Introductory Note:

This 40 year old message from Richard Foster has the lived-in feel of a teaching shared many times. Richard spoke this message to dozens of audiences in the 1980s. You can sense his passion and his great hope that his listeners will take hold of the grace God has deposited within the discipline of fasting and its many iterations. Speaking about fasting was ground breaking at the time, because the practice had disappeared from the life of the church in many North American contexts. While we may be more familiar with fasting now, the different aspects and forms of fasting Richard mentions may serve as invitations from the Spirit to you this Lenten season. For example, though he spoke these words many years before smart phones would become our constant companions, Richard identifies phones (and media, which we now access through phones) as potentially corrosive to our concentration and our relationships. How much more so now! The talk ends with Richard’s suggestion: “Maybe God would open your heart to some area of surrender in order to more adequately listen to the Lord as we prepare for Easter.” What practical ways of surrendering and listening are you leaning into during Lent?

Renovaré Team
February 2023

It is so good of you to invite me to be here with you. I owe a great debt to Southern Baptists. I was baptized in a Baptist church and although it was not a Southern Baptist church, it was a very close cousin. My wife grew up in a Southern Baptist church not very far from here in Kentucky.

The individual who was my own spiritual director in guiding me to understand the nature of the spiritual disciplines and how they usher us into the life of righteousness, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit is a Southern Baptist. Clarence Jordan was one of my heroes as a college and seminary student and the work of Koinonia Farms was one of those elements that gave me hope. And then it was only a few years ago that I was at a gathering on peacemaking with your own Glenn Hinson and have since come to deeply appreciate his work and ministry, not only in the area of peacemaking, but also in the area of the great devotional classics. So, I do have a great sense of appreciation for you and for the ministry that God has given you upon the face of the earth. 

Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, how desperately we need your help. Yet, how many times it seems we don’t want your help. And so this morning, in your graciousness, we would so appreciate it if you might bring our wanter” more in line with our needer,” so that we may come to want what we need and so live in faith and in holy obedience. Bless each of us in this room that together we might come under your tutelage. We ask that in the good name of Christ because it seems to us that it is according to his way. Amen. 

The Ancient Roots of Fasting

The disciplined person is the person who can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. Now I can take a basketball and I can get it into a basketball hoop — eventually, but I cannot take a basketball and get it into the basketball hoop when it needs to be gotten into the basketball hoop! You see, I am not a disciplined basketball player. This ability to have the power to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done is so crucial in all of life, but it is never more central than in the life of the spirit. It is this life that impregnates and dominates and infiltrates literally everything that we do. 

My topic this morning is Fasting: Twentieth Century Style,” but please don’t turn that into another soul-killing law because there is a time to feast and there is a time to fast. It is the disciplined person who can feast when feasting is called for and fast when fasting is called for. In fact, the glutton and the extreme ascetic have exactly the same problem. They cannot live appropriately in life. They cannot do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.

Now in a world dominated by pizza temples and shrines to the golden arches, fasting seems out of place, out of step with the times. And, in fact, fasting has been in general disrepute in the church for a very long time. In my research, as far as I know, there was not a single full-length book written on the subject of fasting from 1861 to 1954, a period of nearly 100 years. What would account for an almost total disregard of a discipline so frequently mentioned in scripture and so ardently practiced by Christians throughout the centuries? Two things, I think. 

First, there has been a reaction, and rightly so, to the excessive ascetic practices of the Middle Ages. Robert Schuller is part of that kind of reaction. But second, there has developed a prevailing philosophy that literally dominates American culture, including American religious culture, that it is a positive virtue to satisfy virtually every human passion. We’ve developed it into a theology today with verses of scripture to buttress such a teaching. Whole churches have been created around the worship of these little tin gods of affluence and good feelings. And if fasting is used at all today, it is usually either to lose weight or for political pressure; that is, its function is either vanity or manipulation. And so fasting as a Christian spiritual discipline has had tough sledding in our day. 

