Turning Away from the Discipline of Fasting

image“Prayer is reaching out after the unseen, fasting is letting go of all that is seen and temporal.” Andrew Murray

Fasting is without a doubt the least popular of the spiritual disciplines. We may gloss over the depth of our prayer or study life but we will rarely flat-out turn away from these disciplines. Not so for fasting; we will not even pretend to fast. Much of this avoidance comes from the misinterpretation of the discipline as an ascetic practice that was often overdone in eras past. Being people of grace, we say, we do not need to continue punishing our bodies to gain forgiveness.

Aside from this general argument, modern Christians who are considering adding fasting to their regular disciplines are confronted with three major enemies: Inconvenience, Comfort, and Unwillingness.


Fasting requires planning and commitment and it will often interfere with other aspects of our lives. People around us will expect us to join social or business engagements that are challenged by our fast. Since our commitment to fast is to be kept between ourselves and God, we are forced to make excuses. When fasting interferes too much with our schedule, the easy way out is to not practice the discipline.

Unlike prayer which can be practiced in a private hour, fasting by necessity crosses our schedule into both public and private time. Fasting demands commitment and discipline because it is a public activity that is kept largely secret. When we have to make decisions in the midst of a fast, we are confronted with the reality of our value system. Does God get a second order commitment behind our career? Remember that the discipline of fasting will reveal our true priorities.


The modern Christian avoids discomfort at all costs. If the sanctuary is too cold, the chairs or pews too hard, or the odor of the shelter too strong, chances are that this is the first thing the pastor will hear about on Sunday morning. Fasting is uncomfortable and doesn’t fit in with the modern interpretation of Christian life. After all, God wants only good things for us, right?

If our greatest excuse for not fasting is that we don’t want to feel hungry, we are not practicing the discipline correctly. As beginners to fasting, we are overwhelmed by the hunger pangs because this is often the only times in our lives when we have been deprived of food. It’s all we can think about. As we progress in the practice of fasting, these thoughts should move to an ability to focus on God and our communion with Him. The pangs subside and are replaced with a strengthening bond of spirituality. Food becomes less important as we grow in the ability to not be slaves to it.


Are you truly unwilling to engage in a spiritual practice that will draw you closer to your Father? Most Christians would answer no and then revert to one of the previous excuses. We dislike both discomfort and inconvenience both personally and culturally. It’s easy to be a committed Christian on Sunday morning in the midst of a worshipping community, less so at noon on Wednesday when everyone is calling for you to join them at lunch. Saying no brings attention to yourself; it makes your faith public. This is the dividing line.

Falling prey to this simple disobedience is the Enemy’s greatest joy. If we are willing to make excuses for not fasting, he can began to tear at the fabric of our other spiritual practices as well. Why not sleep in a few more minutes instead of getting up to read the Bible? Decide right now that unwillingness is not going to be your first excuse.

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Fasting Reveals the Hidden You

image“Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it.”  John Wesley

There is a certain irony in Wesley’s observation of fasting as he points out that a spiritual discipline that helps us to recognize the spiritually-dividing excesses in our life can, in itself, become an excess of its own. Fasting has largely fallen from favor as a spiritual discipline. Through the centuries excesses in asceticism gave the practice an undeserved reputation as a form of mortification but it also contrasts deeply with modern culture in a Church that views any deprivation as suffering.

The lack of understanding about the purposes of fasting also contributes to its negative reputation. Many continue to view it as a hair shirt, a form of self-imposed castigation but that is a flawed view. The singular purpose of fasting is to become more intimate with God. A fast is a personal matter between you and God in which you do without food in order to focus on how you are sustained by God alone. Spiritual fasting for any other reason is extra-biblical and borders on self worship. It is never to be used as leverage to gain favor from God or as an effort to divert His will.

The Bible Speaks on Fasting

Christians since the earliest days have sought the biblical mandate for all Christians to fast regularly, only to be disappointed in their efforts. There is no biblical law that commands regular fasting. Every case of fasting in the Scriptures is initiated by the Lord, as He sees necessary. The majority of the instances are individual in nature though, on occasion, God has called for corporate fasts. The discipline of fasting, its method and frequency are initiated by God and conveyed to the believer through the intimacy of relationship. We should interpret these facts cautiously. The spiritual discipline of fasting is a release of control on our lives meant to help deepen our intimacy with God. It is a privilege which we can practice as a part of our regular devotional life as long as we are certain of its purpose. If there is a specific reason for a fast (repentance, et. al) God will guide his people to it.

As people have searched the Scriptures to determine if there is a commandment to fast, the disciple discovers that Jesus simply takes for granted that you will include fasting in your devotional practices. In the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “When you fast” (Mt 6:16). It is not offered as one selection among many (‘if you choose fasting’) or as an optional endeavor (‘IF you fast’). Instead, the Lord speaks to the topic as a regular component of the devotions of a disciple as are prayer and charity.

What Jesus brings to light in this passage is a warning against ostentation when one does fast. Our fasting is to remain a private matter between us and God. To make a public spectacle of ourselves in the process draws attention to us and immediately defeats the purpose of the fast. Glory shifts from God to ourselves and the growth and strength that derives from the fast is destroyed. We might as well not have fasted at all. If those around us become aware of our fast they should not be asking how we endure such torture. Rather, they should be seeking for themselves the source of our nourishment which, for the disciple, is the very word of God (Jn 4:32-34).

The real you and me that we mask with comforting things will also be revealed when we fast. It’s no secret that we are vulnerable to revelation when we are uncomfortable. Our irritations, feelings, and sometimes our actions bubble to the surface when our discomfort overrides our ability to suppress them. This is our true self that we contain under normal circumstances. This is the true self that Jesus directs the Spirit to address within us. Our deceitful minds are more than capable of convincing us that these attitudes are not a problem but the Lord knows the truth. Just as the desert revealed the purity of Jesus Christ, our 24 hours of fasting reveal the flaws within us that demand attention.

It’s Time to Stop Avoiding Fasting

Fasting can bring unparalleled vitality to our spiritual life in a way that none of the other disciplines can. Wesley closes the thoughts, “…it was not merely by the light of reason…that the people of God have been, in all ages, directed to use fasting as a means:…but they have been…taught it of God Himself, by clear and open revelations of His Will…Now, whatever reasons there were to quicken those of old, in the zealous and constant discharge of this duty, they are of equal force still to quicken us.” (Sermons on Several Occasions)

image by todo juanjo

Day Thirteen in the School of Prayer: Fast!


Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” 
He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”  (Matthew 17:19-21)

“Why couldn’t we…”; we must all share this thought of the disciples from time to time. Why do our prayers seem to bounce against the ceiling or seem impotent? Why do we claim faith in the light but question our beliefs in the night? Jesus proclaimed the answer to the disciples, then and now: we have so little faith. Our faith is not muscular but bony and frail, though we might try to portray it otherwise. Appearances have become paramount at the experience of a true sacrificial faith.

Strong faith requires prayer. Strong prayer requires forsaking other things that threaten to derail or weaken that faith. We must be people who fast in order to retrain our sights on that which forms our core. To abstain from food nourishment is to point our souls to the deep well of being nourished in prayer. We can so easily feed our sorrows, fears, and failures and then when satisfied, forget about them. Throwing that crutch aside we must rely on the only thing that will satisfy our deepest hungers for meaning and purpose. As Murray reminds us “Prayer is the one hand with which we grasp the invisible; fasting, the other, with which we let loose and cast away the visible.”