When You Fast

Fasting is a historic and essential part of the Christian faith—but do we understand why?

My husband and I decided it was time to have children, but my body seemed to be saying otherwise: I was diagnosed with health issues that affected my ability to get pregnant, and I was anxious it would never happen.

I prayed. Tearfully searched for answers in Scripture. And began fasting one or two days a week.

 

As time passed, my prayers evolved into desperate cries and bargaining with God—promising to fast more, read more Scripture, whatever it would take for me to get pregnant. Intellectually, I knew this wasn’t the point of fasting, but a part of me hoped there was something I could do to expedite an intervention, or at least an answer. Looking back now, as I lie down most evenings to sing my young son to sleep, I see a pattern. This experience of wanting (and waiting) to conceive was one of many times I attempted to turn spiritual practices meant for my growth into demands that God act according to my plans.

 

Why Fast?

It comes as no surprise, then, that the first time Jesus speaks of fasting in the New Testament, He doesn’t give His followers timelines or a list of foods to avoid; He deals with their motivation (Matt. 6:16-18). When we fast, it isn’t because God doesn’t want us to eat or because He wants us to suffer. Instead, it’s meant to be part of our pursuit of righteousness and help us develop a singular focus on the kingdom of God—and reorient our life around the One who matters more than anything else. Just as it was for the prophetess Anna, fasting is to be part of our worship (Luke 2:37).

The very first time God called for abstaining, He instructed Adam and Eve not to eat of a specific tree (Gen. 2:16-17). It wasn’t because the tree was bad—nothing in the Garden of Eden was (Gen. 1:31)—but because its fruit was meant to be eaten only at the right time and in the right way. Similarly, in our own lives, purposefully “going without” helps us derive the greatest benefit by enjoying created goods when and how God intended.

Fasting is meant to help us develop a singular focus on the kingdom of God—and reorient our life around the One who matters more than anything else.

The Savior came to reverse the effects of the first human disobedience—to be the “resurrection and the life” for all who believe in Him (John 11:25). When He fasted in the wilderness at the beginning of His ministry, Christ chose to empty Himself for the sake of the world’s fullness. In that story, we note the striking parallels to the story of Genesis: Eve was tempted by and overcome by the serpent, but Jesus—tempted by the devil—was faithful and victorious. (See Gen. 3 and Luke 4.)

 

Some Guidelines

Fasting is best practiced when done in prayerful pursuit of God (and ideally with the input and accountability of a wise mentor). As registered dietitian nutritionist Julie Brake puts it, “Fasting in the Bible is done for the purpose of intense prayer, like Esther before she petitioned the king or [Jesus] before the devil tempted Him. Our current culture uses fasting for cleansing and other reasons, but this is not what the Bible teaches.”

And while fasting is a spiritual practice, it is done both with and to our bodies. Brake emphasizes that good stewardship of our health includes avoiding behaviors that intentionally harm us. “Nutritionally, it is not safe to fast if you need consistent nutrition,” she says. Throughout history, the church has made clear exemptions from fasting for those who cannot do so harmlessly—such as young children, the elderly, pregnant or nursing mothers, and those with diabetes or other situations of medical necessity. What’s more, some studies suggest that socio-religious factors can play a part in exacerbating or triggering eating disorders, but it varies from person to person. If you have concerns or questions, it’s important to speak with your physician.

When He fasted in the wilderness, Christ chose to empty Himself for the sake of the world’s fullness.

For those who are able to fast safely, Brake encourages two things. First, clarify the reason for fasting. And second, define a plan for how long the fast will be, what foods will be included, and how it will be broken. Ideally, the discipline will end with a feast of some sort, but one that’s measured and appropriate to the spiritual journey that was just completed.

While this might seem obvious, it’s important to remind ourselves for the duration of our fast that the purpose is not to demonstrate strength of will, improve our health, or change our physique. We fast in order to draw nearer to God.

Keep in mind that refraining from food is not a requirement for spiritual fasting—you can give up other practices to make more room for the Lord. But if you want to abstain from food, start small—perhaps by avoiding a certain category like meat or dairy, or by eating just one or two meals over the course of a 24-hour period. The Christian tradition’s wisdom on the subject can be summed up this way: Fast as you can, not as you can’t.

When I was struggling to get pregnant, I fasted because I wanted God to do things on my terms. I needlessly punished myself for having a broken body—for not being able to depend on my own self in the way our culture says I should. But I was missing the point: Fasting is meant to remind us of our utter dependence on God—to help us embrace our weakness, so that we boast only in the strength of the One who loves us more than we know how to love.

 

Photo-illustration by Ryan Hayslip

Related Topics:  Spiritual Life

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What happens to my notes

16 Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face

18 so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

37 and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers.

16 The LORD God commanded the man, saying, From any tree of the garden you may eat freely;

17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die."

31 God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

25 Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies,

1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness

2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry.

3 And the devil said to Him, If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread."

4 And Jesus answered him, It is written, `MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE.'"

5 And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.

6 And the devil said to Him, I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.

7 Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours."

8 Jesus answered him, It is written, `YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD AND SERVE HIM ONLY.'"

9 And he led Him to Jerusalem and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here;

10 for it is written, `HE WILL COMMAND HIS ANGELS CONCERNING YOU TO GUARD YOU,'

11 and, `ON their HANDS THEY WILL BEAR YOU UP, SO THAT YOU WILL NOT STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.'"

12 And Jesus answered and said to him, It is said, `YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.'"

13 When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time.

14 And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district.

15 And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all.

16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read.

17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

18 THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED,

19 TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD."

20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him.

21 And He began to say to them, Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

22 And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, Is this not Joseph's son?"

23 And He said to them, No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, `Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.'"

24 And He said, Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown.

25 But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land;

26 and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.

27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian."

28 And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things;

29 and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff.

30 But passing through their midst, He went His way.

31 And He came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and He was teaching them on the Sabbath;

32 and they were amazed at His teaching, for His message was with authority.

33 In the synagogue there was a man possessed by the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice,

34 Let us alone! What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are--the Holy One of God!"

35 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, Be quiet and come out of him!" And when the demon had thrown him down in the midst of the people, he came out of him without doing him any harm.

36 And amazement came upon them all, and they began talking with one another saying, What is this message? For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits and they come out."

37 And the report about Him was spreading into every locality in the surrounding district.

38 Then He got up and left the synagogue, and entered Simon's home. Now Simon's mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Him to help her.

39 And standing over her, He rebuked the fever, and it left her; and she immediately got up and waited on them.

40 While the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and laying His hands on each one of them, He was healing them.

41 Demons also were coming out of many, shouting, You are the Son of God!" But rebuking them, He would not allow them to speak, because they knew Him to be the Christ.

42 When day came, Jesus left and went to a secluded place; and the crowds were searching for Him, and came to Him and tried to keep Him from going away from them.

43 But He said to them, I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose."

44 So He kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.

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