But, if we would take a look at the biblical tradition about fasting, it ought to stop us long enough to look at this matter again. The list of biblical fasters runs like a Who’s Who of Scripture. Abraham’s servant when he was seeking a bride for Isaac, Moses on Mt. Sinai, Hannah when she prayed for a child, David on several occasions, Elijah after his victory over Jezebel, Ezra when he was mourning Israel’s faithlessness, Nehemiah when he was preparing the trip back to Israel, Esther when God’s people were threatened with extermination, Daniel on numerous occasions, the people of Nineveh, including the cattle — involuntarily, no doubt — Jesus when he began his public ministry, Paul at the point of his conversion, the Christians at Antioch when they sent off Paul and Barnabas on their mission endeavor, Paul and others when they appointed elders in all of the churches, and on and on it goes. 

Now, not only that, but many of the great Christians throughout church history have fasted. Martin Luther and John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, Charles Finney and many, many others. 

Now fasting has not been confined to the Christian faith. Zoroaster fasted, as did Confucius and the Yogis of India. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle — they all fasted. Now the fact that these people both in and out of scripture fasted does not make it right or even a good thing to do. But it ought to stop us long enough to take another look. 

Why Should We Fast?

At this point I want to respond to the crucial question: Why should we fast in the first place? 

Now the first answer to that, and in an important sense the only adequate answer, is because of the call of God upon the heart. There is an urging, a prompting, a sense of rightness that this is what we’re to do. We’ve heard the kol Yahweh, the voice of the Lord, and we must obey. 

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, when you pray…when you give…when you fast.…” You notice that he did not say, if you pray…if you give…if you fast.…” Oh no. He was assuming that the children of the Kingdom would be doing these things and was giving instruction in how it could be done with spiritual success. It has always amazed me that we will unquestionably accept giving as a spiritual discipline; but we reject fasting. Why? The biblical evidence in the New Testament is at least as strong for fasting as it is for giving, and I think, a bit more. I’ve wondered if the reason for our bifurcation isn’t that, in an affluent culture, the giving of money involves far less sacrifice than fasting.

But then second, we fast because it reveals the things which control us. We cover up with food and other good things what is inside of us. But in experiences of fasting these are the kinds of things that begin to come to the surface. 

Do you want to know the first thing I learned about myself in experiences of fasting? It was my lust for good feelings. I was hungry, and I didn’t feel good. And all of a sudden I began to realize that I would do almost anything to feel good. Now there’s not a thing wrong with feeling good, but that has got to be brought to an easy place in our lives where it does not control us. 

The second thing I learned about myself in experiences of fasting was my anger. You see, folks would think of me as such an easygoing kind of guy. Nothing ever seemed to bother me. I love to work under pressure. And then I’d say, Lord, I’d so appreciate it if you’d reveal what is inside of me.” And the Lord would say, Delighted — how about a little fast?” And I’d fast. And pretty soon I’m exploding with anger. At first I thought, Well, I’m angry because I’m hungry.” (And I understand all about low blood sugar and all of that.) But then I began to realize I was angry because there was a spirit of anger within me, and I had to deal with that spirit — and oh, so many things… Pride — do you have any idea how many religiously respectable ways there are for letting everybody know how good we are? Bitterness, hostility, fear — these are the kinds of things that begin to surface in experiences of fasting. And this is wonderful news for the children of the Kingdom because then God can heal these old, broken wounds. 

Third, we fast because it helps to give us balance in life. It makes us more keenly sensitive to the whole of life so that we’re not so obsessed by our consumer mentality. It’s something of an inner alarm to help us keep our priorities straight, to give us a sense of spiritual sensitivity. And people like John Wesley saw this so clearly which is one reason he reinstituted the pattern of the Didache of fasting two days a week. (You could not be ordained in the Methodist ministry in Wesley’s day without fasting two days a week.) And part of the rationale for that was to give a sense of sensitivity to the poor and to give us perspective in life. 

