A Theological and Practical Analysis of Fasting

Download the PDF here: An Analysis of Fasting

It is very easy to totally miss the point of fasting if we don’t have a proper understanding or motive for it. However, when properly understood, it can be one of the most powerful and rewarding Christian disciplines to enrich our faith journey. “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside of us with food and other things.” – Richard Foster. We know that Jesus expected us to fast, in Matthew 6:16 he says, “when you fast” and not “if you fast.” However, what experience of God does this discipline offer us? In what ways did Jesus instruct us through his life or teachings about fasting? What are the benefits? And how is it applicable to us?

Definition:

To quickly define what is meant by fasting, it is simply the self-denial of either a necessity or luxury of life for a time in order to seek God more fully. The latter part of that, the focus of fasting, is what makes the definition of Christian fasting different from other forms of secular or religious fasting. All cultures, religions and even some health programs have their own practice of fasting. However, the center of the Christian in fasting should be the distinguishing mark from other types of fasting.

Fasting may take on many different expressions. There are a variety food fasts such as; a no food at all fast, or abstinence from certain foods, the Daniel fast (fruits, vegetables and water), vegan or vegetarian fast, no sugar fast. There are also fasts of other luxuries such as TV, internet, caffeine, waking up late, going out, entertainment, social media, etc. Whatever the form of the thing being given up, two things are important to note… Firstly, that it should be a sacrifice – you should not sacrifice that which costs you nothing. Secondly, that it matters hugely with what you replace the time you would normally spend on the thing being sacrificed. It should be that whatever is sacrificed, is to make more time for seeking the presence, experience, knowledge and power of God in one’s life. So if it is meals, then in the time you would normally be eating to satisfy the craving of hunger, you seek the Lord and thereby learn to realize in actuality the scripture that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matt 4:4) I would recommend to take some time before fasting to pray and ask God to reveal what luxuries or necessities in your life you should fast in order to benefit most from.


Two Major Benefits of Fasting:

1. Exposing a nerve – sanctification

Those with eating disorders use food as a sort of medication for their pain and hurts in life. They anaesthetise themselves from dealing with the reality of their brokenness by either turning to food – as in gluttony – or away from food – as in anorexia. However, we should not be quick to dismiss this as a problem only held by some few troubled people as some sort of rare syndrome. We all do it to some extent. The brokenness is widespread, a symptom of sinful humanity. We all ease our discomfort by using food, or other pleasures or vices to take our minds and eyes off besetting sins, hurts, and unaddressed issues. This is why fasting exposes us all. It takes away these pacifiers of comfort to expose the raw issues beneath – our pride, pain, anger and fear. Richard Foster says, “Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear—if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first, we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger. And then, we know that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ.”

Fasting is one of the tools God can use to show us our own sin and brokenness, and moreover our need for Him daily as our saviour and sanctifier.

2. A Test of Faith

Fasting puts our love for God to the test, not for God’s benefit, but our own. Nothing can reveal to ourselves the true colours of our faith more than suffering. It proves to us the extent to which we are willing to sacrifice in the name of love. Augustine said, “For the most part, the human mind cannot attain to self-knowledge otherwise than by making trial of its powers through temptation, by some kind of experimental and not merely verbal self-interrogation.” We can very easily take for granted that we love God unless our love is actually put to the test, until it is passed through the fire. By fasting, we voluntarily brave the fire to show ourselves our preferences not merely with words but with sacrifice. In this way, fasting is very much a journey of self discovery of one’s own faith and the good work God has started in us to His glory. It helps to show us how He has changed our will, affections and desires – revealing just how deep the work He has begun in our hearts has gone and the true intensity and endurance of our passion for God.


Dangers in Fasting:

1. Demonizing God’s Good Gifts

One should be careful though not to slip into mere asceticism and demonize the good gifts of God. Food and other pleasures in life are meant to magnify the ultimate pleasure which is found in Christ Himself. Jonathan Edwards, speaking about this world’s good pleasures says, “These are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean.” John Piper  puts it this way, “When we eat, we taste the emblem of our heavenly food—the Bread of Life. And when we fast we say, “I love the Reality above the emblem.”

