By Lynne M. Baab
Anyone can fast. In the past two years I’ve interviewed dozens of people who fast, and I’ve heard an amazing diversity of stories. In our time, followers of Jesus fast from food in a variety of ways, just as people of faith have done for centuries. In addition, they fast from many aspects of daily life that clutter our ability to hear God speak and see God act.
Lisa, a teacher in her thirties, knows she should never fast from food because she had an eating disorder when she was younger. Instead, she fasts from lattes and shopping for clothes. She reflects,
“Denying myself something that I use for comfort is a great reminder of my desire to keep my relationship with God as my first and foremost priority. Fasting challenges me to keep a perspective of who I’m living for at all times of the day.”
The Bible has about two dozen stories of people who fasted. Some fasted alone; some fasted with others. In the biblical stories, prayer usually accompanies fasting, in the form of intercession, confession, or mourning. While Jesus doesn’t instruct his followers to fast, he seems to assume that fasting will be a normal part of the life of faith. His instructions for fasting begin with “when you fast” (Matthew 6:17). In Acts, fasting seems to be a common partner to prayer and commissioning people for mission (Acts 13:2, 3; Acts 14:23). For many centuries after Christ, his followers fasted to free up food or money to give to the poor and to cultivate a pure heart.
Richard Foster points out in Celebration of Discipline that fasting fell into disfavor among Christians for about a hundred years, beginning in the late 1800s. In the past few decades, Christians have begun to rediscover fasting. People who fast say that fasting gives power to their prayers and helps them focus their prayers. It gives them a sense of how precious Jesus is to them. Fasting helps them hear God more clearly.
Why did this ancient spiritual discipline get lost for a century? During the medieval period, fasting often took on a flavor of self punishment and distrust of all desires, and those emphases certainly needed to be lost. In addition, the consumer culture has indoctrinated us to believe that we need to satisfy every desire right when it sweeps across our minds.
We might be damaged if we don’t! We might die of hunger!
Perhaps we have finally reached a turning point where we see that this excessive emphasis on consumption can’t continue. And so we have become more open to fasting as a helpful practice.
Richard Foster began the process of bringing fasting back into view in Celebration of Discipline, published in 1978. In his book, he sets fasting in the context of ancient and timeless spiritual disciplines that have helped Christians through the ages be faithful. Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, was another person who valued fasting. In the 1990s, he encouraged Christians to fast and pray for world evangelization. Mother Teresa also helped Christians rediscover fasting. She emphasized fasting from food and other pleasures as a way to save money to give to the poor, grow closer to God, and pray for social change. Many people experience solidarity with the poor as they fast, and they find that fasting helps them pray more frequently and more passionately for the people in need.
Anna, a musician in her thirties, fasts in several different ways, and her fasting practices mirror the priorities expressed by Foster, Bright and Mother Teresa. Anna plays in the music ensemble in her congregation. A few years ago, God spoke clearly to Anna, asking her to fast from music leadership for a few months. During those months, Anna experienced the significance of other aspects of worship, particularly intercessory prayer. She began to pray more frequently for the spiritual and physical needs of people around the world. Later, when she began to lead music again, her commitment to intercessory prayer remained strong.
Anna has also fasted from food and television. She says that for her, fasting is like tying a string around her finger to remember God. Fasting helps her restore her primary focus on God and helps her clear out the clutter that obscures her ability to hear God. She finds fasting to be a time of precious intimacy with God.
Richard, in his forties, fasts from everything but water and coffee every Monday. In contrast with Anna, he does not experience intimacy with God as he fasts, but he affirms the value of the humility he experiences:
“The most impressive thing for me about fasting is how unspiritual it has been, but I am always impressed with the value of being in want. When I fast and think about people who live in constant want — lacking the love of God, health, food — I am humbled, because I bear up very poorly.”
Another influence that has brought fasting back into favor is the increasing interest in the Eastern Orthodox tradition on the part of many Protestants and Roman Catholics. In the Eastern churches, fasting never developed any component of self-punishment. It was viewed as a way to return to the purity of Eden before the fall and a way to nurture intimacy with God. Fasting in Eastern Orthodox tradition involves eating no animal products or oil, so it is basically a vegan diet but without oil.
Neal, in his fifties, enjoys fasting in the style of Eastern Orthodoxy. He views fasting as a way to draw closer to the Lord and “to discipline our bodies for God’s glory.” For him, fasting is an attempt to simplify his life so he can stand against the indulgence of the flesh that is so common in our culture.
As more congregations are sponsoring mission trips to Africa, Asia and Central and South America, Christians from industrialized countries have had the opportunity to see fasting in churches that never lost interest in this ancient spiritual discipline. In places as diverse as Colombia, Kenya and China, Christians fast as a part of congregational life, with weekly fast days and particular prayer requests highlighted by the congregation for each fast.
In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus talks about looking for reward from God when we fast, rather than praise from other people. Christians in the United States have generally interpreted these words to mean that we must fast in secret as individuals. Christians in other parts of the world have interpreted these words to mean that our motives matter, that we shouldn’t fast for show, but with sincerity and humility. As a result of this different interpretation, fasting in many parts of the world has long been a part of the communal life of faith. People talk about what they believe they hear God saying during fasts, asking for the insights and perceptions of others. They give and receive support during fasts. Because of this exposure to the practices of Christians around the world, followers of Jesus in North American and Europe are rediscovering the joy of fasting in community.
Do you want to try to fast? God is the initiator of Christian fasts, so begin by asking God if a fast is the right thing for you at this time. Ask what God might be calling you to fast from and for how long. All food or some foods? Media or email or surfing the web? Shopping or makeup or TV sports? You may find it helpful to ask others to pray for you for guidance about fasting.
Many people have found that fasts changed their lives. God called one woman to fast from the newspaper at breakfast for a few weeks. Instead, she read the Bible. She never returned to the newspaper in the morning, and her fast became a habit.
While some fasts do become habits, the primary purpose of Christian fasting is not to change habits, confront addictions, or even to lose weight. A Christian fast comes from the desire to draw near to God, pure and simple. While fasting, we may be called to pray about the place in our life of the thing we are fasting from, and God may change our desires and give us insight into ways we can live a life more centered in a relationship with Jesus. Nurturing that central relationship is the main point of Christian fasting.
As the encouragement to consumerism and consumption continues to ramp up, Jesus is calling his followers to find ways to step aside from the values of our culture and draw near to him.
Fasting, both alone and in community, offers a way to make that step. Fasting clears our minds, opens our hearts, and enables us to see Jesus more vividly. God’s voice and God’s call are more understandable and unhindered. We pray in new ways and with renewed power.
How exactly does this happen? People who fast are aware that they have entered into a mystery, and they are grateful for it.