Then fourth, we fast because there is a need, urgency. You see, there are certain drastic situations which demand drastic means. Remember, it is the disciplined person who can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. I have discovered that people who are not trained in these things cannot do it when the emergency comes. It is too late when the emergency has come.

If we ever expect to fast, we need to understand the basic notion in the first place. The central idea in fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity. Now, when we see it from that perspective, we can understand both the reasonableness of fasting, as well as the broader dimensions to it. 

Contrary to what most of you have been thinking this morning, I do not want to speak specifically about fasting from food — which is the normal way that Scripture deals with that subject. I’ve written on that as have others and it is an important discipline to experience. But what I would like us to do today is to take a careful look at contemporary culture and see how fasting can speak to those issues — fasting twentieth century style.”

Fasting from Company

First, I think there is a great need for us in modern society to learn the discipline of fasting from people. You see, we have a tendency just to devour people and we usually get severe heartburn from it. Now when I suggest that we learn to fast from people, it is not because we are antisocial or because we don’t like people, but precisely because we love people intently, and when we are with them we want to be a help to them and not a distraction. 

Thomas Merton observed, It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am, the more affection I have for them. It is pure affection and filled with reverence for the solitude of others. Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a very important little book titled Life Together. Bonhoeffer so perceptively titled the first chapter The Day Together” and the next chapter The Day Alone.” The discipline of community. The discipline of solitude. You see, he understood it so well. Until we have learned to be with people, being alone will be a dangerous thing, because it will cut us off from hurting, bleeding humanity. But until we have learned to be alone, we cannot be with people in a way that will help them because we will be constantly bringing to that relationship our own fracturedness, our own scatteredness, our own muchness. We will not be able to listen because we will be so caught up in who we are and in how we come across that we cannot be really present to another person. 

Have you ever taken a day just to be alone? The president at Friends University heard me talk this way once and he said, I’ll try it.” And he took a day. Now this was not a time to work on the five-year plan or faculty recruitment or student retention. This is a time to hear God’s speech in his wondrous, terrible, loving, all-embracing silence. He told me it was one of the best days he’d ever experienced. It gives perspective. It gives discernment. How about you?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I don’t have time. Besides, I don’t need it.” Elijah needed it. David needed it. Paul needed it. Peter needed it. Jesus Christ himself needed it. Who do we think we are, God Almighty? And if we need it, we’ll find the time. 

Fasting from Media

My second suggestion is that we learn times when we can fast from the media. It is an amazing thing to me that many people seem to be incapable or at least unwilling to go through an entire day concentrating on a single thing. Their train of concentration is constantly interrupted by this demand or that — the newspaper, the radio, television, magazines. No wonder we feel like such scattered people. Some right in this room are so enslaved to television that if it were taken away from them, they’d go through withdrawal. It is an incredible thing. We now have radios that we can put over our ears like mufflers or put on our wrists like a watch so that we will never find ourselves where — horror of horrors — we are without noise. Now, that is slavery.

And the Apostle Paul said, For freedom, Christ has set us free. Submit not again to a yoke of slavery.” 

You know, we send our teenagers off to camp in the summer and they come back to a Sunday evening testimony service and exclaim, God spoke to me!” And then they get back into the press of life and God stops speaking. Right? Oh, no. They stop listening. What happened at camp was incredibly simple. All they did was to get rid of enough distractions for a long enough period of time in order to concentrate. It is as simple as that. You don’t need camp to do that. I don’t need camp to do that. We can do that in the course of our daily lives, taking up many simple disciplines that will help us to focus and concentrate our lives. Now there is a place for the media. There is also a place to be without it. Remember, the mind will always take on an order conforming to the order of whatever it concentrates upon. 

