As we approach a new year, many churches and Christians will begin with an emphasis on prayer and fasting. If you’re new to the Christian Faith or unfamiliar with the Christian practice of fasting, the idea can feel confusing and intimidating.
Maybe you’ve wondered, “What is fasting? Am I supposed to fast? How long should I fast? What do I fast? Why do I Fast?” These are legitimate questions that Christians have been asking for thousands of years, and this article will help you find the answers you’re looking for.
What Is Fasting?
Fasting is the choice to abstain from eating for a predetermined period of time, but it’s not exclusively a Christian practice. Other religions have fasted throughout history, and recently, fasting has become a popular health strategy. So Christians don’t have exclusive claims to abstaining from food, but God’s people have a history with fasting that stretches all the way back to Moses, through the Old Testament, to Jesus, the Apostles, and Christians ever since.
For Christians, you could say, fasting is a choice to be hungry because we have an appetite for God. Fasting is not, and this is very important, an attempt to manipulate God by depriving yourself.
God promises to reward those who practice private spiritual disciplines (Matthew 6:16-18), and there’s no denying fasting has been connected to supernatural miracles, but for a believer, fasting is not a means to get what we want from God– God is what we want.
Am I Supposed to Fast?
Is fasting optional, or is it something every Christian should do? It’s a valid question. Some people argue that since Jesus fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17), Christians aren’t bound to Old Testament practices like tithing, fasting, and Sabbath. I agree! There’s no doubt we’re free from the obligation of the Old Testament commandments, but Jesus reaffirmed some old commands and taught some new commands that benefit and guide people of faith.
Think of it this way: You don’t have to fast to be a Christian, but Christians should fast.
But Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast while he was alive. Did you know that? If anyone should fast, it would be the disciples, right? That’s what someone asked Jesus one day,
One day the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus and asked him, “Why don’t your disciples fast like we do and the Pharisees do?” Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests mourn while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.
Jesus was making the point that it would be pointless for the disciples to fast while He is with them. He was God as a man, literally walking with them on earth. Fasting would have been pointless, but Jesus knew that one day soon, he would return to heaven, and “then they will fast.”
So fasting is what Christians do because we want to be with God, a kind of spiritual “hunger pang” or “craving” to experience him more present in our life. We won’t fast in heaven because we will be with Him, but fasting is something we do while we wait.
What Do I Fast?
Historically, fasting is defined as abstaining from food. It’s never a bad idea to abstain from other things that compete for our attention and affection, like social media or tv, but that is technically not fasting, at least in the traditional/historical sense. In the Bible, fasting always relates to food–sometimes all food, and sometimes certain foods.
My best advice is to keep it simple: select a length of time, don’t eat any food, and drink only water and black coffee (some people give up coffee as well.)
A popular alternative is the Daniel Fast, taken from the choice made by Daniel, Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego to abstain from “pleasurable” foods and consume only vegetables and water for 10 days. (Daniel 1:8-14) They chose not to defy their Jewish commands and to distinguish themselves from the Babylonians. Later in his life, Daniel ate no “rich food” for three weeks. (Daniel 10:2-3) after he received a vision from God.
Over the years, people have used Daniel’s example to create a variety of fasting guidelines, but in its simplest form, a Daniel Fast is 21 days of fruits, vegetables, and a few whole grains.
How Long Should I Fast?
The length of your fast is entirely up to you. Moses and Jesus fasted for 40 days. Daniel fasted 21 days. The Jewish people fasted until sundown. My advice is to pray and start small. If you’ve never fasted before, consider fasting until dinnertime to start, and then maybe an entire day, and so on. Many people choose natural calendar rhythms such as 1 day, 3 days, 7 days, 21 days, and 40 days, but whatever you choose, don’t just abstain from food, replace the time you would eat with time in prayer.
Why Should I Fast?
As a pastor, I talk to so many people who feel a consistent level of frustration about their “level” of spirituality. I often hear statements like, “I want to experience more answered prayers. I want to be more consistent in my time with God. I want to feel like God is using my life, or I want to feel closer to God.”
These are common frustrations that Christians have. Many Christians feel they are lacking power and passion. So how can we break out of that spiritual rut? How can we experience more passion and power? How can we feel closer to God and less attached to this world? God gives us a way: fasting.
Fasting will test your hunger for God, help you learn how to depend on God more, and lead you to experience more of God. In his book Celebration of Disciplines, Richard Foster says,
“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.” 1
When you’re fasting, you will discover what you want more: God or a cheeseburger. That sounds overly dramatic, but I’m serious. The purpose of fasting is not guilt or shame, but you will probably feel embarrassed at how badly you crave food once you commit to abstain from it. If you give in and devour a cheeseburger, does that mean you don’t love God? Of course not, but it is another reminder that you love the good things of this world more than you think you do, and you probably desire God less than you think you do. To be clear, fasting is not to prove anything to God, but every fasting experience will prove something to yourself: You need God!
Whether you realize it or not, you depend on food, or your cell phone, or entertainment, and all sorts of other things to cope with emotions involved in living in a broken world. Fasting will reveal what those dependencies are. Foster continues,
“If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. David said, ‘I humbled my soul with fasting.’ (Psalm 35:13). 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.”
I don’t want to paint some rosy picture or mislead you in any way. Fasting is incredibly rewarding, but there’s nothing romantic about it. It’s hard, sometimes painful, and agonizing because it is the process of us detaching ourselves from this world that we love so much.
I have four children, and over the years, I had the “dad duty” of helping them get their new toys out of the box. If you’ve ever had to cut the plastic ties that hold Barbie or Iron man in their box, you know that at times it’s much harder than it should be because either the ties are on incredibly tight or there are more ties than you see initially. The same thing happens to our soul. We never intend to get tied to this world. We know Jesus is better, we’ve “tasted and seen” that he is good, but over time the good things in our life tie themselves around our soul and cause us to become too attached. Fasting is the act of going to our father and asking him to cut the ties that are keeping us bound in our little box.
I hope you will join me in fasting this year.
Click here to listen to a sermon about fasting from Pastor Jason:
- Richard Foster, The Celebrations of Discipline: pg. 48