Fasting: Powerful, passed-over, and counter-cultural

The Pulse Podcast is about living abundantly wholeheartedly.

It includes different kinds of content: Interviews, featured topics, or biblical studies.

This episode is a featured topic: Fasting.

Yup, it’s kind of like the the much-neglected black sheep of the spiritual disciplines. In a world of self-indulgence, self-denial can seem backward; but that may actually be evidence that it is forward thinking, not the other way around.

I provide some background, explain what it is (and isn’t), talk about different kinds of fasting, provide cautions, discuss motives, and offer a final word about some benefits.

I also share insights from Jesus (of course), Richard Foster, Richella Parham, John Calvin and Augustine.

You can listen here, or follow along with the full text below.

TEXT VERSION:

The congregation I pastor, Westminster Church in Barrie, Canada, is engaging in a church-wide day of fasting and prayer.

With this episode I want to take a few minutes to provide some theological background, biblical references, best practices, and cautions.

That said, I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m a fasting expert. I’m not. But I hope to provide some food for thought. Mind the pun!

Our day of fasting and prayer has a specific focus. Ontario is in another lockdown as a part of the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. And after more than a year, our hospitals, care homes, and health care workers continue to be under significant stress and strain. In light of that we are calling on God for his powerful help, healing and hope.

Maybe that is something you want to be a part of as well. Or perhaps you have a different focus. Either way, and even if you’re just curious and want to learn and grow as a disciple of Jesus, I hope this is useful.

And for the record, three easy-to-read and well-grounded resources that you can find, and which I also look to, are these books. The first is Richella Parham’s, A Spiritual Formation Primer from Renovare, published in 2014. The second is Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline from Harper & Row, published in 1978. As far as I know, outside of the Bible, Foster’s book is one of the most widely consulted and richest modern resources on spiritual disciplines. The third is Howard Rice’s Reformed Spirituality from Westminster/John Knox, published in 1991.

Part 1 – Background

We talk a lot about prayer. But fasting isn’t discussed or practiced as much. Fasting is like the black sheep of the spiritual disciplines. Prayer, Bible-reading, worship, simplicity, and servanthood are much more on display. But fasting is often tucked away, kind of awkward, and a bit neglected.

It’s safe to say that fasting is not fashionable. Nor is it normal these days. In North America we are not accustomed to sacrifice. It’s more common to focus on getting things instead of giving up things. Self-satisfaction is in; self-control is out. So perhaps this spiritual practice is long overdue for some attention.

Jesus assumed his disciples would fast. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus discusses fasting directly in Matthew 6:16-18. He says:

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.

Notice how he says “when you fast…” He is not commanding that they do it; he’s simply giving them instructions about when they do it. His assumption is that it is something they are doing as God’s people.

I should also note that his comment about putting oil on their head and washing their face refers to common practices about cleanliness. The idea is to follow the usual washing customs so that you don’t look different; our goal isn’t to draw attention to ourselves but to focus on God.

Another text we could look to is Matthew 9:15. Jesus looks forward to a day when he is no longer physically with his followers and points out that they will fast during those days ahead. For the record, we are currently in those days.

So I wouldn’t say that fasting is something we have to do, but something we get to do. It’s not listed as a commandment. Instead, it’s an opportunity.

According to Stephen Um, the executive director of The Centre for Gospel Culture, the Bible references fasting about 77 or 78 times. To put that in context, it mentions baptism 75 times. Fasting was practiced by many people in the Bible including Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna, Paul and, of course, Jesus.

Just recently I was reading about Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness before the start of his public teaching and ministry. Luke 4:1-4 says:

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”

The full quote is from Deuteronomy 8:3: “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” I find it inspiring because it’s one thing to agree with the statement that we live not just on bread but God’s word when we have a full stomach; it’s another to agree with it when you haven’t eaten in forty days.

There are times when individuals fast, and there are times when groups fast. There are examples in the Bible. There are examples from various churches. And there are even examples of entire nations being called fast. In 1756 the British king called for a day of prayer and fasting in light of the threat of French invasion.

Part 2- Okay, but what is fasting, anyway?

In A Spiritual Formation Primer, Richella Parham defines fasting like this:

“Fasting is, in simple terms, the voluntary denial of some normal function to allow for intense spiritual activity.”