In the heart of the saint both eating and fasting are worship. Both magnify Christ. Both send the heart—grateful and yearning—to the Giver. Each has its appointed place, and each has its danger.

The danger of eating is that we fall in love with the gift; the danger of fasting is that we belittle the gift and glory in our willpower.” Even Paul says the point isn’t in the abstinence from food, but “God created [food] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving…” (1 Tim 4:3b–4 ESV) Fasting and abstaining from these gifts, whether it be food or caffeine or some other comfort, then cannot be exalted in such a way that the goodness of God is overlooked in the gifts he has provided for our enjoyment to point us back to Him as the source. Augustine summates it beautifully when he said, “He loves Thee too little who loves anything together with Thee which he loves not for Thy sake.”

2. Fasting to Earn Right Standing or Favour with God

In Colossians 2, Paul states that we have died to the world and its regulations – under grace we no longer try to achieve some level of righteousness by keeping the law. In verse 23, “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col 2:23 ESV) One of the dangers in an improper focus on fasting is to think that by the self-disciplining of our desires and restraining ourselves, that we can somehow conquer sin by our own efforts. We run the risk of thinking we have achieved self mastery and the danger of pride. Lewis adds that, “ascetic practices which, in themselves, strengthen the will, are only useful insofar as they enable the will to put its own house (the passions) in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God. They are necessary as a means; and as an end, they would be abominable, for in substituting will for appetite and there stopping, they would merely exchange the animal self for the diabolical self.”

It was therefore truly said that “only God can mortify.” Our problem is not that we have these desires, but that we settle for satisfying these desires in too lowly of things. We fool around with pithy temporal things such as money, earthly power, titles, sex and drugs, when our Lord offers eternally glorious rewards. It is like the boy who settles for playing with mud pies in the dirt, when a banquet feast is being offered in the palace! Only when we satisfy these desires in God can we truly mortify the deeds of the flesh. This is one of the goals and rewards of properly focused fasting as it draws us in closer to relationship with God and as seeing Him as the ultimate reward, all other lesser rewards of sin pale by comparison.

3. Fasting for Boastful Reasons

It is quite possible to have a self-indulgent type of fast. In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus is instructing His disciples on how to fast. He tells them not to do it for the reward of men, and to do so in secret, not boasting in their pious devotion. Foster writes, “Nothing disciplines the inordinate desires of the flesh like service, and nothing transforms the desires of the flesh like serving in ‘hiddenness’. The flesh whines against service but screams against hidden service. It strains and pulls for honour and recognition. It will devise subtle, religiously acceptable means to call attention to the service rendered. If we stoutly refuse to give in to this lust of the flesh, we crucify it. Every time we crucify the flesh, we crucify our pride and arrogance.” In Isaiah 58 it says, that if your fasting leaves you selfish in other areas, being harsh and irritable – it is not acceptable to God. God warns us about substituting religious disciplines for true righteous living. It comes down to a matter of the heart.

4. Fasting to Petition God Through Pious Bribery

While fasting to petition God is a legitimate reason, it is important to point out that fasting is not a way of bribing God to do your will. It is common and biblically acceptable to fast in order to petition and seek guidance from God on specific requests, however, it is more so of an alignment of our wills to His and not the other way around. In stripping away the distractions, we can become tuned to the Spirit more acutely and thereby better discern God’s will in our lives. So do not be surprised if you start off fasting and petitioning for one thing and come out with changed perspectives instead of ‘answered prayers’. In fact, what may happen is actually better than what you may have initially conceived – in that your will may become so much more aligned to God, that you will be no longer asking amiss, but rather according to the Father’s will, and in so doing – see more answered prayer. In any case, prayer and fasting are inseparable. To fast without praying is just to starve yourself and is spiritually pointless – you might as well just eat…


An Acceptable Fast to the Lord – A look at Isaiah 58

I suggest you take a few minutes and re-read Isaiah 58 before reading this section:
http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+58

Basically, our Monday work proves the sincerity of our Sunday’s worship. If it has not changed our daily lives, God is almost ridiculing our fasting; “Is such the fast that I choose? …Is it to bow down his head like a reed?” (Isaiah 58:5 ESV) Authentic fasting includes an attack on our own sin.  

