Lent Notes: Fasting – for the purpose of Godliness
Jesus “ate nothing during [the 40 days in the desert], and at the end of them he was hungry”. Luke 4:2
These notes are mainly about how to fast from food (because there’s more to it than just not eating), but you could use your imagination and substitute some other ‘daily necessity’.
What is fasting?
At its most basic, fasting in the Bible is about fasting from food. But it is possible to broaden the definition. Richard Foster says it is: “The voluntary denial of a normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity” – so it may be a fast from involvement with other people, from our gadgets, or (and this is a scary thought) from words – more about that towards the end of these notes.
In Celebration of Discipline (pages 42-44), Richard Foster talks about these kinds of food fast:
Partial fast, where you give up some foods for a while, as Daniel did in Daniel chapter 10;
Normal fast where you don’t eat, but you do drink water eg Jesus’ fast in the desert (Matthew 4, Mark 1, Luke 4);
Absolute fast from food and water, as Esther did for 3 days before she went to see the king (Esther 4);
Group fasts where a group or nation come together to pray eg when Judah was threatened (2 Chronicles 20). (There are historical instances in this country of national fasting eg during the mid-18th Century with threat of invasion by the French under Napoleon, and again in the Second World War, where the threat came from Nazi Germany.)
On the topic of absolute fast from food, Richard Foster says that this should only be undertaken if there is a very clear command from God, and then not for more than 3 days. Moses (Deuteronomy 9) and Elijah (I Kings 19) were supernaturally enabled to fast absolutely for 40 days, but this is very much the exception and not to be taken as a precedent.
Why should we fast?
There are no laws to command fasting and we are right to reject anything that is merely an outward show of spirituality. Jesus doesn’t say “You must fast.” At the same time, he does say “When you fast…”, and his teaching on fasting is linked with praying and giving (Matthew 6). Richard Foster says “It is as if there is an almost unconscious assumption that giving, praying and fasting are all part of Christian devotion.”
What are we hoping to achieve through fasting?
Richard Foster reminds us that fasting must forever centre on God. Otherwise, “we would be tempted to believe that with a little fast we could have the whole world, including God, eating out of our hand.” (Celebration, page 48). Donald S Whitney, in his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, says this: “The Bible does not teach that fasting is a kind of spiritual hunger strike that compels God to do our bidding. If we ask for something outside God’s will, fasting does not cause Him to reconsider. Fasting does not change God’s hearing so much as it changes our praying.” (pages 157,158).
In practice, our purposes for fasting are intertwined: we may fast to strengthen our prayer; to seek God’s guidance; to express grief at death or repentance; to humble ourselves be fore God; to express concern for the work of God (as Nehemiah did over the broken walls of Jerusalem); to overcome temptation and dedicate ourselves to God, as Jesus did in the wilderness; to express love and worship towards God; to demonstrate that He is God (and not my stomach); to express solidarity with other believers, especially those in a hard place.
Arguably, the most important thing is not what you are giving up, but what you hope to achieve through doing so. Are you trying to develop a new good habit in place of a bad one, are you hoping to save money to give to a good cause, or to develop a new perspective on life (for example, to value your luxuries, or to see whether a good activity needs to be replaced by a better one)?
It must be stressed, however, that while some things about fasting can be guaranteed (if you’re fasting from food, you will slow down, suffer hunger pangs, feel the cold, become more aware of your short-comings), others (clarity in prayer, a sense of closeness to God, spiritual breakthrough) are not. In Matthew 6:18, Jesus promises this “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you”. What the reward turns out to be, is up to Him.
How do I fast from food?
Celebration of Discipline pp 49-52 gives practical steps for managing food fasting. These include starting out with a 24-hour partial fast eg lunchtime to lunchtime, drinking only fruit juices. Having done this regularly (once a week) for a while, you may progress to a 24-hour normal fast. I would add that it is worth considering in advance how to minimise time spent in the kitchen, especially if you are responsible for preparing meals. Also, because you notice the cold more, it is important to make sure that you take extra steps to keep warm if you are fasting during cold weather.
Richard Foster moves on to consider a 36-hour and 1 week-long normal fast, but I have to say that I have not moved with him –yet.
What can I expect with fasting?
Richard Foster concludes “Although the physical aspects of fasting intrigue us, we must never forget that the major work of scriptural fasting is in the realm of the spirit. [ ] You will be engaged in spiritual warfare that will necessitate all the weapons of Ephesians 6.” (Celebration, page 52) The same is true of all the disciplines – when you show that you are taking God seriously and that you want to improve your relationship with God, it signals to the enemy that it is worth diverting some of his resources in your direction.
Fasting with others: a group trying this found that doing this strengthened their resolve to keep going;
Eating a plainer diet (eg bread without butter): this may be a way of remembering and praying for those who do not have easy access to food
Fasting from Words: Richard Foster has two suggestions. Firstly, to experiment with doing deeds without any words of explanation, noticing how fearful you may feel that people will misunderstand you. He then suggests that you go further, and live a whole day without words at all – “not as a law but as an experiment”, again noting your feelings (page 94, CD)
“One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless. We are so accustomed to relying on words to manage and control others. If we are silent, who will take control? God will take control; but we will never let Him take control until we trust Him. Silence is intimately related to trust….. One of the fruits of silence is the freedom to let our justification [of ourselves in the eyes of others] rest entirely with God. (page 88, CD)
Just as fasting from food can show you how much unnecessary eating you do, a fast from words helps you “find out that He is able to manage situations in which we [think] our input [is] indispensable.” (page 185, SDCL). A person who fasted during a shared meal by not saying anything critical or negative was amazed by two things: how little she had left to say, and how well everyone managed without her thoughts! I would add, she probably gained greater insights into what everyone else was thinking .
Whitney points out that, as fasting from food modifies our attitude to it, so disciplining ourselves over our words detaches us from our need to speak all the time and enables us to be better listeners and observers. Let’s try it!