Our family had a wonderful time on the Oregon coast a while back at the cabin of a very dear friend. It was rather isolated. There was no television in this cabin. The only visitors were sea gulls. There was no telephone. There was a radio, but it didn’t work. But there was a record player and two records. One was a children’s record, Johnny Appleseed, and the other was the theme score from Oklahoma. I thought, How wonderful — a record for the children and one for the adults.” Now in that week’s time, I suppose we played those records a hundred times and for months after that, I would be in the shower singing, Oklahoma.” I would dream of it! What was happening? My mind was simply taking on the order conforming to the order of what it had given itself to. Are we willing to give our attention to the Lord? 

Fasting from Phones

Third, let me suggest that we learn times of fasting from the telephone. Now you see, the telephone is a wonderful instrument if it does not control us. I have known people who will stop praying to answer the telephone. 

Can you think of anything more absurd than that? I have known people who will stop making love to answer the telephone. I want you to know something: I will not. 

We had a very dear friend in our home — a pastor — a while back, and we had a meal together. Then after we had finished eating, we were visiting. While we were sharing, the telephone rang and because what we were talking about was significant, I said to him, Let it ring. If it’s important, they’ll call back.” He looked at me and he looked at that telephone and he looked back at me and he said, I have never done this in my entire life.”

Now in our home when we are eating a meal together or when I am reading stories to the boys, we do not answer the telephone. You want to know why? I want those boys to know that they are more important than anything that can be on that machine. You know, people will come to see us in our home or in our office, perhaps at some distance or sacrifice. Then we will insult them by interrupting what we’re doing to answer a gadget. I know you can’t believe this, but people have lived for hundreds of years without that machine. You just let it ring sometime and monitor your own feelings — I’ve missed the chance of a lifetime.” I used to think that I had to be available to everyone 24 hours a day. Then all of a sudden I realized, What kind of arrogance is that, anyway?” If it is right and good for me to be with my wife or with my children with uninterrupted time, it is quite possible that God could raise up some other minister to care for that need. If it is important, they’ll call back.

Fasting from Conversation

My fourth suggestion is that we consider times of fasting from conversation. Some people just foam at the mouth constantly and the discipline of silence is one of the most needed disciplines in modern culture. And pastors and professors and politicians — all those who make a living by being good with words — so desperately need this spiritual discipline. 

Do you know one of the reasons we find it so hard to remain silent? It is because it makes us feel helpless. We’re so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others. If we’re silent, who will take control? God will take control, but we’ll not let him take control unless we trust him. That’s why silence is so intimately connected with trust. Remember Isaiah, In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.” 

The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what people think about us, so we talk up in order to straighten them out, to make sure that everybody knows that we’re okay. Let’s just face it, I’m not okay and you’re not okay, but that’s okay because we live under grace. I submit to you that as a glorious, wondrous self-acceptance that does, indeed, lead to self-esteem. 

You see, silence is one of the deepest disciplines of the spiritual life precisely because it puts the stopper on all that self-justification. James tells us that the tongue is a fire, and it is indeed. Could I just urge all of us that our words will be few and full. Bonhoeffer wrote that when the tongue is under our authority, Much that is unnecessary remains unsaid. But the essential and the helpful thing can be said in a few words.” Why don’t you try it sometime in a committee meeting? It makes them much shorter. 

I’ve experimented with this. All of a sudden I think, Oh, here’s something that needs to be said.” And then I think, Oh, just a minute — Lord, it seems to me like this needs to be addressed and I’m willing to be the vessel if it would please you, but maybe you have another vessel you’d like to use.” And pretty soon here comes somebody who speaks to the issue far better than I ever could have done. I’ve learned a little bit about prayer and they’ve had a ministry. 

Fasting from Advertising

Fifth, let me suggest times of fasting from billboards. I remember the day I was driving the Los Angeles freeway system when all of a sudden I realized that my mind had been dominated by the billboards for a solid hour. Now honestly, when you think of it, the notion that you’re in good hands with Allstate is a first-class heresy. The idea that Pepsi is the real thing” or that Coke adds life” is pornography of the first magnitude; that is, it is a complete distortion of what is actually the case.

