I said to a ministry leader that fasting is feasting on God’s Word. He replied, “It’s hard enough for me to quiet my mind when I’m not hungry! How can I learn to enjoy meditating on Scripture when I’m hungry? And why would I want to do this?”
Fasting in the Bible and Today
Fasting is one of the most helpful disciplines for the spiritual life in Christ. Going without food for a period of time is a tangible way to practice self-denial and open up space in our body and soul to engage more deeply with God. But fasting is a forgotten spiritual discipline in the church today. Many Christ-followers today never or rarely fast. Or if they do fast it’s primarily for their physical health.
It was in 1980 that I first read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and his words on fasting showed me that this was a fundamental discipline that was used in the Bible:
Scripture has much to say about fasting that we would do well to look once again at this ancient Discipline. The list of biblical personages who fasted becomes a ‘Who’s Who’ of Scripture: Moses the lawgiver, David the king, Elijah the prophet, Esther the queen, Daniel the seer, Anna the prophetess, Paul the apostle, Jesus Christ the incarnate Son. Many of the great Christians throughout church history fasted and witnessed to its value (p. 42).
Jesus saw fasting as so important and basic to a life of worshiping God that he taught it as one of three main disciplines for the spiritual life, setting it alongside of giving and prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, where he stated, “When you fast…” (Matthew 6:16) not “If you fast…”
We feel sorry for Jesus when we see him fasting 40 days in the wilderness and being tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread. Poor Jesus, we think, he was so hungry and weak and then Satan is making him desire fresh bread!
Dallas Willard says this is not thinking rightly! We show that we don’t really understand the discipline of fasting. When Satan tempted him to turn the stones into bread Jesus countered, “People shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from God’s mouth” (Matthew 4:4, Deuteronomy 8:3). Those weren’t just pretty words — they’re reality words. Jesus was speaking of the reality that he was experiencing. The truth is that in his 40 days of solitude in the hot desert he was feeding his body and soul on the manna from heaven.
In his wilderness fast Jesus wasn’t at his weakest point, but his strongest point! He showed us that fasting is feasting. He was continually meditating upon and ingesting the life-giving words of God in Scripture, nature, and by spiritual hearing. He depended totally on the Father and had complete confidence in his love. He relied fully on the Holy Spirit and received the ministry of the angels of heaven. He was resolute in his focus on giving himself to the Father’s calling upon his life.
Later in Jesus’ ministry he was fasting from lunch, or perhaps all day, and he was ministering to the Samaritan woman at the well. His disciples urged him to eat and he replied, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about… My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:32, 34).
Today many pastors and leaders burnout from ministry, but Jesus was nourished by the Father while he was ministering to people. If we learned by experience how our body and soul could feast on God’s Word then it’d be unlikely that we’d ever burnout from ministry stress.
Work up an Appetite for God
Often when spiritual fasting is taught it’s for the purpose of focused intercession for others, discerning God’s will, or for a period of cleansing from sin. These are all valuable uses for fasting. What I’m talking about in this article is a more fundamental purpose that if learned well it makes the traditional uses of fasting far more effective.
Fasting is a way to put ourselves into a situation of moderate deprivation and discomfort in order to practice for a period of time being sustained directly and joyfully by God and his words. So the first thing to do with learning the discipline of fasting is to focus on cultivating your hunger for God.
The fasting is feasting idea is that with practice we can grow to experience that fasting is not as much a deprivation of food as it is a provision of food — an unseen food, the “bread of heaven” (Exodus 16:4, Psalm 105:40). We fast in order to direct our attention and energy away from our normal source of food and onto our heavenly source. We fast from food in order to feast on manna!
But when you’re learning to fast you’ll feel physically hungry or deprived of whatever you’re abstaining from. Your opportunity at that point is let your growling stomach (or ungratified desire for a glass of wine) remind you of how hungry you are for God and his word. In other words, let your hunger pangs become as church bells calling you to pray! My “Fasting is Feasting Scripture Prayer” and “Hungry Heart Scriptures” are very helpful for this. Meditating on these Scriptures will cultivate your hunger for God and help you learn more and more to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).
With practice as we learn to unite ourselves with Christ in fasting and take in his heavenly manna a miracle happens: we find that we aren’t physically hungry anymore! We may notice physical sensations of hunger but we’re not concerned about it and we know that we don’t need food during the time of fasting because God is sustaining us by supernatural means.
