Imagine you’re gathered with friends—maybe your community group or Bible study group. You are talking about spiritual disciples—prayer, Bible study, generosity, stuff like that—and then someone says “But what about fasting? Is that something gospel Christians should do? Isn’t fasting just a way of trying to earn favor with God? Isn’t fasting more of a Catholic or Muslim thing that evangelical Christians should stay away from?”
How would you respond? Maybe you’ve thought those same things and had those same questions. I have, so I decided to find some answers and perspective.
First let’s consider why Christians fast, and then how Christians fast. (Note: If you’re already convinced of the why of fasting, feel free to skip down to the how section.)
First, the why—why specifically would or should a Christian fast? And also what do we mean by “fasting”?
It has become common to use the language of fasting to talk about taking a break from Facebook or Netflix or even just a certain type of food (i.e., I’m fasting from chocolate or beer). But this confuses the broader (and very important) category of “abstaining” (from Netflix, spending, sex, beer, etc.) with a very specific type of abstaining, namely, abstaining from eating.
Historically (and medically) the language of fasting means to abstain from eating any food for a period of time. And by that definition you already fast everyday—at night while you are asleep. (Unless you’re a sleepwalker who also sleep-eats—which is a real thing!) So when we talk about fasting here, we are specifically talking about abstaining from all food for a period of time.
So that’s what we mean by fasting. But why would a Christian do it? People from different religions and cultures throughout history have fasted. Even today there is an increasingly popular movement of fasting for the many health benefits it provides. However, are there specifically Christian reasons to fast (or not fast)?
Going back to the case study we began with, someone might argue that fasting for health reasons is fine but fasting as part of how a person relates to God is where the questions arise.
In light of that, what might be the rationale not to fast? I think there are two main reasons why someone should not fast. First, medical reasons. If you have health issues (e.g., uncontrolled diabetes) that would make it dangerous to your health, you shouldn’t fast. If you’re battling an eating disorder, you shouldn’t fast. If you’re a child who is growing and developing, fasting isn’t for you either. Likewise women who are pregnant or breastfeeding shouldn’t fast.
Second, there are religious reasons not to fast. If you view fasting as a way of “earning” God’s favor or as a way of forcing or compelling God to do something for you—God, I’ve done this (fasted) for you, now you must do this for me (heal me, get me a job)—then you shouldn’t fast.
But there are good, biblical, Christian reasons to fast (beyond the health benefits). Here are my top three: Jesus’ example, Jesus teaching, the church’s witness.
As disciples, apprentices, and learners of Jesus who have taken on His yoke (Matthew 11:28-30), we seek to follow our Master’s pattern of life. And Jesus’ pattern of life included prayer, solitude, self-emptying service, and also fasting. Specifically, we see Jesus fasting in the wilderness for forty days while He is tempted by the Evil One (Matthew 4 and Luke 4).
But one might rightly respond that Jesus did lots of things—raising the Lazarus from the dead, dying on the cross for the sins of all humanity—that I’m not supposed to replicate in my own life. Isn’t His fasting (including from water!) in the wilderness for forty days one of those things? It’s true that a forty day absolute fast (i.e., no food or water) required miraculous intervention.
And if all we had was this one example of Jesus’ forty day absolute fast, we would probably be right to conclude that fasting was more like dying on the cross for the sins of all humanity than praying or solitude. But we don’t just have Jesus’ example. We also have His teaching.
There are two key passages in which Jesus teaches about fasting. The first is in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:1-18. Here Jesus talks about giving, praying, and fasting, and how His followers are to practice these things but do so differently than the “hypocrites.”
Each section opens with when you give, when you pray, when you fast—not if. Jesus seems to assume His followers will give, pray, and fast. What they should not do is practice those things to be seen and admired by other people. Rather, they should do them for the joy and delight of the Father who sees and rewards what is done in “secret.”
