By Brandon Lemons
In our society, fasting is quite common and accepted as a medical requirement (before a surgery or blood draw) and as a health tactic (intermittent fasting). But fasting for spiritual purposes may seem odd; after all, how does abstaining from food help a person grow closer to God and enjoy Him more? We examined this question in two previous articles and saw that fasting increases our awareness of our neediness for God; fasting is a “declaration of dependence” on God that increases our hunger for Him by loosening the grip that worldly things have on us.
In this final installment on fasting, we are looking at how to fast. Fasting for medical or health purposes is generally straightforward: just don’t eat for the specified period of time. But to gain spiritual benefits from fasting, a bit more is required. Here are three keys for a successful spiritual fast.
Clarify the reason for fasting and the type of fast.
Why do you want to fast? Is it because you want to seek God’s will on a specific issue? Because you want a greater hunger for God? Because something is distracting you from Him or is consuming too much time and emotional energy? Are you fasting from food? From Facebook? From following the Brewers? From shopping at a certain store? These types of questions bring clarity to your reason for fasting and your type of fast.
The activities or items we fast from are typically good things, or at least morally neutral. If you are considering whether to fast from a sin (porn, alcoholism, gossip, etc.), the answer is not merely to fast from it, but rather to fully stop engaging in that sin through whatever means necessary (prayer, different choices, counseling, accountability, etc.). Fasting infers that you will resume that practice at some point in the future, and a plan to resume a sin is not biblical, wise, or life-giving.
Plan the logistics of your fast.
How long will you fast? The duration will depend on the type of fast and your purpose for fasting.
If you’re fasting from food, maybe it’s for one meal, one day, three days, or a week. I’ve known people who have attempted (and sometimes completed) a 40-day fast, which mirrors Jesus’ 40-day fast at the beginning of His ministry (see Matthew 4). If you haven’t fasted from food before, I recommend starting small, such as a day or two. If you plan a longer fast, research it ahead of time to learn how to fast in a healthy manner; for instance, drinking juice during the fast can help your body get some calories. Also, when coming off a longer fast, it is important to eat small portions of foods that are easy on the stomach; if you gorge yourself after a longer fast, you’ll probably get sick.
For multi-day fasts from food, most people testify that the first day is the hardest; once you get into the second or third day, the hunger pangs mostly subside as your body adjusts to the new routine. If you have medical concerns about fasting or plan to attempt a fast that is longer than a few days, it is wise to consult with your doctor prior to starting the fast. For you caffeine lovers, be forewarned that the withdrawal from caffeine will probably be more difficult than abstaining from food.
As I wrote in last week’s article (“Fasting: A Hunger for God”), there are many things besides food that are wise to fast from. Maybe you look at your life and realize that sports, or Facebook, or TV, or video games, or shopping, or some hobby, or exercising, or renovating your house, has consumed your heart and your passion. You are investing so much time and emotional energy into it that it’s distracting you from what is truly important, including God. This is a good indicator that it’s time to fast from that activity for a while. If you are fasting from something besides food, the fast may last for weeks or months.
With all types of fasts, planning is valuable. How will you keep your fast between yourself and God to the greatest possible degree (see Matthew 6:16-18)? How will you communicate your fast to others, if necessary (such as when abstaining from meals affects family or work commitments)? Do you need to put the chocolates or remote control or video game system out-of-sight to avoid the temptation? Do you need to share your plans with a trusted confidante who will hold you accountable?
There is one more crucial logistic to make your fast a success.
Determine what you will do to focus on God while fasting.
Fasting (for spiritual purposes) doesn’t do much good if you don’t actively seek God during your fast. I can tell you from experience that it is extremely tempting to leverage the additional time gained from skipping meals to sleep more or get more work done. But the type of fasting we are discussing is for spiritual purposes – to help us grow closer to God and enjoy Him more.
So before embarking on the fast, determine your tactics for investing in your relationship with God while fasting. Perhaps this means that during the timeframe when you would typically eat a meal or read sports articles, you instead spend that time in Scripture and prayer. Or if watching TV usually consumes your evenings and you’re fasting from TV, you get into a small group Bible study.
Regardless of the type of fast, I recommend that you are regularly talking with God about what is happening in your soul while you fast. The following types of questions can be helpful:
What place does the thing I’m abstaining from have in my life?
Am I looking to it for an unhealthy level of comfort, identity, meaning, or security?
Am I getting irritable as a result of not having that thing? If so, why?
Is there idolatry that is being revealed as I fast?
How can I have a healthier relationship with this topic or activity when I stop fasting from it?
What did Jesus mean when He said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4)?
As I fast, what am I learning about the truths of Psalm 73:25-26, which say: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
As you can see, there is not one “right” way to fast. I encourage you to be creative as you think about the details of fasting and how to get the most out of it.
Fasting for spiritual purposes might seem uncomfortable, especially in our consumer-driven culture that trains us to focus on what makes us feel good. Fasting intentionally goes the other direction, where we “crucify” our comforts so we can grow closer to God. But this is part-and-parcel with the Christian life, for Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Following Jesus isn’t always comfortable, but it is always the best, most life-giving path.
In closing, consider this: In those times when we don’t feel a strong desire for God, the most likely reason is not because we have feasted in our relationship with Him and are satisfied. The reason for a weak desire for God is more likely because we have nibbled for so long at the table of the world. Our soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the greatness of God. In this case, God is like a loving Father saying to you, “My child, don’t spoil your meal. I have something so much better for you.”