Fasting. Out of all the spiritual disciplines mentioned in Scripture, this is the one that people seem to struggle to practice the most today. Many don’t understand what its purpose is. Still, others only hold onto the principles of fasting while neglecting its literal practice in their rhythm of life. When we understand the true significance and benefit of fasting, however, we are able to step into some of our most meaningful and intimate times of relationship with God.
The Purpose of Fasting
According to John Piper, “fasting is the soul’s focused feast on the all-satisfying Christ.”1 By voluntarily abstaining from food for a period of time, we are able to echo Jesus’ desire to glorify the Father in John 4:34 when he says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” In this sense, fasting is more about what you are spiritually eating than what you are physically abstaining from. Both are needed, however, and denying your body the sustenance it was created to need for a period of time humbly and worshipfully demonstrates the sustaining grace found in Jesus himself.
One common misunderstanding of fasting in today’s western, Christian culture is the tendency to view it under a religious mentality. The thought generally goes something like this: “I have big decision in front of me. I’m not sure what choice I should make. Maybe if I fast and pray asking for wisdom, God will look favorably upon me and give me an answer.”
What is wrong with this scenario? It doesn’t reflect the Gospel. This mindset on fasting teaches that when we fast, God is pleased and responds with help. The Gospel, on the other hand, teaches that there is nothing we can do to please God because of our brokenness and sin, but he drew near to us anyway, because of his love, in order to help. In the Gospel, we do not earn salvation. It is given as a gift of grace. In the same way, no amount of religious practice in fasting is able to earn God’s response.
So, why do we fast? Put simply, we fast to draw near to the Father, through the work of the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of intimacy with God. By stripping away the necessities of this life in abstaining from food, fasting allows the Christian to depend upon, take comfort in, and enjoy the sustaining love of their heavenly Father. In this position of relational intimacy and trust, we are closer and more attune to God’s will. Yet, God’s will, in this case, is not our primary pursuit, God himself is, and when we draw near to his heart through fasting, we naturally learn more of his desire for our lives.
The Practice of Fasting
With this purpose of fasting in mind, what does it look like to actually practice it in our everyday lives? In Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald Whitney lays out nine different types of fasts that can be found in Scripture:2
- Normal Fast: “abstaining from all food, but not from water” (Matthew 4:2)
- Partial Fast: “limitation of the diet but not abstention from all food” (Daniel 1:12)
- Absolute Fast: “the avoidance of all food and liquid, even water” (Ezra 10:6)
- Supernatural Fast: “require God’s supernatural intervention into the bodily processes and are not repeatable apart from the Lord’s specific calling and miraculous intervention” (Deuteronomy 9:9)
- Private Fast: “fasting in a way not to be noticed by others” (Matthew 6:16-18)
- Congregational Fast (Joel 2:15-16)
- National Fast (2 Chronicles 20:30)
- Regular Fast (Leviticus 16:29-31)
- Occasional Fast: “these occur on special occasions as the need arises” (Matthew 9:15)3
Naturally, some of these fasts may be more feasible in our cultural context than others. If you have never fasted before, I would suggest starting small, maybe skipping a meal once a week to pray. Given the regularity of food in our daily schedules, especially here in New Orleans, fasting will probably have to be an intentional pursuit in order to cultivate the discipline in your life. If I don’t have it down in my calendar on a day when I know I will also have time to set aside to pray, then what I usually achieve is not eating food and not pursuing God either. Each time your stomach reminds you of your physical hunger during your fast, use that as a mental reminder of your spiritual hunger for Christ that leads you to prayer and worship. Most of us, myself first and foremost, need help growing in this area, but the Father has revealed through the giving of his Son that he is able to provide.
1John Piper, Twitter post, March 20, 2012, 7:28 a.m., https://twitter.com/JohnPiper.
2If you would like to read Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, copies of the book can be currently found in the back of our Vintage weekend worship gatherings at our “Resource Center.”
3Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1991), 159-180.