The other key passage is Luke 5:33-35. Here Jesus is responding to a question about why His followers don’t fast. Here’s the conversation:
33 They [the Pharisees and the teachers of the law] said to him [Jesus], “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.” 34 Jesus answered, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? 35 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.”
The key is verse 35. Jesus’ disciple feasted then because Jesus the bridegroom, the king, was with them. But when He is taken away, then they will fast. Darrell Bock, perhaps one of today’s foremost scholars on the Gospel of Luke explains:
Jesus’ point is that fasting will again become appropriate and an option in the intermediate period [after His death, resurrection, and ascension], as the church longs for the return and final fulfillment. The tone is important. Jesus allows the return of fasting but he does not regulate it or make it a test of spirituality. The church may have a variety in practice without requiring conformity (Bock, Luke, vol. 1, 518).
To this, John Piper is in his fantastic book on fasting, A Hunger for God, adds this insight:
It is true that Jesus has given the Holy Spirit in his absence, and that the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7; 2 Corinthians 3:17). So in a profound and wonderful sense Jesus is still with us…. Nevertheless, there is a greater degree of intimacy that we will enjoy with Christ in heaven when this age is over. So in another sense Christ is not with us, but away from us…. In other words, in this age there is an ache inside every Christian that Jesus is not here as fully and intimately and as powerfully and as gloriously as we want him to be. We hunger for so much more. That is why we fast.
So Jesus’ example and teaching provide Christians with good reasons to fast, and finally, we also have the church’s witness.
The church’s witness
Just as Jesus said they would after His death, resurrection, and accession, the church adopted the practice of fasting. We see a key example in Acts 13. This example is particularly significant because of where it occurs and who participates.
Acts 13 opens with the commissioning of Paul and Barnabus as they begin a venture to expand communities of Jesus followers among non-Jewish peoples in the Roman Empire. Already the church in Antioch, where this episode takes place, is a multiethnic church composed of Jews and non-Jews.
This is significant for many reasons, but for our questions about fasting it is significant because it shows that fasting was not just something practiced only by Jewish Christians. Here’s the passage:
Acts 13:1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
This multiethnic community included fasting as part of their practice of prayer and worship. Scholars point out that the they in this passage likely refers not just to those individuals named but to the whole church. The Apostle Paul also describes his own experience with fasting in 2 Corinthians 6:5 and 11:27.
But a thoughtful reader of the Scriptures might ask about Colossians 2:20-23. Is Paul prohibiting fasting?
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 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. (2:20-23)
John Piper’s response is worth reading at length. In response to questions about Colossians he writes this:
Christian fasting is not self-wrought discipline that tries to deserve more from God. It is a hunger for God awakened by the taste of God freely given in the gospel….
Fasting is not a no to the goodness of food or the generosity of God in providing it. Rather, it is a way of saying, from time to time, that having more of the Giver surpasses having the gift…. Christian fasting is the effect of what Christ has already done for us and in us. It is not our feat, but the Spirit’s fruit. Recall that the last-mentioned fruit of the Spirit is “self-control” (Galatians 5:23).
[The Apostle Paul directs our] …attention toward fasting and numerous other kinds of self-denial—not as meritorious religious rituals, and not as an end in themselves, but as a weapon in the fight of faith… (A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer, 45-46).
Christians fast not to get love from God but because they know they are loved by God. They fast not to atone for their sins but to enjoy more deeply the presence of the One who has forgiven them.
That’s the why of Christian fasting. But what about the how?
How to fast
At one level the how of fasting is painfully simple: don’t eat food. Congratulations! You’ve fasted. But the trouble we have in the how is less with the simple part and more with the painful part. What do I do when I start to feel hangry? Am I supposed to be miserable when I’m doing this?
Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s not good. I’ve never found financial generosity to be particularly easy. But it is good. And I do find joy in it. Likewise, I’ve never found fasting to be easy, but I have found joy in it.