FASTING IS MEANT TO STARVE SIN NOT US.

It has been my own experience that though I may fast for a variety of reasons, including specific prayer requests or seeking guidance, inevitably it will eventually expose something about the sin in my own heart which I have to deal with. So, fasting out of a real hunger for God will show a hunger for our own holiness since to want God is to hate sin. Therefore, fasting that is not focused on starving the sinful flesh while feasting on God is futile since it is then only for show or our own self-indulgence.

Isaiah 58 lays out beautifully what is an acceptable fast in God’s eyes. In it, God asks the true motives behind their fast. Were they fasting to battle against their own sin – the sin of driving their workers harshly, putting heavy yokes on the poor, and neglecting their needs? Though their fast had all the religious signs of piety, abstinence and sacrifice, their behaviour proved their heart was not in the right place. God clarifies and says, “the fast that pleases me isn’t about making yourselves hungry and afflicted, but that you make the poor less hungry and afflicted.” He is basically saying, if you want to fight sin by taking away meals from yourself, then put those meals in the mouths of the poor – that will prove then that you are truly fasting for righteousness sake! When God lists the aspects of the fast that he chooses in Isaiah 58:6–7, He is not telling us to earn wages by labouring through good works, but to cure our heart condition by following the Great Physician’s prescription. It is the Doctor’s prescription for the disease of hypocrisy, hardheartedness and our addiction to consumerism. Verses 8 and 9 promise us the cure that will happen if we follow this prescription on how to fast. It’s aim is not in the works, but through them to get at our heart condition.


A Divine Prescription

This prescription very much echoes the same things which Jesus taught, that even as we do it unto the least of these, we do it as unto Him. It reflects His own earthly ministry of reaching out to the poor, rejected and lost. In this way, we can see how Jesus’ own life and ministry becomes a model for true fasting. No longer is the focus only on the abstinence of food and other pleasures, but what do we do now with that time we free up? How do we seek to know God through prayer, His Word and by serving others and in this be imitators of Christ? How does it teach us to look beyond ourselves to be attentive to the needs of others? Furthermore, we see from verse 11, “the Lord will guide you continually”. This is one of our rewards in this type of fasting, “…it seems the Lord gives his most intimate guidance to those bent on giving themselves to the needs of others—especially the poor. The guidance of God is not meant for the bright paths of the garden of ease, but for the dark places of pain where we have few answers and paths have never been cut.” – John Piper.


The Reward of Fasting

Here we see the greatest reward and what should be the goal of fasting – knowing Jesus Himself. Doing right solely for the sake of doing right is insufficient in itself and comes up short of our truest joy. We do it to enlarge and magnify our delight in God himself since He is the definition of all that is good, right and lastingly pleasurable. It is not dishonourable to desire the reward – Lewis writes of this, “There are rewards that do not sully motives. A man’s love for a woman is not mercenary because he wants to marry her, nor his love for poetry mercenary because he wants to read it, nor his love for exercise less interested because he wants to run and leap and walk. Love, by definition, seeks to enjoy its object.” The object and focus of fasting is God Himself. He is the reward we should ultimately seek and pursue primarily in our fasting – the goal being to know and to have more of Him.


An Expression of Longing

Christ’s Spirit is with us presently, however, in another sense – He is not. He is away from us. Our bridegroom has ascended on high, to prepare a place for us. I think of an analogy of a young engaged couple in love but separated by a great distance. As one longs to be with the other and receives a letter, skype or phone call, sometimes it is easy for meals to be skipped, money and time to be sacrificed if but only to spare a few more moments with their beloved. The feeling of homesickness for the beloved overrides other needs and wants. “Christian fasting, at its root, is the hunger of a homesickness of God.”–Piper.

