In the midst of all the posts on fasting, a few people have asked me if fasting is really all about abstinence from food, or is it broader than that. I think this is an important question for us to consider within this whole topic.
In an earlier post, I defined fasting as “voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.” If we were to do a biblical study on fasting (see my Old Testament and New Testament studies on the topic), we would find that fasting is always connected with physical abstinence from food.
Scot McKnight, in his excellent book Fasting, describes fasting as ‘body language’. It is a physical way of responding to a sacred moment; of communicating to God our desire, grief, repentance, etc. The very physicality of skipping a meal, or meals, is a means of expressing to God our spiritual longing for Him.
Thus, as Kari McIntyre, a friend and earlier commentator on my posts on fasting wrote:
The physical response from my body when fasting from food reminds me of the purpose of my fast, that I need God. So if I’m to abstain from food, the only thing that can satisfy my need is God. Therefore I spend more time praying to God for the reason why I am fasting.
At the same time, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a renowned British pastor and teacher of the Bible from the 20th century, defined fasting in a much broader sense:
Fasting, if we conceive of it truly, must not only be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose.
So, is fasting just related to food, or is it a broader self-denying “abstinence which is legitimate sin and of itself”?
Although I agree with the direction of Lloyd-Jones’ thought, I would define what he calls fasting as self-denial or even simplicity. My view is that fasting has to do with food, not other things. I have not seen any connection between the term fasting and anything but food or liquids in the Bible. (The one exception to this is Isaiah 58 where fasting is connected with justice & righteousness.)
It is worth saying, though, that stepping back from other things that we give much time or energy to (e.g., TV, Facebook, work, shopping) can be helpful for our spiritual growth. However we categorize this (self-denial or a form of simplicity), I do not think of it strictly as fasting.
That being said, there are some folks for whom fasting as traditionally understood is not a realistic option because of health issues (e.g., diabetes, pregnancy). In cases like this, other forms of self-denial can be viewed as a viable substitute for fasting.
In the midst of these discussions, we do well not to get overly concerned with definitions and categories, but with the heart of the matter: putting ourselves in a place where God can truly transform us to be more like Jesus.