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To Fast or Not to Fast
Jo Swinney explores the benefits of the often-neglected practice of self-denial.
We all know people who deprive themselves of chocolate during Lent, only to have a spectacular binge on Easter day! But bring up the topic of fasting among a group of Western Christians in the early 21st century, and the response is likely to be sheepish laughter and a few scattered anecdotes about friends of friends who have purportedly forgone food for spiritual purposes. The truth is, not many of us fast as a regular discipline, a good number of us don’t quite get the connection between calorie denial and spiritual growth, and even those of us who do find it just too uncomfortable to embrace as a habit. Why has this ancient practice fallen by the wayside? And should we challenge ourselves to rediscover its spiritual potential?
Why We Would Rather Not
There is concern among Church leaders that fasting is a neglected practice among Christians today. While prayer, financial giving, worship, hospitality, Bible reading and service are recognised, fasting appears to have fallen out of favour. In Celebration of Discipline, (Harper) Richard Foster identifies three main reasons why the Church has seemingly abandoned fasting. Firstly, he argues that we have swung to the opposite extreme of the ascetic practices of the Middle Ages, freely indulging ourselves by way of claiming grace over law. Secondly, he asserts that we have bought into a false belief that we will do ourselves physical harm if we don’t have three main meals a day. And thirdly, he believes that we don’t do it for the simple reason that it is just too costly: ‘Have we become so accustomed to “cheap grace” that we instinctively shy away from more demanding calls to obedience?’.
James Catford, head of Bible Society, has a slightly different view: ‘Fasting is neglected by people who do not realise that our body is our primary ally in Christ-likeness,’ he says. Historically, we have an ambivalent relationship with the physical and hold the misconception that taking practical responsibility for our own spiritual formation is somehow doing God’s job for him. Fasting is not law – it’s grace. A way to place ourselves where God can change us.’
So we have perhaps misunderstood the way that we must work out our own salvation, in partnership with God. When Paul talks about the need for self-discipline in his first letter to the Corinthians, he says that in the same way that an athlete trains their body for a race with the goal of winning, we too are running for a prize – an eternal one – and therefore must do whatever it takes to win: ‘I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize’ (1 Corinthians 9:27). Fasting very obviously submits our body to God. Denying ourselves food will cause us to experience, albeit temporarily, the uncomfortable sensation of hunger. It is choosing to prioritise our obedience to Christ over the noisy demands of our stomachs.
…And Why We Should
The concept of fasting has been around for a very long time, and not just in the Judeo-Christian tradition; most of the world’s great religions use fasting as a means of spiritual growth. Many of the great biblical leaders are reported to have fasted, among them Moses, King David, the prophet Elijah, Queen Esther, Daniel, Anna the prophetess, and Paul. Jesus himself gave the practice strong endorsement by beginning his public ministry with a 40- day food-free stint in the desert. And, of course, he taught on it. Roger Forster, founder of the Ichthus Christian Fellowship, says this: ‘Jesus assumed we would fast when he said “When you fast”, not if. Jesus fulfilled the Law which had the Day of Atonement as statutory, commanded by God for all Israel, and no doubt fulfilled the other Old Testament fasts introduced by the Jews. The early disciples followed Jesus’ example and fasted. In following Christ today, one would assume we would engage in prayer and giving, and then include the third discipline of Israel, fasting – as is seen in Matthew chapter 6.’
In scripture, fasting always refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. It was sometimes a private matter between an individual and God, and sometimes a corporate response toa large-scale disaster or used as a symbol of national repentance. As with any religious practice, it only pleased God when it was done with the right heart, out of love for God and a desire to acknowledge his authority.
When I scan through the history of my life as a Christian, fasting has played a part, but not a particularly significant one. As a young teen, I went through a passionately religious phase as a result of an encounter with the Holy Spirit, and for several months fasted from one meal each week. Later on, I took part in a couple of World Vision’s sponsored 24-hour famines, and occasionally fasted for a day to pray for a certain issue or person. I went on a short retreat last year during which I fasted, but I have to confess it was mainly because the retreat house dining room was full! During my last pregnancy I experimented with some alternative fasts, including a fast from fiction, the media, hot drinks and sugar. From my limited experience, I have glimpsed the potential that fasting has to deepen, strengthen and mature faith and obedience to God. Here are some benefits:
1. Fasting has the potential to enable us to focus on God, to place him at the very centre of our attention. It reminds us that we do not live on bread alone, but are sustained at the deepest level by the Lord (Matthew 4:4).
2. We spend a lot of time each day on food preparation, eating and clearing up. Fasting buys us spaces to pray, read the Bible and come before God in a more leisurely way than our schedules might usually allow.
3. Fasting humbles us, showing us our addictions, compulsions and sinfulness, and giving us the opportunity to ask God for forgiveness and transformation. It is a chance to strip away our defences so that we can identify and then repent of the ugliness we all have hidden inside us.
4. Somehow I have found that fasting while praying for something gives my prayers more weight, more urgency, more intensity. It is a way of telling God that I am serious enough about my desire to seek him to put up with some hunger pangs, and I sense that he enjoys my efforts to please him.
5. Much of the world participates in a compulsory fast, simply because people do not have enough food for three meals a day. I rarely feel hunger; fasting reminds me that this unpleasant sensation is a constant experience for many of my fellow human beings.
6. Fasting is a discipline, and I have found it gives me a sense of spiritual ‘fitness’, drawing me closer to God, more at one with him, and able to hear him more clearly.