Part of it is that our physical appetites are lost because our longing for God is so intense we almost don’t notice their absence. However, the other half is that we recognize that our longing for God is threatened by our physical appetites for worldly pleasures. Christian fasting can happen in either of these two ways. Piper continues, In the first, we yield to the higher hunger that is. In the second, we fight for the higher hunger that isn’t. Christian fasting is not only the spontaneous effect of a superior satisfaction in God; it is also a chosen weapon against every force in the world that would take that satisfaction away.”

This is why Jesus responded to the disciples of John questions as to why His disciples did not fast in Matthew 9, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matt 9:15b ESV) While he was here, there was no need to fast, His presence was physically and intimately present with them. However, now we patiently await our reunion with our Bridegroom. Sometimes we may fast out of our already stirred up affections for more of our Beloved whom we sorely miss… or it can be that we fast to counter the dulling of our affections. Paul echoes these longings, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Cor 5:8 ESV) There is within every Christian this ache that Jesus isn’t here as fully and intimately as we want him to be, and we hunger for so much more – so we fast.


A Voluntary Eviction From the Comfort Zone

Jesus says, “Will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:7–8 ESV) In our own context of the comfortable modern Western Church, this is largely absent – this deep longing to cry out day and night that He would come and bring justice. In countries of harsh persecution, it is not rare to hear of Christians regularly fasting in desperate cry out to God. Our comfort here may be our own worst enemy to intimacy with Christ. When we have everything we need already, where is the need for faith? However, if the cry itself is not even there, why would we even think about expressing it with fasting? What kind of bride are we that does not long for her coming groom? What kind of bride sits ill prepared for His return? Perhaps in fasting we can regain some of that desperation for more of His presence in our lives.


Conclusion

In conclusion, fasting is an expected discipline within Christianity. It helps us to reveal the deep sins, hurts and brokenness which we must address and not just placate them with worldly pleasures, and also serves to show us the true measure of our faith, devotion and love for God and the work He’s already done and doing in our hearts. It helps to remind us to not value the gifts above the Giver, and puts the gifts back in their right perspective to point us back to God as our source of ultimate satisfaction. It helps us to take our focus off ourselves and onto the needs of others, to emulate Christ’s ministry in our fasting. And it helps us to find ever increasing reward in knowing God and increasing our desperate longing and affections for Him.

There is a great benefit from community fasting as well. In coming together and fasting, we can use it as an opportunity to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds…” (Heb 10:24) Let us strive to practice the kind of fast that is acceptable to the Lord as shown in Isaiah 58, and not just use it as a pious show of self denial and end up missing out on the true blessing of the spiritual discipline. Continue to pray for, console, comfort, encourage and cheer for one another during the fast. It can be a brilliant exercise to help build unity in the body as we press ahead toward the upward calling in Christ.

I would highly recommend reading John Piper’s – A Hunger for God, which I found very insightful into fasting. I’ve included a free link to the entire book in PDF format in the bibliography below.


SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY:

1. Foster, Richard J., “Celebration of discipline: the path to spiritual growth.” Rev. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

2. St. Augustine, “The City of God”, book 16, Section 32, New York: Random House, 1950.

3. Edwards, Jonathan., “The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 17 Quotes”. No pages. Online: http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/672089-sermons-and-discourses-1730-1733-the-works-of-jonathan-edwards-series

4. Piper, John., “A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer”, Crossway, Wheaton, IL., 1997.
Available for free download on PDF here:
https://dwynrhh6bluza.cloudfront.net/website_uploads/documents/e-books/pdfs/a-hunger-for-god-1388566213.pdf

5. St. Augustine, “The Confessions of St. Augustine, in Documents of the Christian Church“, ed. Henry Bettenson, London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

6. Lewis, C. S., “The Problem of Pain”, New York, Macmillan, 1962.

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