Why and How to Christian Fast

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Have you ever intentionally fasted for spiritual purposes? Maybe you’ve read about it in Scripture, thought about implementing it as a spiritual practice in your life, but weren’t sure where to start or if it was right for you.

Fasting is a spiritual discipline that is not talked about much in the modern church, and unless you are a Catholic during Lent, is practiced even less. Yet examples of fasting permeate the Bible. 

In this episode, we dive into what Scripture lays out as fasting and discuss the implications for modern-day believers. 

Let’s start with the basics and define our terms…

What is Fasting?

Fasting is purposefully and voluntarily disciplining your body through withholding something (typically food) in order to increase your reliance upon and desire for God.

Fasting turns our attention from ourselves and instead turns it to God and His glory, His provision, and His faithfulness.

It is voluntary, for Christians, and it is for spiritual purposes (not to lose weight, not to feel better, not to increase focus, etc…).

Fasting is usually done for a certain amount of time. Some people skip a meal, others don’t eat for a day, others don’t eat for weeks, and some people give up social media for a month. But whatever you do, it is a predetermined amount of time where you will give something up. It is intentional.

There are three different types of fasts: complete (normal) fast, partial fast, and absolute fast.

  • Complete: completely giving up food (but not water) for a certain amount of time (think not eating for a 24-hour period of time).
  • Partial: abstaining from a particular food. For example, giving up sweets for lent.
    • People who cannot do a complete fast can still partake in a partial fast (explain when Xan and I did a partial fast for a month where we only ate chicken, spinach, eggs, whole bread, apples, avocados, and potatoes) and only use salt and pepper and only drink water 
  • Absolute: neither eating nor drinking. This can only be done for a short amount of time. Don’t try and do this for longer than a day… This would not be good for you.

Why do we fast?

What exactly is the purpose of fasting?

1. We fast for spiritual purposes:

“Without a purpose, fasting can be a miserable, self-centered experience about will power and endurance.”

Don Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life

2. We also fast because it was prescribed by the Bible, and Jesus expected his followers to fast.

See Matthew 6:16-18 and Mark 2:18-22. Jesus says “when you fast” not “if you fast.” It was expected!

3. We also fast to recognize our finiteness/weaknesses, and to increase our trust, reliance, and dependence on God.

Ultimately, fasting is an act of humility. It does not guarantee that our prayers will be answered the way we want them to. See 2 Samuel 12 where David goes to God in prayer and fasting on behalf of his newborn child, but he still dies. We see time and time again throughout Scripture that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Fasting involves taking on an attitude of humility. 

4. When we hunger for food (or want whatever we are fasting on) it serves as a marker to turn our affections toward God (fasting glorifies God).

So when we are fasting from food, when we get hungry that serves as a marker/reminder to turn our affections toward God (whether that be through prayer, reading scripture, meditating on a passage, etc…). Let the hunger pangs actively bring you a deeper awareness of your need for God. Let it give you a sense of urgency to seek the Lord.

5. Fasting can transform our prayer life, reveal sin in our lives, and increase our heart for the lost.

I (Nathaniel) have heard this quote (but I can’t remember where from): “If you want your heart to be stirred for something, pray for it, give money, and give something up for it.” Fasting is the act of giving up food for a spiritual purpose.

Donald Whitney says, “Fasting does not change God’s hearing, it changes our praying.” It will lead us to pray more fervently and intentionally.

An Important Note:

Another thing that needs to be said… in a society that increasingly tells us to pursue whatever you want, eat whatever you want, and buy whatever you want, fasting increases our self-control. We are willingly depriving ourselves of something, and it helps us to do so in other areas of our lives. A fruit of the spirit is self-control and fasting helps increase our self-control. Denying yourself something that you want right now can be good for you- we don’t need instant gratification from everything!

What Fasting is NOT:

  • Fasting is not to earn God’s approval 
  • It is not to be done for ritualistic purposes. If there is no greater/spiritual purpose it is useless.
  • It does not excuse other sinful behavior (see Isaiah 58:3-10). 
  • We do not fast for approval from others.

