Why voluntarily deny ourselves something good that God gives us for both survival and pleasure?
A part of the spirit of fasting is, I believe, as follows: To freely choose to deny ourselves something good in order to facilitate something better is wise. So I occasionally choose to deny myself a good thing in order to facilitate greater growth of my soul. I believe the soul can become “smaller” and it can become “larger.” (Not spatially, of course—but spiritually). Consider “I will run the way of your commandments, for you will enlarge my heart” (Psalm 119:32 NASB). Spiritual growth and spiritual regression are not metaphors—they refer to things that are invisible, but very real.
Throughout the centuries, the church has freely used two words that we seldom use anymore—to be “small-souled” is pusillanimous (“pusil” is Latin for small, “animus” is Latin for the soul) and to be “large-souled” is magnanimous (“magna” is Latin for great or large). Christian mentors during the Middle Ages devoted whole chapters to these two subjects!
Christ regenerated my soul. I owe him everything for that. Now I want to follow Christ in such a way that each faculty of my soul grows as much as possible in Christlikeness. To do this just prior to the time we give special attention to the death and resurrection of Jesus seems fitting.
What is Fasting?
Fasting is voluntarily going without food, or any other regularly enjoyed, good gift from God, for the sake of some spiritual purpose. Here are a few biblical examples of fasting’s spiritual purposes:
- Strengthening prayer (Ezra 8:23; Joel 2:13; Acts 13:3)
- Seeking God’s guidance (Judges 20:26; Acts 14:23)
- Expressing grief (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:11–12)
- Seeking deliverance or protection (2 Chronicles 20:3–4; Ezra 8:21–23)
- Expressing repentance and returning to God (1 Samuel 7:6; Jonah 3:5–8)
- Humbling oneself before God (1 Kings 21:27–29; Psalm 35:13)
- Expressing concern for the work of God (Nehemiah 1:3–4; Daniel 9:3)
- Ministering to the needs of others (Isaiah 58:3–7)
- Overcoming temptation and dedicating yourself to God (Matthew 4:1–11)
- Expressing love and worship to God (Luke 2:37)
1. Start small.
Don’t go from no fasting to attempting a week long fast. Start with one meal, maybe fast one meal a week for several weeks. Then try two meals, and work your way up to a daylong fast. Perhaps eventually try a two-day juice fast.
A juice fast means abstaining from all food and beverage, except for juice and water. Allowing yourself juice provides nutrients and sugar for the body to keep you operating, while also still feeling the effects from going without solid food. It’s not recommended that you abstain from water during a fast of any length.
2. Have a plan.
Fasting isn’t merely an act of self-deprivation, but a spiritual discipline for seeking more of God’s fullness. Which means we should have a plan for what positive pursuit to undertake in the time it normally takes to eat. One significant part of fasting is the time it creates for prayer and meditation on God’s word or some act of love for others.
Before diving headlong into a fast, craft a simple plan. Connect it to your purpose for the fast. Each fast should have a specific spiritual purpose. Identify what that is and design a focus to replace the time you would have spent eating. Without a purpose and plan, it’s not Christian fasting; it’s just going hungry.
3. Fast from something other than food.
Fasting from food is not necessarily for everyone. Some health conditions keep even the most devout from the traditional course. However, fasting is not limited to abstaining from food. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose.”
If the better part of wisdom for you, in your health condition, is not to go without food, consider fasting from television, computer, social media, or some other regular enjoyment that would bend your heart toward greater enjoyment of Jesus.
When we think of spiritual disciplines, we often think of things like reading the Bible, prayer, and acts of service. Then there is this voice in the back of our heads that knows we should include fasting, but doesn’t want to, because then we’d have to admit that, while we know it’s a major Christian discipline, we haven’t made an effort to fast in years, or maybe even ever.
I think this lack of participation in the discipline of fasting is (at least partially) due to our lack of understanding its meaning and purpose. When we fast, if we are not careful, our experience might go something like this:
- Stop eating to focus on prayer/intercession
- Get really hungry four or five hours later
- Start counting down the hours until our fast ends as we bitterly endure the absence of food
- We finish not having seen the fruits of fasting that God wants us to receive.
Here’s the problem: We don’t want to view fasting as something to merely be endured. This leads to a pseudo-spiritual time of merely not eating that is, frankly, not very helpful. Rather, let’s view fasting as something that helps reveal our spiritual need and hunger.
