Excerpt from Spiritual Disciplines Handbook

Fast­ing has been part and par­cel of the Judeo-Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion for mil­len­nia. Scrip­ture is replete with exam­ples of peo­ple who fast for a vari­ety of reasons.

Old Tes­ta­ment saints fast­ed at times of mourn­ing and nation­al repen­tance. They fast­ed when they need­ed strength or mer­cy to per­se­vere and when they want­ed a word from God (see 1 Samuel 7:6; Nehemi­ah 1:4; Esther 4:16). How­ev­er, fast­ing was no mag­i­cal guar­an­tee that God would answer as the inter­ces­sor want­ed. King David fast­ed when he want­ed God to spare tie life of Bathshe­ba’s child, but the child died (2 Samuel 12:16 – 20).

Fast­ing was a nor­mal prac­tice for the Jews of Jesus day. Jesus began his min­istry with a forty-day fast. He also prac­ticed fast­ing before heal­ings and to over­come temp­ta­tion. But he did not hold his fol­low­ers to a strict régime of fast­ing (Matthew 4:2; Mark 2:18 – 19: Luke 5:33).

The New Tes­ta­ment church some­times fast­ed when it sought God’s will and need­ed the grace and strength to remain faith­ful to God’s work. There were also fast times linked to times of wor­ship (Acts 13:2 – 3).

In many Chris­t­ian tra­di­tions fast­ing is an impor­tant part of prepar­ing to embrace a par­tic­u­lar litur­gi­cal sea­son. Dur­ing Lent, fast­ing reminds the church of how Jesus gave up every­thing – even his life — for us.

Scrip­ture also gives a vari­ety of warn­ings about fast­ing for the wrong rea­sons or with the wrong atti­tude: (1) When peo­ple do not live as God desires they should be pre­pared for fast­ing to accom­plish noth­ing (Isa­iah 58:3 – 7). (2) Fast­ing is not for appear­ances. It does not make any­one pious or holy, and it does not earn points with God (Matthew 6: i6; Luke 18:9 – 14).

Fast­ing is not a mag­i­cal way to manip­u­late God into doing our will; it’s not a way to get God to be an accom­plice to our plans. Nei­ther is fast­ing a spir­i­tu­al way to lose weight or con­trol others.

Fast­ing clears us out and opens us up to inten­tion­al­ly seek­ing God’s will and grace in a way that goes beyond nor­mal habits of wor­ship and prayer. While fast­ing, we are one on one with God, offer­ing him the time and atten­tive­ness we might oth­er­wise be giv­ing to eat­ing, shop­ping or watch­ing television.

Fast­ing is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to lay down an appetite — an appetite for food, for media, for shop­ping. This act of self-denial may not seem huge — it’s just a meal or a trip to the mall — but it brings us face to face with the hunger at the core of our being. Fast­ing expos­es how we try to keen emp­ty hunger at bay and gain a sense of well-being by devour­ing crea­ture com­forts. Through self-denial we begin to rec­og­nize what con­trols us. Our small denials of the self-show us just how lit­tle taste we actu­al­ly have for sac­ri­fice or time with God.

This truth is not meant to dis­cour­age us. It’s sim­ply the first step in real­iz­ing that we have to lay down our life in order to find it again in God. Bri­an Tay­lor puts it like this in Becom­ing Christ: Self-denial is pro­found­ly con­tem­pla­tive for it works by the process of human sub­trac­tion and divine addi­tion.” Deny your­self a meal, and when your stom­ach growls I’m hun­gry,” take a moment to turn from your empti­ness to the nour­ish­ment of every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Feed on Jesus, the bread of life. Skip the radio or TV for a day and become aware of how fid­gety you are when you aren’t being amused or divert­ed. Then dodge the remote, and embrace Jesus and his words: my food… is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34). Taste the dif­fer­ence between what tru­ly nour­ish­es the soul — the liv­ing bread and the life-giv­ing water — and what is sim­ply junk food.

Fast­ing reminds us that we care about soul” things. We care about the church. We care about the world. We care about doing God’s will. Thus we will­ing­ly set aside a lit­tle com­fort so we can lis­ten and attend to the voice and nour­ish­ment of God alone. For God can give us grace and com­fort and nur­ture we can­not get on our own.

Guide­lines for Fast­ing from Food

  • Don’t fast when you are sick, trav­el­ing, preg­nant or nurs­ing. Peo­ple with dia­betes, gout, liv­er dis­ease, kid­ney dis­ease, ulcers, hypo­glycemia, can­cer and blood dis­eases should not fast.
  • Don’t fast if you are in a hur­ry and are fast­ing for imme­di­ate results regard­ing some decision.
  • Fast­ing is not magic.
  • Stay hydrat­ed. Always drink plen­ty of water and fluids.
  • If you are new to fast­ing, begin by fast­ing for one meal. Spend the time with God that you would nor­mal­ly be eating.
  • Work up to longer fasts. Don’t attempt pro­longed fasts with­out guid­ance. Check with your doc­tor before attempt­ing long peri­ods of fasting.
  • If you decide to fast reg­u­lar­ly, give your body time to adjust to new rhythms of eat­ing. You may feel more tired on days you fast.
  • Begin after sup­per. Fast until sup­per the next day. This way you miss 2, rather than 3, meals.
  • Don’t break your fast with a huge meal. Eat small por­tions of food. The longer the fast, the more you need to break the fast gently.

What to do in the Time Set Apart for Fasting

  • Bring your Bible and a glass of water dur­ing your fast.
  • Spend some time wor­ship­ing God for his faith­ful­ness. Thank him for where he has come through for you. Psalm 103:1 – 5 also pro­vides a start­ing point for praise.
  • Bring your desires to God. Ask him if this desire is in line with his will and his word for you and the church. Be still and lis­ten. Offer your desires and prayers to God.

Tak­en from Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines Hand­book by Adele Ahlberg Cal­houn. ©2015 by Adele Ahlberg Cal­houn. Used by per­mis­sion of Inter­Var­si­ty Press, P.O. Box 1400, Down­ers Grove IL 60515 – 1426. www​.ivpress​.com

Originally published October 2005

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