Indeed, the words of God are far more than just wise and lovely — they are a real, life-giving substance! Recall that in the Genesis account God spoke the creation into existence: the words of God create life! Jesus was so perfected in tapping into the life-giving power of God’s words that he knew how to use them to make wine out of water and bread out of thin air! For us today Jesus joins with the Father and the Spirit to speak the life of God into us. He said, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63).
Cultivating our hunger for God gets us started in the discipline of fasting. It’s important because longing for God inspires us to press in close to him, just as people pressed in close to get near Jesus in the Gospels. From our growing intimacy with Jesus we are enabled, more and more, to naturally and easily love our neighbor and even our enemy.
Isaiah gives us the litmus test for fasting: sharing our food with the hungry and the oppressed (Isaiah 58:5-9). When we fast we’re taking on a little of their suffering, reminding ourselves to pray for their needs for food and with our prayers to care for their needs. This may be cooking food at a homeless shelter or carrying extra food in your car in case you come across someone who is hungry.
But don’t limit sharing your bread to the obvious situation of helping those who need food. Ultimately, the needs for spiritual manna are even greater than the needs for physical food — for the poor and for all people. Of course, the most important people for us to share God’s love with are our neighbors, the people who are near us in our daily lives. Learning to fast rightly will enable us to love them better.
Fasting as Training for Life
We have a saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” The problem is that it doesn’t work! Willpower is not sufficient for achieving success, particularly in the spiritual life. The wise saying is, “Don’t just try, train.” That was Paul’s advice to his protege Timothy: “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7).
The key to discipline, according to Dallas Willard inThe Spirit of the Disciplines, is indirection. He defines a discipline as doing what you can do in order to become capable of doing what you previously could do not by direct effort. For instance, I have taught sex addicts how to fast and that in turn helped them learn to do what up to that point they hadn’t been able to do: stop lusting.
We can’t follow Jesus without denying ourselves (Matthew 16:24). Fasting is a primary way to practice self-denial and then we have the opportunity to apply this to other problem ares, as in the case of the person struggling with lust. Dallas elaborates on the power of fasting as training:
In fasting, we learn how to suffer happily as we feast on God. And it is a good lesson, because in our lives we will suffer, no matter what else happens to us…
Fasting teaches temperance or self-control and therefore teaches moderation and restraint with regard to all our fundamental drives. Since food has the pervasive place it does in our lives, the effects of fasting will be diffused throughout our personality. In the midst of all our needs and wants, we experience the contentment of the child that has been weaned from its mother’s breast (Psalm 131:2). And ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain’ (1 Timothy 6:6) (p. 167).
Be Done with Sin!
Satan comes along and tempts us, “You don’t want to miss out on this opportunity!” Opportunity?! Jesus showed up sin for what it is — slop! Whatever excitement it might bring is empty like cotton candy. Love, joy, and peace are only found in Christ. We may say we believe this to be true but yet be continually enticed by sin.
Fasting is a way to learn to break free of sin. The Apostle Peter taught us, “He who has suffered in his body is done with sin” (1 Peter 4:1). When we go without food for a time we’re taking on a small degree of bodily suffering in order to train ourselves that our belly is not our god, as it is for many people (Romans 16:18, Philippians 3:19). We can learn to be ruled not by bodily drives, personal desires, distractions, compulsions, or surging emotions, but by the Spirit. Or bodies are for the Lord; they are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:13, 19) and instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13).
William Law described how fasting can help us to overcome sin:
To fast and to deny our natural appetites… is to lessen that struggle and war that is in our nature. It is to render our bodies fitter instruments of purity and more obedient to the good motions of divine grace. It is to dry up the springs of our passions that war against the soul… and to render the mind more capable of divine meditations (A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, p. 76).
Staying Sweet and Strong
With practice training your body by fasting you can learn how to remain sweet and strong even when you don’t get what you want. You’re training in self-denial in order to foster a deeper engagement with the Lord. You’re learning to moderate your dependence on food, not to eat for emotional reasons or to overeat, and instead to bring your personal needs to God and to empathic people in the Body of Christ.
