Fasting: Is It Just from Food?

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.

  • Leviticus 23:27 – “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves [or fast], and present a food offering to the Lord.” – This is an example of regularly scheduled (annual) days of fasting for God’s people corporately.
  • Ezra 8:21-23 – “There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask Him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions…we fasted and petitioned our God about this [need for protection on the journey] and He answered our prayer.” – Corporate fast called by Ezra, leader of the Israelite envoy back to the homeland, for help from God in the face of desperate need.
  • Judges 20:26 – “Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the Lord. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings of the Lord. And the Israelites inquired of the Lord.” – In response to terrible wrongs down by the tribe of Benjamin, the remainder of the tribes gathered in grief to fast and pray and seek God’s guidance as to how they should respond.
  • 1 Samuel 31:13 – “Then they took their bones [Saul and his sons] and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.” – King Saul and his sons had been brutally killed. They people of a nearby town, Jabesh Gilead, grieved in response with fasting.
  • Esther 4:16 – “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for m e. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law.” – This is an example of an absolute fast Keep reading →

March 30, 2010

Types of Fasting

In his book Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life, Donald Whitney offers a helpful list of different types of fasting that I found particularly helpful. I have distilled Whitney’s comments down here in hopes of giving a basic framework for understanding the variety of fasting seen in the Scriptures.

  • Normal fast – abstaining from all food, but not water (Matt 4:2; Luke 4:2)
  • Partial fast – abstaining from some food; a limitation of diet (Daniel 1:12; Matt 3:4)
  • Absolute fast – abstaining from all food and water (Ezra 10:6; Esther 4:16; Acts 9:9)
  • Supernatural fast – an absolute fast that surpasses normal human limitations; this requires God’s supernatural intervention (Deut 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8)
  • Private fast – a personal pursuit of God that is hidden from or not noticed by others (Matt 6:16-18)
  • Congregational fasts – gathering as a local group of believers in order to see God (Joel 2:15; Acts 13:2)
  • National fasts – gathering as an entire nation to seek God (2 Chron. 20:3; Jonah 3:5-8)
  • Regular fasts – specific days scheduled at regular times, such as the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29-31) or monthly fasts (Zech 8:19); Lent (the 40-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter) is traditionally seen as a time for fasting for Christians
  • Occasional fasts – seasons of fasting established by leaders in response to specific situations or cataclysmic events (see Esther 4:16 and 2 Chron 20:3)

The bottom-line is that while fasting is, as Whitney says, “a Christian’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual reasons,” there are a variety of ways that this is worked out.

[This is part of a series of posts related to our week of prayer and fasting at Brooklife Church from March 28 to April 4, 2010.]

March 30, 2010

Fasting: Why Do We Do It?

Throughout the Bible, there are many reasons given for fasting, from personal spiritual renewal to community repentance before God.

In this week of prayer and fasting at Brooklife Church, we are specifically connecting with times in the Bible where God’s people pray and fast in order to express deep needs before God. As a community, we are standing together by praying and fasting to say to God in a very tangible way that we need to hear from Him.

In the Old Testament, we see this when Ezra, the spiritual leader of the people, gathered the entire nation together to pray and fast in the face of a desperate need. They were returning to their homeland after an extended exile in Babylon.  “There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask Him for a safe journey for us and our children …we fasted and petitioned our God about this [need for protection on the journey] and He answered our prayer” (Ezra 8:21-23).

[This is part of a series of posts related to our week of prayer and fasting at Brooklife Church from March 28 to April 4, 2010.]

March 29, 2010

Fasting: Some practical guidelines

Here are some very practical guidelines on fasting that have been helpful for me from Adele Calhoun’s book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook:

  • Don’t fast when you are sick, traveling, pregnant or nursing. People with diabetes, gout, liver disease, kidney disease, ulcers, hypoglycemia, cancer and blood diseases should not fast.
  • Don’t fast if you are in a hurry and are fasting for immediate results regarding some decision. Fasting is not magic.
  • Listen for a nudging from God to fast.
  • Stay hydrated. Always drink plenty of water and fluids.
  • If you are new to fasting, begin by fasting for one meal. Spend time with God that you would normally be eating.
  • Work up to longer fasts. Don’t attempt prolonged fasts without guidance. Check with your doctor before attempting long periods of fasting.
  • If you decide to fast regularly, give your body time to adjust to new rhythms of eating. You may feel more tired on days you fast. Adjust your responsibilities appropriately. (Expect your tongue to feel coated, and expect to have bad breath.)
  • Begin a fast after supper. Fast until supper the next day. This way you miss two, rather than three, meals.
  • Don’t break your fast with a huge meal. Eat small portions of food. The longer the fast, the more you need to break the fast gently.

[This is part of a series of posts related to our week of prayer and fasting at Brooklife Church from March 28 to April 4, 2010.]

March 29, 2010

Listening to God . . . Free From Guilt (re:listening 4)

This is the last of a series of posts on listening.

If we are to listen to God in His way, then we often have to have our feet knocked out from under us. We need to be re-trained by Him into the way of listening.

Sometimes this involves confessing sin. There are very real times when the sin in our lives hinders us from hearing from God. Likewise, there are times when sin in our lives hinders God from truly listening to us (Psalm 66:18-19).

Healthy Guilt
There are two sides to this problem and both relate to guilt. The first type of guilt is healthy guilt. This is when we fail to confess our sin. We ignore the fact that what we are doing is wrong and try to keep on going without dealing with it. We avoid the issue at hand. So . . . God avoids us. The guilt that hangs over our heads becomes like a wall built up between us and God. Our sinful activity – and the sin of our inactivity about it – clogs the communication lines. The clear answer to this side of the problem is that we need to face up to our sin, confess it honestly before God and others, and then turn away from it with our lives. Then God will hear and respond to us.

If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. – 2 Chronicles 7:14

Unhealthy Guilt
The other side of the problem of God hearing us and us listening to Him has to do with a different kind of guilt. It’s the unhealthy guilt that we build up from a variety of areas. It’s the guilt that says, “I’m not pure enough for God to hear me. I’m not holy enough. I didn’t have my quiet time this morning. I am weak with my lusts. I feel hopeless and suicidal. God could not speak to me, and wouldn’t want to hear me now.”

Unhealthy guilt is the wall that we build up between ourselves and God because of our fears and insecurities. We feel distanced. We feel unworthy. We feel too sinful to be interacting with our holy God.

But Jesus explodes unhealthy guilt. We see Him walking the dusty paths of Palestine with dirty, weak, sinful people. He let a whore wash His feet with her tears. He shared a meal with a despised and deceitful tax collector. He came to seek and save the lost, weak, sick . . . not those knowing themselves to be healthy (perhaps the greatest sickness of all!).

The Apostle John powerfully confronts our unhealthy guilt.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out all fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. – 1 John 4:18

Jesus wants to drive out our fear and unhealthy guilt with His furious love. He wants to draw us near to the Father where we can be who we really are without anything held back.

Jesus comes to us seeking to interact with us, listening and speaking. He wants to confront us with our sin through healthy guilt, but also wants to overpower our unhealthy guilt with His love.

He wants to talk with us in grace and truth.



2 thoughts on “Fasting: Is It Just from Food?

  1. G’day Matt,
    doing some research on fasting and came across your site — quite excellent and giving excellent balance.
    But one non-food related fast appears in 1 Cor 7 where Paul is speaking of marriage relationships. First he warns against marriage partners withholding themselves from each other but then gives one exception.
    5Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
    Can I suggest this is a really powerful fast — so long as Paul’s guidelines are adhered to. “Mutual consent, short time frame.”

    regards and blessings


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