Okay. So we shouldn’t expect fasting to be easy, but it also shouldn’t be agony. The point is not to cause ourselves suffering but to demonstrate with our actions that God is even more important to us than food. That we trust in Him more than we trust in food. Just like our financial generosity also is a way of demonstrating our trust in God that He will provide for us. (Isn’t it interesting that “dough” is a figure of speech we use to talk about food and money. Just saying…)
But there is something that makes fasting particularly difficult for us today, and that is the type and amount of food we eat. Most of us tend to eat soon after we wake up and then eat and snack until we go to bed. Also the food that we eat and snack on tends to be high in sugar and carbohydrates. Both of those things—constant eating throughout the day and the high sugar/carb content of the food we eat—make fasting harder than it needs to be.
Additionally, because we rarely experience the sensation of hunger without immediately grabbing a granola bar or banana to alleviate it, we tend to think that that hunger will just get worse and worse until we collapse and die. But hunger doesn’t work like that. And it is as much a physiological reality as a physical one.
We get hungry at certain times of day because we always eat at certain times of day. If we are able to move through those times of day without eating, the hunger doesn’t keep building and building. It eventually subsides (if even it doesn’t totally disappear) until the next meal/snack time. In that way hunger is more like a tide that comes in and then goes out again, rather than a flood that just keeps rising and rising until you drown.
So what’s the best way to begin fasting if you’ve never done it before? I would suggest you start by skipping either breakfast or dinner. When you skip one of those meals and combine that with time you are asleep it is (relatively) easy to stack-up 16+ hours of fasting. For example, if you finished your dinner at 6:30 PM on Wednesday evening and didn’t eat again until noon on Thursday you will have fasted for 17.5 hours. Or if you finished lunch on Wednesday at 12:30 PM and didn’t eat again until 8:00 AM on Thursday, you will have fasted 19.5 hours.
I’ve found personally that skipping breakfast is easier for me then skipping dinner. But experiment and find out what works best for you. Once you have some experience with those 16-19 hours fasts, you can try a longer fast of 24 or 36 hours. Jay Richard’s book Eat, Fast, Feast: Heal Your Body While Feeding Your Soul—A Christian Guide to Fasting is the most helpful resource I’ve found in developing a physically sustainable pattern of fasting.
One other question you may have is can I or should I tell others that I am fasting? We struggle with this one because of Jesus teaching on secrecy in the Sermon on the Mount. It is important to remember that there Jesus was combating a motive of being seen and praised by others. The reality is that with close friends and family members, you’ll need to tell them your fasting so that when you don’t sit down to dinner or breakfast they understand why. That’s okay. Tell them. Just don’t do it out of pride or to get them to think more highly of you.
My hope is that you will find a new freedom, joy, and intimacy with Jesus in the practice of fasting. I certainly have. Below are few resources that have helped me on my journey with food and fasting.
Best overall book on fasting:
- Eat, Fast, Feast: Heal Your Body While Feeding Your Soul — A Christian Guide to Fasting by Jay Richards. Richard writes from a Roman Catholic framework yet speaks to Christians broadly. This book combines the best of medical, scientific, and theological thinking in one easy to digest (pun intended) and enjoyable to read book.
Best book on biblical basis for and spiritual benefits of fasting:
- A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer by John Piper. Piper is deeply biblically informed and does an amazing job of stirring a desire to enjoy God in fasting.
Best book the on medical and science basis for fasting:
- The Complete Guide to Fasting: Heal Your Body Through Intermittent, Alternate-Day, and Extended Fasting. If you’ve got questions about your body and fasting, this book has answers.
Best on getting a handle on the power of food in our lives:
- Made to Crave: Satisfying Your Deepest Desire with God, Not Food by Lysa TerKeurst. TerKeurst is writing to women specifically, but as a man I have read it twice and been incredibly helped by it.
Family Guide to Prayer and Fasting (Christ Community Church):
- Suggestions and guides on safe ways to help children understand fasting. – HANDOUT