Jamie Treadwell, a member of The Sword of the Spirit, urban monk, executive performance coach and artist, has high regard for this practice, and the sneaking suspicion that there are more ‘closet fasters’ out there than we might think. ‘Fasting is a regular part of our community life,’ he says. ‘We have weekly fast days, and many members take extended fasts periodically. One of the highlights of Koinonia, a university outreach and student community we support, is an optional five-day fast during term time. I’m always surprised that many students choose to do this, but am no longer surprised at the spiritual benefits and pure joy that they discover through the process.’
• It is probably wise to begin with a short fast, and work towards a longer one. Perhaps try one or two meals a week for several weeks, planning to eventually attempt a 24-hour period drinking only water, and then considering whether to fast for several days. There are several resources that will help you understand the physical responses you can expect to experience when going through a longer fast. The website freedomyou.com is full of useful information on this and other aspects of fasting.
• Choose a sensible time to begin fasting – don’t make things unnecessarily complicated for yourself by picking a busy, energy-draining week! Try not to set yourself up for failure by fasting when temptation will be particularly strong (for example, a day when you will be attending a wedding). Find a time when what you are doing won’t be conspicuous.• It might be helpful to fast alongside a friend, for accountability and encouragement.
• Food fasts are not for everyone. If you have an eating disorder, diabetes, a heart condition, are expecting a baby, or are breastfeeding, it is not appropriate to mess with your calorie intake. You could explore alternatives – perhaps fasting from shopping, texting, internet use, or whatever else has an elevated position in your life.
• Make sure that you are clear in your mind about the spiritual intentions of fasting, and are not motivated by weight-loss, the desire to appear super-spiritual, wanting to manipulate God, or any other less-than-worthy reason.
• Find someone who fasts regularly and ask them about how and why they do it. I have been very inspired by listening to my friends’ stories, and amazed at what a profound and important aspect of their spiritual journey it seems to be. This spurs me on far more than the feeling that I ‘ought’ to be doing it because the Bible teaches me to.
I have a confession. I have been writing this article as a ‘non-faster’ wishing to make a general point that this is a good thing to do, but without any intention to accept the challenge personally! However, I believe that this is not good enough, and I have committed to a weekly one-meal fast as a place to start. I hope to progress to more significant fasting, because I have become convinced that this should be a part of normal Christian discipleship. There is nothing in this life more important than the search for God. He promises: ‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you’ (Jeremiah 29:13–14). If fasting is one of the ways we can draw near to the Lord, surely that is all the motivation we need to embrace it. As Jamie Treadwell says, fasting ‘expresses a conscious effort to align our human capacity with God’s purposes and will. It is the reclaiming of responsibility and choice. For in fasting we make tangible the heart desire to express “May your will be done in me and through me”.’ Will you join me in making this discipline a part of your life?
The Marathon Fast
I started university by doing a 40-day fast, during which I only ate one piece of pizza. It was something I felt that God had invited me to do; I was going to Birmingham University to study, but I also sensed there was a greater purpose for my time there, and I was keen to hear God on what this was. Fasting, in a way, was me letting God know that I wanted to seek him whatever the cost. Over that time I didn’t find out a specific reason why God had taken me there, but I discovered an amazing intimacy with him. My life since has been about living a life that reflects him. Joanna, PA
The Charity Fast
The only fasting I have ever done was a couple of sponsored fasts for World Vision when I was a teenager. It felt good to be doing something for a cause, and I did it with a group of my friends, which helped. I remember feeling shocked at how hungry I was after only a day with no food, and it made me more aware of how terrible it must be not to have enough to eat on a regular basis. Now I am a mother, I almost can’t bear to think of being unable to feed my children. A sponsored fast definitely brings the reality of much of the world a little closer to home. Caroline, full-time mother
The Regular Fast
I have fasted regularly for many years now, out of a general hunger to go deeper in my relationship with God. A typical fast would involve missing two or three meals on one day, but I have had some longer ones when I’ve had a specific issue that I wanted to bring before God. Sergio Hornung, a youth pastor from Peru with around 40,000 teens in his ministry, once said to me that the act of fasting is in itself a form of prayer; a way of presenting a heartfelt request before God. For me that was a very helpful way to understand its purpose – before that, sometimes I would fast but feel guilty that I wasn’t spending enough time in prayer for it to be effective. Most recently, I fasted in order to pray about feelings that I had for a girl in my church. I had known for some time that she was interested in me, but when I started to feel the same way, I felt God ask me not to tell her yet. It was a hard situation, and I fasted because I really didn’t know the way forward. The morning I finished the fast I woke up with a picture of our wedding day, and a great sense of peace that the timing was in his hands. We came together very happily a few months later, and both feel that God used the waiting to prepare us better for each other. Ed, pharmaceutical engineer
Groups That Shouldn’t Fast
• Children, pregnant or breastfeeding women
• People with heart, liver, kidney or mitochondrial problems or gastric/duodenal ulcers
• People with a history of eating disorder
When fasting for short periods, the body produces energy from stored carbohydrate. After around three days, muscles and fat stores are broken down to provide energy. This can go on for over a month in someone of normal weight, but can carry risks of permanent damage to organs such as the heart, brain or kidneys. If fasting for more than a week, it would be sensible to take a multivitamin containing thiamine, and to seek medical advice. Because fasting can make people feel less thirsty, it is important to make sure you drink enough – aim for 1.5-2 litres a day. Once the fast ends, slowly reintroduce foods. - Rebecca Payne, a GP based in Cardiff