FASTING as a Spiritual Practice

Fasting. In the last year or two, the practice has seemed to be making a resurgence with the idea of “intermittent fasting” as the key to health and weight loss. Christians have also maintained the discipline, although for different reasons. In this article, we will look at a simple history of fasting, consider a spirituality of fasting for today, and set out some basic ideas about how one might profitably use this spiritual practice.



FASTING: A HISTORY OF USE AND ABUSE


Among the Jews, fasting was seen as an act of denial that could both calm God’s wrath and prompt him to be kind and gracious. It was also regarded as an important addition to prayer- helping to assure that God would answer. Over time, the practice became somewhat corrupted. Rather than being an act of self-denial and humility before God, it often degenerated into a ritual formality, where public piety was the chief concern. This explains God’s seeming disapproval of fasting in places like Jeremiah 14:12 ( When they fast, I will pay no attention.) and Isaiah 58:4 (This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me.)[1]


When you fast…” Jesus says (Matthew 6:16). This suggests that, for Christians, fasting is not considered to be something exceptional or unusual. Rather, it is part of normal Christian life. However, Jesus reformed the way of fasting that he had inherited as a Jew. He criticized fasting that is for show[2] or an occasion of pride[3]. He also offered a new, positive teaching about fasting: during his temptation, his fasting was clearly part of what it meant to be radically dependent on God, and in the Sermon on the Mount, fasting for a disciple is seen to be a private devotion characterized by joy and thanksgiving, as opposed to a public display of misery. Setting this within the larger context of Jesus’ teaching, we see that fasting is also not so much from things, as for service to neighbor and world. This concept is in line with the words God had to say through the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 58.[4]


Fasting continued in Christian history after the earthly ministry of Christ. In one of the earliest guides for Christian life, The Didache, written between 70 and 150 AD, Christians are instructed to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Other times and seasons began to be associated with fasts as well- Fridays of the Christian year, the season of Lent, and to some extent Advent. Additionally, clarifications between fasting and abstinence (a lesser form of denial, usually regarding meat or some other substance) were developed. Unhelpful distinctions came in as well. Those who fast regularly- often the monastics- were often seen as more “holy,” part of the general trend of seeing those under vows as better Christians than ordinary people. At times, both formalism and legalism have continued to be concerns. Also, both medieval and current Pentecostal theologies have continued to focus on the idea that fasting is primarily a way to get God’s favor, and to “supercharge” intercessory prayer.



A SPIRITUALITY OF FASTING FOR TODAY


How do we approach fasting as Christians today? A good place to start is to realize how full we all are. Full of food, yes, but other things as well: distractions, media, noise, creature comforts, controversies and thoughts. These can move us away from both the radical dependence on God that Jesus demonstrated in the wilderness, and also from our neighbor- we are often too full to see her, too weighed down by our stuff to reach out, too financially over-extended for charity. It is here that fasting can help us best in this day and age. When we intentionally empty ourselves of the things that sustain and comfort us, we are driven back to dependence on God. Hunger pains or withdrawal from social media can help us to experience that dependence- particularly when prayer, solitude or other devotions are added- so that God may fill us instead of the bread which does not satisfy. In that emptiness, far from being prideful or self-righteous, it is possible that we might turn to those around us in love and service, perhaps even using the money saved by self-denial for their good, not ours. In short, it could be that fasting is a useful practice because of what it opens up and changes in us, not so much because it forces God to answer our prayers.



PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS


1. Make a plan. Whether it is for a period of time, certain seasons, or days of the week, having a set schedule for fasting keeps us accountable to ourselves. Start small and simple, and watch out for our old “friend” legalism. While accountability is good, we need to also accept grace: if our plan has to change, God doesn’t love us any less. We have not “let him down,” as fasting is our self-chosen spiritual practice, not a command that is required to earn his love and favor. Lastly, do not engage in long-term fasting from food or water if you are not physically up to it: a chat with your doctor is in order here.


2. Fast or abstinence? Total fast or partial? Long-term or limited? For example, traditional Roman Catholics give up meat or Fridays, but not all food. This is abstinence. Early Christian often fasted from sundown to sundown, but not for longer. Both complete fasting and abstaining from some things or for a limited period of time can be beneficial to us, even though they are different.


3. What? Food? Social Media? TV? The list is long, choose something. Beware however of using a fast for a non-spiritual end: those fasting for weight loss are indeed fasting, but that is a health-related as opposed to spiritual practice. It is it’s own reward, and we should not confuse the physical and spiritual benefits: there is no “two-for-one” deal!


4. Privacy and humility. Revisit what Jesus says in Matthew 6:6-18. This is a private endeavor. It is also a personal one- resist the human temptation to judge others who do not have the same practice that you might. The spiritual life is not a competition, and those who fast are not holier than those who do not.


5. Remember the link to your neighbor. Give that new-found time or extra money to someone else.

 

Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.

 

[1] All biblical quotations are drawn from the New Living Translation, Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015. [2] And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. (Mt 6:16) [3] see the parable in Luke 18:9-14. [4] this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. (v. 6-7)

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