Now when I suggest that we learn to fast from billboards, I do not mean that we refrain from looking at billboards, but that the billboard be a signal to us of another reality. When the ad man shouts out to us his four-letter obscenities, More, more, more,” maybe that can trigger into our minds another four-letter word, a rich, full-bodied word, Less, less, less.” When we’re bombarded with bigger-than-life pictures of foxy ladies and well-fed babies, maybe that can trigger into our minds another world, a world in which 460 million people are the victims of acute hunger — 10,000 of them will be dead before we go to sleep tonight — a world in which a million hogs in Indiana have superior housing to a billion people on this planet. 

Fasting from Our Comfortable Distance from Suffering

That leads me to my sixth suggestion which is that we will discover times when we can fast from our gluttonous consumer culture that we find so comfortable. For our soul’s sake, we need times when we can be among Christ’s favorites: the broken, the bruised, the dispossessed — not to preach to them, but to learn from them. Like Kagawa, we need to go in Franciscan-like poverty into the slums of our cities to hear the whimpering, moaning, Songs From the Slums.” 

Like Stan Moonyham, we need to step into the hovel of Sebastian and Maria Nascimento. We need to force ourselves to look around and see the three-year-old twins lying naked and unmoving on the small cot. They will soon die, the victims of malnutrition. Like me, you want to turn away and forget that world, but we need to stay there and see the little boy. He’s a two-year-old whose brain is already vegetating from marasmus, a severe form of malnutrition. Maria the mother tries to speak to us, but words do not come. Tears do come, the tears of a brokenhearted mother. 

I say that for the sake of our balance, for the sake of our sanity, we need to be among those who, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, live an eternal, compulsory fast.” 

Fasting from the Demands of Self”

I have one more point, but I’m not quite sure how to share it with you because I don’t want in anyway to detract from any good things that Robert Schuller has shared with us last night and this morning. Perhaps I could explain it this way. A few years ago I was in a church fellowship in Oregon and spoke along lines not unlike what I’ve shared with you this morning. I was deeply moved to see a very good friend up in the balcony. I say that I was moved because this seminary-trained and articulate man had felt that in order to maintain his own integrity and to be a faithful witness to Christ that he had to leave organized religion some years ago. I had met with him on several occasions and was always touched by the depth of his own devotion and so I was very moved that he was willing to come to a church building to hear me speak. 

When the service was over and I was greeting people, I spied this man, Tom, in the crowd making his way toward me — a big sort of fellow, a backwoodsman. He got hold of me in a great bear hug and with tears streaming from his eyes, he thanked me profusely for the experience of worship we’d had together. Then he said, But you forgot one discipline of fasting.” My ears perked up and I asked him to explain. Out of that great reservoir of wisdom that is his, he said, We all need to learn times when we can fast from self.” 

You see, he saw it so clearly. He was pointing to that wonderful freedom of letting go of the crushing burden of always needing to get our own way. He was encouraging us to be free from the everlasting itch to get ahead and to be in charge. Meister Eckhart wrote, There are plenty to follow our Lord halfway, but not the other half. They will give up possessions, friends, and honors, but it touches too closely to disown themselves.” 

That’s it! Learning to disown ourselves. That frees us from the tyranny of our own needs. It frees us from the tyranny of others. It frees us from the tyranny of a proper image. It frees us to have that genuine, God-given self-esteem. As we are drawn more and more into the divine center, we come, as Francois Fénelon put it, to consider God more often than we consider ourselves,” to become so aflame with a God-consciousness that we are relieved of self-consciousness. 

Fasting — from people, the media, the telephone, conversation, billboards, consumer culture, the self. We are now into a period that some traditions call Lent. Maybe God would open your heart to some area of surrender in order to more adequately listen to the Lord as we prepare for Easter. 

Thank you.

Originally published in Discipleship and Ethics: 1983 Christian Life Commission Seminar Proceedings from an address given to Southern Baptists.

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Text First Published March 1983 · Last Featured on February 2023