So often, we are dulled out to how spiritually hungry we truly are. We are far too comfortable to have to deal with it. We can easy ignore it if we choose. Fasting produces a physical hunger that is much harder to ignore. This physical hunger helps us see and understand our (often neglected) spiritual hunger. The discomfort we experience by not eating is designed to remind us “If I don’t eat, eventually I’ll die!” It’s meant to remind you that you are dependent, and ultimately fragile. The feeling of physical hunger in fasting is meant to help us understand that the same is true for our souls. “If God does not feed my soul, it will die!” We are reminded of our complete and utter dependence on Him.
When we see fasting as a discipline to help us see and understand our spiritual hunger and desire, our experience might go something like this:
- Stop eating to focus on prayer/intercession
- Get really hungry four or five hours later
- Recognize the hunger as mirroring your spiritual hunger, which fuel prayer and worship and communion with God
- Because we are made aware of our hunger and desperation for God, He is made more precious, more beautiful, and more central to our hearts.
The discipline of fasting is so much more than just the absence of food. It is disciplining our body to submit to the spirit. It is using our stomach to remind us of our soul. It’s purposefully entering into uncomfortability, so that the glory of God might be our greater, truer comfort.
Fasting quickly catches our attention! The body will notice when meals are skipped, I know mine does! Personally, I’m a wimp when it comes to fasting (if you don’t believe me, ask my wife), and I’m prone to inconsistency and irritableness. Whatever I’m focused on immediately takes a back seat and my hunger takes the front seat in my mind. I’m easily distracted.
When we lack something we’re accustomed to, it’s distracting for all of us. So what do we do with those distractions? Because they will be there for most of us, even if we’re already accustomed to rhythmic fasting, there will still be some struggle for focus. One thing fasting does is make us deeply acquainted with how weak our wills are. This, I believe, is a good thing- to recognize and face the ugliness of how weak we are. We’re often blind to our lusts until we cease consuming what we’re lusting after.
As Taproot seeks to pair fasting with crying out to God in prayer, I don’t think we will truly cry out to him in our need if we don’t first realize how weak we are. As we set aside and fast from comforts we are accustomed to, we will quickly recognize how often our bodies control us and not the other way around. The point of fasting is not discouragement, so I hope these points can help us deal with distractions and discouragement and help us grow to become more self-controlled.
Our goal: To become more Christ-like.
In stark contrast to our
first parents Adam & Eve who ate of the food they were told not to eat,
Jesus was tempted by Satan for 40 days in the wilderness and triumphed over
temptation (Matthew 4:1-4). Jesus went 40 days without food and said that he
didn’t need Satan’s bread because the word of God sustained him. And that was
only one of his temptations! None of us would last like Jesus did! We need the
same Bible and Holy Spirit who sustained Jesus, and when we fall short in our
fasting we can be thankful for Jesus. He faced distractions, discouragement,
and temptation perfectly in our place, so shame and guilt have no place for a
Christian who is weak while fasting. Through the Spirit’s power we can grow to
be similarly strong in our weaknesses.
Our focus: To develop the virtue of self-control.
When Paul the apostle spoke to an early church shortly after Jesus ascended back to heaven, he spoke of how difficult it was to keep running the race of living faithfully as a disciple (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). He said that “every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” Self-control is vital if we want to be believers that make it to the end of our lives faithfully following Jesus! Fasting illuminates how mature we are in self-control as we’re asking our bodies to adjust themselves to our convictions. “I discipline my body and keep it under control” Paul goes on to say, because he doesn’t want to become “disqualified”. Of course ultimately we’re “qualified” for heaven through Jesus, but there are heavenly rewards (or “wreaths”) that come with having cultivated a virtue of self-control throughout our lives, and I want to invite us into that reward Taproot!
Our way: To put to death the body’s lusts by the Spirit.
We always begin with what Jesus has done (he was perfectly self-controlled in his fasting) before moving to what he’s called us to do (exercise self-control) because only Jesus can help us overcome our heart’s lusts which are exposed as we abstain from food and other things. Romans 8:11-13 teaches us that when our body’s lustful desires begin to flare up while fasting we can put those desires to death because the Holy Spirit lives in us. As we look to Jesus and believe he’s done for us what we can’t do on our own, the Spirit empowers us to say “no” to those temptations and lusts. Remember, this isn’t a “white knuckle your way through it” thing, it’s about being sustained and led by the Spirit the same way Jesus was during his fasting in the wilderness. Being seeped in prayer and the scriptures, becoming more and more aware of the lusts of the flesh, and ultimately relying on the Holy Spirit’s strength to become more like Jesus.