THE DISCIPLINE OF FASTING
Excerpts from Celebration of Discipline By Richard Foster
Throughout Scripture, fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. It stands in contrast to the hunger strike, or for health reasons such as dieting. Biblical fasting always centers on spiritual purposes.
Scripture Describes Different Types of Fasts
The Normal Fast
This involved abstaining from all food, solid or liquid, but not from water. In the forty-day fast of Jesus, we are told that “He ate nothing” and toward the end of the fast that “He was hungry” and that Satan tempted Him to eat, indicating that the abstaining was from food, but not from water. (Luke 4:2)
The Partial Fast
The Bible describes what could be considered a partial fast: that is, there is a restriction of diet, but not total abstention. Although the normal fast seemed to be the custom with the prophet Daniel, there was an occasion where for three weeks he “ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.” (Daniel 10:3)
The Absolute Fast
There are several examples in Scripture of what has rightly been called an “absolute fast”, or an abstaining from both food and water. It usually appears as a desperate measure to meet a dire emergency. Upon learning that execution awaited herself and her people, Esther instructed Mordecai, “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16) Paul engaged in a three-day absolute fast following his encounter with the living Christ. (Acts 9:9) It must be underscored that the absolute fast is the exception and should never be engaged in unless one has a very clear command from God, and then for not more than three days.
Is Fasting a Commandment?
Nowhere in Scripture do we find Biblical laws that require regular fasting, nor do we find a direct command to fast. What we do find are examples of many Biblical personages to whom fasting was a regular part of their lives: Moses, the lawgiver; David, the king; Elijah, the prophet; Esther, the queen; Daniel, the seer; Anna, the prophetess; Paul, the apostle; and Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son.
Many of the great Christians throughout church history fasted and testified to its value. Among them were: Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, Charles Finney and Pastor Hsi of China.
Jesus gives instruction on fasting in the Sermon on the Mount. He states: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.” (Matthew 6:16) Jesus did not say “If you fast”, neither did He say “You must fast.” He seemed to make the assumption that people would fast, and what was needed was instruction on how to do it properly.
The Purpose of Fasting
Fasting must center on God. It should draw us closer to God, where we will experience a deeper relationship with Him. Like Anna, in Luke 2:37, we should be “worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.”
Fasting reveals the things that control us. We tend to cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. David said, “I put on sackcloth and humbled myself 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, for example, is due to our hunger. We will then discover that we are angry not because of hunger, but 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 helps us keep our balance in life. How easily we begin to allow nonessentials to take precedence in our lives. How quickly we crave things we do not need until we are enslaved by them. Paul wrote, “Everything is permissible for me”–but I will not be mastered by anything.” (I Cor. 6:12) “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (I Cor. 9:27) David wrote, “My knees give way from fasting; my body is thin and gaunt.” (Psalm 109:24) That is not asceticism; it is discipline – and discipline brings freedom.
How to Have a Spiritual Fast
Purify your motives. The purpose of a spiritual fast is to focus upon and worship God, not to lose weight, go on a hunger strike, save money on food, etc.
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18
Begin with a partial fast. It is wise to learn to walk well before we try to run. Many people find that beginning with a twenty-four hour fast from lunch to lunch works well. This would mean that you would not eat two meals. Fresh fruit juices are excellent to consume during this time. You may be fascinated with the physical aspects, but the most important thing to monitor is the inner attitude of worship. Outwardly you will be performing the regular duties of your day, but inwardly you will be in prayer and adoration, song and ministry to the Lord. Break your fast with a light meal of fresh fruits and vegetables and a good deal of inner rejoicing.
Progress to a twenty-four hour normal fast. Use only water, but use healthy amounts of it. You will probably feel some hunger pains or discomfort before the time is up. That is not real hunger; your stomach has been trained through years of conditioning to give signals of hunger at certain hours. In many ways your stomach is like a spoiled child, and spoiled children do not need indulgence, they need discipline! Tell your “spoiled child” to calm down and in a brief time the hunger pains will pass. You are to be the master of your stomach, not its slave. Fasting can have a powerful impact on your spiritual life. Consider a regular discipline of fasting one day a week for six months. Regular or weekly fasting had such a profound effect in the lives of early church leaders that some sought to find a Biblical command for it. John Wesley refused to ordain anyone who did not fast every Wednesday and Friday.