really am. 

Until I fasted, I never noticed how good the stuff on other peoples’ plates looked when at the dinner table or at a restaurant. I’d never noticed how often food is advertised in the newspaper, on television, at the movies, or on billboards. One gets the paranoid feeling that the world is out to sabotage one’s fast. Perhaps the devil is not pleased when we seek Heavenly Bread and wants to divert our attention as often as possible. It reminds me of Satan’s encounter with Jesus where he suggested that Jesus turn stones into bread. Our Lord’s answer is amazing: “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)  To be sure, fasting is a form of spiritual warfare with our culture and with spiritually dark forces. It is a doorway to understanding our dependence upon Jesus Christ.

I usually begin fasting now with noble goals of toppling my own “idols” and of drawing closer to God; but in the middle of the fast the temptation is toward performance and results. Sometimes it becomes more about the weight I can lose than about the relationship with God I can gain. God can be lost in the details of the very thing meant to find him. It becomes more about what I can do by means of this religious exercise as opposed to what God can do in me. What began because I was not strong enough in some area of my life—and looking for God’s help—ends up becoming a type of self-help process by which I prove I don’t need the grace of God. Ironic! Once again I am that young Greek Orthodox boy proving to God that I can be a good Christian. 

If there is one thing that Jesus proved during his temptation, it was that He depended upon the Father totally. He did nothing in his own power. If you are fasting during this time of Lent (and even if you are not) you, too, will be tempted but not just with food. You will be tempted to live life on your own power—even life with God. So, stay close to Jesus. Monitor your motives. Confess your mental slip-ups to a trusted friend. Forgive yourself when you accidentally (or willfully) break your fast. Keep your eyes on Jesus more than on yourself. By His grace, you will lean less upon food, less upon yourself, and learn to lean more upon the Everlasting Arms of Christ.

Why Fast?
– Mourning (sometimes this occurs naturally as a grieving response)
– Repentance
– Need (for Strength, Mercy, Help, Direction, a Word from God) 
– Preparation for ministry
– Worship 

Why NOT to fast
– In order to appear spiritual
– So that we can manipulate God
– In order to lose weight

When NOT to fast:
– When our deeds are evil (repent first)

How to Fast
– Abstain from certain foods
– Abstain from certain meals 
– Abstain from food for a specified period of time (like Lent) or certain days of the week
– Abstain from media and/or comforts 
– Abstain from certain habits
– Observe the Church Calendar (also known as the Liturgical Year)  
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster (HarperCollins)
The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard (HarperCollins) 
Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adelle Ahlberg Calhoun (IVP)


The Bible on FASTING                                                                                                 
It was not Christ’s intention to reject or despise fasting. It was His intention to restore proper fasting.”  
~ Martin Luther.  

A. Throughout Scripture, fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes
Daniel (Dan 10) gave up all “delicacies”, no meat or wine (nor bathing) for three weeks
Esther (Esther 4) instructed Mordecai to ask all Jews to neither eat nor drink for three days.
Paul (Acts 9) engaged a three-day absolute fast following his Damascus road experience. 
Moses (Deut 9), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) and Jesus did a “supernatural” absolute fast for 40 days. 

B. The People of God and Fasting
The only public fast required in the Mosaic Law was on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27)
Group fasts were called in times of emergency (Joel 2:15; 2 Chron 20:1-4; Ezra 8:21-23)
Regular fasts developed.  Zechariah mentions four regular fasts (Zechariah 8:19)
A Pharisee boasted that he fasted twice a week (Luke 8:12)
The Didache (1st century) prescribes two fast days a week on Wednesday and Friday.  
There are no biblical laws for New Testament believers that command regular fasting.  

C. Jesus’ teaching of fasting
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6) Jesus assumes fasting was part of the practices of His earliest followers and suggests that fasting is tied in with giving and praying. His first words about fasting dealt with the question of motive.  Fasting must center on God. 
Like the prophetess Anna, we need to be “worshipping God fasting and praying” (Luke 2:37). 
The church at Antioch received a word from God “while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting” (Acts 13:2-3) and set apart Paul and Barnabas as missionaries. 
Yet, Jesus’ followers were also accused of not fasting, unlike the disciples of John the Baptist.  (Matthew 9:14-15) 

“Jesus made it clear that he expected his disciples to fast after he was gone… that the children of the kingdom of God would fast.  For the person longing for a more intimate walk with God, these Statement of Jesus are drawing words.” 
~ Richard Foster 

D. “Secondary” purposes of fasting, by Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline
Fasting reveals the things that controls us. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. 
Fasting reminds us that we are sustained “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4). Therefore, in experiences of fasting we are not so much abstaining from good as we are feasting on the word of God.  Fasting is feasting!” (John 4:32-34)
Fasting helps us keep our balance in life.  How easily we begin to allow non essentials to take precedence in our lives.  How quickly we crave things we do not need.” (1 Cor. 9:27). 
David fasted for his enemies to keep himself from vengeance (Psalm 35:11-14) 

E. Recommendations for a traditional food fast (Foster)
A progression should be observed, as with all the Disciplines. If the setting allows, debate the time you would normally use eating to prayer. 
Follow Jesus’ counsel to refrain from calling attention to what you are doing. Learn from others before you attempt a longer fast. 
Learn the process your body goes through in the course of a longer fast.

2 thoughts on “On Fasting”

  1. Excellent Mike. Thank you. So concise.

    Piper’s Hunger For God is one of my go-to helps in fasting. Certain dog eared pages reorient my motives & “hunger” to fast.

    Your last paragraph before the lists is transferrable to any discussion of Christian living:

    Jesus depended totally on the Father.
    We will always be tempted to do life on our own power.
    Keep our eyes on Jesus.
    Lean into the arms of Christ.

    Amen. What a fresh breath of simple truths.

    Blessings to you.

  2. Orthodox Christians still keep the fast. I am not a good faster, but I was still inspired by these words send by our Priest at the beginning of the fast:

    As we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. . .

    Fast from judging others; feast on the Christ dwelling in us.

    Fast from emphasis on differences; feast on the unity of life.

    Fast from apparent darkness; feast on the reality of light.

    Fast from thoughts of illness; feast on the healing power of God.

    Fast from words that pollute; feast on phrases that purify.

    Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude.

    Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism.

    Fast from worry; feast on divine order.

    Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation.

    Fast from negatives; feast on affirmatives.

    Fast from unrelenting pressures; feast on unceasing prayer.

    Fast from hostility; feast on non-resistance.

    Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness.

    Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.

    Fast from personal anxiety; feast on eternal truth.

    Fast from discouragements; feast on hope.

    Fast from lethargy; feast on enthusiasm.

    Fast from thoughts that weaken; feast on promises that inspire.

    Fast from idle gossip; feast on purposeful silence.

    Fast from problems that overwhelm; feast on prayer that fulfills.

    If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God.

    Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, but by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions.

    In Christ’s Love,
    Fr. Vasileios

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