How do you fast? And what's the point of fasting in the first place?
Why—in light of all the good things available to us (and our relative ease in obtaining many of them)—would any modern man or woman choose to deny themselves and fast?
Why try to ignore a growling stomach when there are markets, grocery stores, and restaurants full of food? Why turn off the television for an hour of quiet reflection when you could be watching reality TV? Why step away from your household chores for thirty minutes of prayer, meditation, or Bible study? Why bother? What’s the point of fasting?
Is fasting an archaic practice? Is it just denial for the sake of denial—or could fasting be about something more?
People fast for a variety of reasons. But author Richard Foster suggests that, for the Christian, fasting is a revelatory practice: “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. . . . We cover up what is inside of us with food or other things.”1
In other words, we may use things like food, shopping, TV, video games—or even seemingly positive habits like reading or exercise—to mask our pain or dull our deeper longings. When we fast, we uncover those longings and bring to the surface the deeper desires of our hearts.
“We long for a community where we know we belong,” writes author and pastor Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. “We ache for a home. At the same time, our hearts also cry out for justice. But . . . we are often consumed by anxiety about image, fear about the future, and desires for cheap comfort and instant gratification. A thousand forces conspire to distract us from our truest desire every day.”2
Contrary to common belief, fasting is not simply a denial of desire—but an exploration of it. Simply put, fasting consists of voluntarily giving up something good for the hope of discovering something better.
The Good Exchange of Fasting
While fasting denies us one thing so that we might focus on something greater, that one thing need not be food. “Christian fasting,” says pastor John Piper, “is the hunger of a homesickness for God. The issue is not food per se. The issue is anything that is, or can be, a substitute for God.”3
Every gift of God also has the potential to become an idol for man. The human heart, as John Calvin famously said, is an idol factory. Food is a good gift. Gratitude for our “daily bread” can—and should—point us Godward.4 But a longing for the Bread of Life—meaning Jesus Christ—is better. Marriage is a good gift. Those of us who are married can—and should—thank God for the gift of marriage, but we should not place love in marriage over the love of God in Christ.
When we deny ourselves something by fasting, we make room for our hearts to seek something even more satisfying than the temporal gifts of God.
When Should We Fast?
Fasting may be helpful when we sense that we are being controlled by something other than God, when we need wisdom from God for power over sin, when we have lost focus on God, or when we are preparing for a special time of service or celebration. There are no “biblical rules” for fasting, except that we do so in private, not boasting or seeking to draw attention to ourselves.5
Some Christians fast at certain times in the year—during Lent, for example, to focus on the sacrifice of Christ in anticipation of the celebration of Resurrection Sunday. But there is no “wrong” time to fast.
How Should I Fast?
Ideally, if you are planning to fast, you will identify the purpose of your fast before beginning. Ask yourself, “What goodness of God or understanding of his ways do I seek?” Your fast should draw your focus to God, not to the thing you are giving up.
Establish the duration of your fast: “No television for a week,” for example. Or, “no lunch on Fridays for a month.”
Let your hunger or lack turn your thoughts and heart Godward. When you experience desire for the thing you’ve temporarily forsaken, let that longing be a cue to refocus on God and the grace you desire.
Commit to pray regularly as you fast. Prayer and fasting go hand-in-hand. Give God your attention and ask him to reveal himself to you. Consider journaling as you fast so that you can process what God is doing as you submit your desires to him.
Finally, be prepared for resistance! Because fasting is a spiritual exercise, it should not be undertaken lightly.6 After Jesus was baptized, he went into the wilderness to fast and pray in preparation for the task God had for him. He didn’t get far before Satan started tempting him—and Satan’s first attempt was to entice Jesus into breaking his fast by eating bread.7
The True Object of Fasting
Jesus expected that his followers would fast. “When you fast,” he said, not if.8 But fasting just for the sake of fasting is an empty exercise. Any fast—from any behavior, object, or habit—should ultimately point you toward a deeper longing for God and for his kingdom.
Rightly undertaken, “fasting teaches and enables us to live by deeper truths and in accord with deeper reality than the basic cravings of our bodies.”9