Can We Fast From Things that are not Food?

This is more of a theological question…

Some people would say “it is only fasting when you give up food.” Don Whitney is an example of someone who holds to this. He says that Christian fasting is specifically from food and that other types of fasting should not be classified as Christian fasting.

Others like Martyn Lloyd-Jones say “Fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose.” AKA: you can fast from things that are not food. 

Food Only

People who say fasting only refers to food say that the Bible only refers to fasting in the context of food. Additionally, 1 Corinthians 5:7, when talking about intimacy between husbands and wives, says “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Some manuscripts say that you may devote yourselves to fasting and to prayer. People then take that to say that it didn’t refer to abstaining from intimacy as fasting from intimacy. I don’t think this is the most powerful, but the first argument is. 

These people would say that abstaining from other things (tv, social media, etc.) is a good practice but that that is abstaining from something, not fasting.

Not Just Food

I (Nathaniel) think that this is honestly a semantics issue. Whenever you give up something pleasurable that you habitually use or do on a daily or frequent basis for a spiritual purpose, that can be considered fasting. Thinking back to biblical times, eating was honestly the only thing that really met this definition. With technological advancements, honestly, for some people going without social media, tv, etc… would be more difficult than giving up food.

Don’t hold me to this, but I tentatively side with Martin-Lloyd Jones rather than Don Whitney in regard to this issue.

However, I would want to challenge you, unless you are pregnant or have a physical condition that would prevent you from doing so, to also make a discipline of regularly fasting from food. There is something to be said for that physical hunger that you get that reminds you of your dependence on the Lord. While you may have an itch to get on social media, or whatever else you may be fasting from, there is just something about that physical component and reminder.

How Do You Fast?

Where should you start with fasting??

1. Make a Plan

  • What are you fasting from?
    • If not food, what is something that would be beneficial for you to remove from your life for a day a week, a season, etc. (social media, TV, etc…)? What will leave a noticeable hole in your daily routine?
  • When are you going to fast?
    • If you fail to plan you plan to fail. Establish when you are going to fast (a day of the week, a week of the month, a certain amount of time).
  •  What are you going to do when you feel hungry?
    • Remember, the purpose of fasting is spiritual. It is not just to cut out food for the sake of cutting out food, or to lose weight, or because it’s a cool new fad. Are you going to spend time praying, reading the Bible, meditating, or memorizing Scripture? You could even make a list of things to pray for!
  • Make it difficult to engage in whatever you are fasting from
    • Have someone set phone passwords, leave the house early (to remove food temptation), etc…
  • Have someone hold you accountable
    • This is tricky because you’re not doing it for show. A spouse, a close friend, etc… Having someone know and hold you accountable to your fast can be helpful and motivating.

2. If Fasting From Food

  • Make sure you don’t have any harmful conditions that would be exacerbated by fasting. 
  • If fasting for a short time (a day or a couple of days), there’s really not too much preparation involved. Just cut out food for that period of time, decide what you are going to replace meal times with, and decide what you’re going to do when you’re hungry. 
    • Good to replace meal times with scripture reading or meditation 
    • Good to pray when feel hungry (you may have a certain thing you’re praying for every time you feel hungry, or you may use that as a marker for prayer in general) 
  • If you’re preparing for a longer fast:
    • Start reducing food intake the week before
    • See above for doing the actual fast 
    • When breaking the fast, understand that your stomach has shrunk, and start with fruit juices, and small, simple foods.
    • We want to be careful when talking about this. Be wise and smart with how you prepare for, practice, and come back from a longer food fast.

3. Do not do it for show!

It is a heart, motivation issue. Fasting is not something that needs to be announced to be seen by others.

If you liked this episode, we break it down in a more digestible format and go more in depth in the Theologian Haus. We do the same for a lot more spiritual disciplines and other topics! 

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