In light of our first Friday Fast on April 3rd, which also happens to be Good Friday, we decided post on what fasting actually is. So if you’re a seasoned faster, or just starting out, here are some good tips on picking and observing your fast.
What is Fasting?
Fasting is the abstinence from all or certain foods or fluids (or some other appetite) for the sake of being spiritually fed instead. Fasting is often accompanied by specific topical or situational prayers (pleas for God to change or do something for an individual or group), and occurs frequently in the Bible in times of dire need for help.
What, then, does it look like to be spiritually fed? The author and perfecter of fasting answers this question in John 4. After telling the Samaritan woman at the well that he offers water which causes people to never thirst (despite that he asked her for water), she runs to tell the townspeople about this prophet and to bring them to him. Verses 30-35 say,
“They came out of the town and made their way toward him. Meanwhile, his disciples urged him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’
But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you know nothing about.’
Then his disciples said to each other, ‘Could someone have brought him food?’
‘My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.'”
Notice from verse 30 that while the disciples speak to Jesus, the townspeople are approaching. After giving a theme sentence for fasting in verse 34 (“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work”), Jesus directs the disciples to lift their eyes to see the field –the approaching townspeople! Jesus is telling the disciples that there is a feast right in front of them if they would just recognize the food which satisfies for eternity, from that which only fills the stomach for a few hours. This is fasting, and all Christians should follow his example.
Why Should I Fast?
Through fasting, our appetite for God is deepened and satisfied while our appetite for earthly things wanes as we are trained to say, “Yes,” to one and, “No,” to the other. It is like telling God, “You and your ways are more important to me than food. I need you more than food. I know that if I ate food but didn’t have you, I would die eternally.”
Through fasting, the contents of our hearts are made more visible.
“More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting, these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. David writes: ‘I humbled my soul with fasting’ (Psalm 69:10). Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger; then we will realize that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ.” (From Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster)
Through fasting, we imitate Jesus and meet his expectation that we do so. Jesus fasted himself (see Matthew 4:1-4). He commands that we take up our crosses and follow in his ways. Furthermore, Matthew 6:16-18, Matthew 9:15, Mark 2:19, and Luke 5:34 indicate that Jesus expected his followers to fast.
The Heart of Fasting
As mentioned in Isaiah 58, true fasting is a matter not only of abstaining from food, but also of devoting oneself to God and being fed by Him. If we abstain from food so that people think of us as “disciplined” or “religious/spiritual/spirit-filled”, for dietary reasons, or for any reason besides devotion to God, we have missed the purpose of fasting and may even be offensive to God! This is the most important piece of knowing how to fast, for God searches the heart and is NOT impressed by how long you can go without eating. When fasting, one should take the time which would have been spent preparing and consuming food to do God’s will, whether in ministering to others or in praying, Scripture reading, etc.
Fasting in the Bible is often linked with surrounding circumstances and/or particular requests, such as when David fasts for his son to be saved (2 Samuel 12:15-22), when Ezra proclaims a fast for safe travel (Ezra 8:21), and when Nehemiah fasts after learning that Jerusalem’s wall is in disrepair (Nehemiah 1:4). Going into a fast with a clear request or topic in mind is therefore Biblical and advisable. For example, you may fast for God to bring revival to his campus or your city, save a dear friend or family member, purify your heart from a cyclical sin in your life, etc. This could be done by spending time in prayer for the issue, doing something which works toward the goal, or a mixture of these and other ways.
So, Exactly How Do I Fast?
In selecting something from which to fast, it should be noted that fasting in the Bible ALWAYS entails abstinence from food in some way. While abstinence from soft drinks, beds, cell phones, or the internet is pleasing to God if done as a spiritual offering to the Lord (1 Peter 2:5), it may be better if we simply say of these, “I am abstaining from Facebook use,” rather than, “I am fasting from Facebook.”
There are many good online resources where you can learn about ways to fast, but some of the basics follow. The Bible only specifies a few types of fasting in any degree of detail – their ‘names’ are artificially given to them by people for convenience and are not found in the Bible itself:
- The Full Fast, Total Fast, or Water Fast – by far, this is the most common type of fasting in the Bible. It entails drinking only water and consuming nothing else.
- The Absolute Fast – this means not consuming food or water of any kind. Biblically, these are far less common than total fasts and are done for short periods of time and in times of desperate need (Esther 4). Deuteronomy 9:9 is one of a few examples of a long absolute fast and is traditionally considered supernaturally-aided.
- The ‘Daniel Fast’ – this entails consuming only vegetables and water (see Daniel 1:1-16). While it is possible that a diet of only vegetables could be better for health, many consider that the good health of Daniel and his fellow Israelites was provided miraculously by God as a sign to their guard and king Nebuchadnezzar and to enable these men to abstain from defiled food. This story is the only time this diet is mentioned in the Bible, and the text does not call it a fast or encourage others to practice it.
There are other common types of fasting (juice fasts, no-meat fasts, no solid food fasts – this would allow for meal replacement drinks or some soups) which are distinct from mere dietary restrictions (no fish, no sweets, no dairy), and there is truly much freedom to select fasts with a clear conscience.
As with most things, beginners should start small, with 1- to 3-meal fasts. These can be done for segments of the day (fast from 6a – 6p, for 24 hours, etc.), by typical meal designations (skip dinner one night, then do not eat until dinner the next night), or in other ways.
Consult with the Lord, pick your fast and join us this Friday!
Charlie is a new addition to the Campus Renewal team, coordinating ministry work at The University of Texas at Dallas, where he graduated with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering last May. He is newly married to his high school sweetheart and enjoys reading and practicing speaking German in his spare time.