If you learn to be happy and strong in God even when you’re not getting the food your body wants it will improve your life dramatically! You can apply that lesson so as to be a more loving person, the kind of person who:
- Doesn’t rely on food for comfort
- Rejoices for others to succeed or be blessed more than self
- Responds with kindness when you’re mistreated
- Listens to other people patiently and compassionately
- Resists impulsiveness in relationships or business deals
- Keeps your peace in stress and is prepared to help others
How to Fast
The standard fast is to go without food for a period of time, but drink plenty of water. To learn to fast you probably want to start with a short fast, perhaps skipping one or two meals. And if you are medically unable to fast then try a partial fast in which you refrain from certain foods like meat, sugar, or processed food or you can do a juice fast in which your only source of calories comes from juice. Another way to do a partial fast is to eat less than you need so that you are left hungry after a meal. Similarly, dietary restrictions can be elevated to the spiritual purpose of a partial fast as unto the Lord.
There are also ways to fast that don’t involve food. You can fast from other things like alcohol, your smart phone, television, media, or shopping. You can fast from work and productivity (keeping a Sabbath), being around people and noise (solitude and silence), or spending money on things you don’t need (the discipline of simplicity). All the disciplines of abstinence are types of fasts in which you practice denying yourself something you want in order to make space in your body, soul, and schedule to more deeply and lovingly engage with God and other people. (See our “Spiritual Disciplines List.”)
Moving deeper into the realm of character you can learn to fast from complaining, gossip, or judging other people. It’s worth repeating that fasting rightly helps us to become more loving to other people and to be able to be kind and caring to them even when we’re under stress or they’re being difficult.
“Fast and Pray”: Putting the Two Disciplines Together
Jesus taught us to follow his example and use fasting and prayer together (Matthew 6:5-18, Mark 9:24-32). This is because fasting (and other disciplines of abstinence or self-denial) make a space for us to engage with God and others. And prayer (and the other disciplines of engagement) gives us the strength to deny ourselves something we want.
Fasting is feasting when it helps us to concentrate in prayer and meditate deeply on Scripture, to love God, be loved by him, and share his love with those around us. In fact, the traditional practices that evangelical Christians use for their growth — Bible study, worship, fellowship, service — need to be combined with self-denial to be most effective.
An obvious example that you have surely experienced is that reading the Bible (a discipline of engagement) in an extended time of quiet (a discipline of abstinence) is much more impactful then if you’re distracted by noise or emails. Fasting works the same way. If you meditate on Scripture while eating a meal that’s great, but if you do it while you’re fasting you’ll have a sense of urgency about drawing your nourishment from the heavenly manna.
Learning to Fast Can be Difficult
When we fast we want to hear the church bells! We want to be drawn to God and feel the warmth of his presence. When we want to see that we are able to go without food and be joyful and loving to other people. But our initial experience with fasting may be difficult.
First of all, you may suffer from headaches or find yourself exhausted and grumpy. You may find that emotional struggles surface, like having a low frustration tolerance, feeling deprived in life generally, or getting depressed. All the disciplines of self-denial tend to evoke hidden sins and emotional struggles. Don’t get discouraged. Usually it takes time to practice fasting before you feel that you’re benefiting spiritually from it.
But just because you don’t feel that you’re benefiting from fasting doesn’t mean that you are not. Often the most helpful results of a discipline don’t feel good, especially with self-denial. Fasting can teach you about yourself and the sins or other struggles that you need to pray about and seek help with. Along these lines, it’s important to talk with a spiritual friend or guide about your experience with fasting to understand what’s going on for you and to receive support.
My Experience with Fasting
As a young man, encouraged by Richard Foster’s teaching and my mother’s example I fasted periodically for focused times of prayer. Unfortunately, I later decided it was a legalism and I got away from it for many years. I rationalized, “I’m into grace now. Besides, I need my energy for graduate school… the kids… my clients…”
Coinciding with my spiritual renewal in 2002, I resumed the discipline of fasting. For a number of years I fasted about twice per month, usually for 24 hours at a time (after dinner one day until before dinner the next day). I found it to be a powerful tool to purify my heart for God. Far from being a legalism, it was a “means to grace,” which Richard Foster says is the purpose of all of the spiritual disciplines. And instead of weakening me, I found that it actually energized me for managing the responsibilities of my daily life by training me to do whatever I’m doing with God – talking with him and relying on his help.
In my experience of fasting the key that has opened the floodgates heaven to me has been joining my fasting with Scripture meditation and prayer in order to work up my appetite for God as I described above. As much as any other discipline for the spiritual life, fasting in this way has trained me to be devoted to the Lord Jesus and to be more like him, more loving to other people, even in difficulties like being criticized or not having success in an endeavor.