Richella Parham

We should be clear that we are not earning anything, nor are we trying to pressure God. The Second Helvetic Confession is a faith statement of Reformed Protestantism. It states that “we deprive the flesh of its fuel so that it may the more willingly and easily obey the Spirit.”

Fasting usually has to do with going without food for a certain period of time for spiritual purposes, but it could be going without something else as well. More on that in a moment.

Fasting often ends with thanksgiving to God, and with breaking the fast with the good nutrients God has provided in his world and for our benefit. This is about stuffing yourself with gratitude, not food.

Okay, let’s get a bit more specific about the task itself.

Part 3 – Different kinds of fasting

For our day of fasting and prayer at Westminster Church I recommended a “partial” fast for a single day for adults only who are healthy. It included fruit for one meal, a full meal for the other, and the continuation of liquids throughout the day. This is more appropriate for those who don’t have experience with fasting and is, I think, manageable.

This allows for more intense spiritual activity. When you fast spend extra time—perhaps when you would otherwise be eating, or spending time online or watching television if that is what you choose to go without—by reading the Bible (perhaps the Psalms) and praying to God in Jesus’ name for his powerful help, healing and hope.

There are also “normal” or “absolute” fasts. A normal fast is going without food but still drinking water. An absolute fast is going without both. Both of these are very serious and I certainly wouldn’t suggest them if you’re new to fasting. It’s wise to pray and think deeply about these things. Richard Foster says: “It must be underscored that the absolute fast is the exception and should never be engaged in unless one has a very clear command from God, and then for not more than three days.” I would agree.

If you are unable to change your dietary patterns or if you have health concerns, it’s possible to fast from something else altogether—something non-physical like the news, the internet, or television.

Oh, and just in case you think like a young person I was once speaking to about fasting, it misses the point if you decide to fast from vegetables, chores, or homework.

Part 4 – Cautions

If you are unable to change your dietary patterns (as I’ve already mentioned), I suggest you fast from something other than food such as media, news, the internet, or television. Or, you may choose to do both.

If you are not used to fasting, you should be cautious and careful.

If you are weak or unwell, do not fast.

If you have health concerns, consult your doctor, or do not fast.

Further, if you are not used to fasting and are engaged in strenuous activities–like, for example, something you are required to do for work–you may want to fast from something non-physical.

If you don’t feel right, end your fast, but continue in prayer.

If you live alone, tell someone else what you are doing and exercise increased caution.

I should note that for those who are new to fasting, mild headaches are not uncommon. Nor is stomach grumbling; our stomachs are used to getting their way!

It’s my opinion that fasting from food is not for children. However, they can fast from other non-food-related things and increase their time in prayer and devotion as well.

Part 5 – Motives

With respect to our motives, we should strive for purity.

In his Magnum Opus The Institutes of the Christian Religion, the well-known Protestant Reformer John Calvin wrote:

“God does not greatly esteem fasting of itself, unless an inner emotion of the heart is present, and true displeasure at one’s sin, true humility, and true sorrowing arising from the fear of God.”

John Calvin (Institutes 4.12.15)

Having pure motives isn’t an idea that comes directly from Calvin, of course. It comes from Jesus as per Matthew 6:16-18. We are engaging in a heightened level of spiritual activity under God alone. As a result, we don’t brag, boast or post to others about what we are doing.

In him sermon On Prayer and Fasting, the church father Augustine said:

“Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself.”

Augustine of Hippo

Brothers and sisters, those are beautiful things.

Part 6 – A final word and a way forward

As a final word, let me say that fasting can leave us more spiritually focused—more focused on God as our sustaining and saving power. It can remind us of our need. It can help us think more clearly. It can help refine our priorities. It can help us in our discernment about important decisions.

It is also connected to simplicity, sincerity, humility, and being more focused on the needs of others.

In a world of self-indulgence, self-denial can seem backward; but that may actually be evidence that it is forward thinking, not the other way around.

As I said at the start, I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m a fasting expert—I’m not. It is something I sometimes do, but also need to learn a lot more about; I have a long way to go. What I will say is that it does allow for more intense spiritual activity and keeps me more firmly steadfast in God. And in a world of dizzying distraction that, my friends, is a very good thing.

May the Lord bless your fasting and prayer to the glory of King Jesus.

“Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”


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