Why Fast (Part 2)

By Owen Mudford - 25 October 2021

I would like to open this second section on ‘Fasting’ by giving a book recommendation: Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. The book covers, as the title suggests, disciplines of the Christian life; split into three sections; Inward, Outward, and Corporate. There is a chapter on Fasting that I will refer to later on in this article – it is highly practical, as is the rest of the book, and a great guide when approaching a fast. There are many things I like about this book. It is easy to read, approachable but without being superficial; there are great study sections at the end of each section; it is highly practical and walks through specifics of what each discipline can look like. I cannot promise that you will agree with everything that is within this book, in fact this book first piqued my interest when my wife read me a section in the chapter on prayer. Within this section Foster speaks about the confidence with which we should approach prayer due to its function in not only changing things in the world, but also in changing God’s mind as we “work[ing] with God to determine the outcomes of the universe.”1 This may come as no surprise to some of you but may cause others like me, who hold to a more reformed view on the sovereignty of God, to question what he means by this. Therefore, I delved into the book. In my reading I debated  with Foster in a few places, but never to the point of viewing this book as anything but helpful and well-written. It also touches on a point that I think is important; do not only read books that you 100% agree with. Reading should expand and question your thinking, when reading books that differ from your original thought, practice or theology it causes one to question and critique themselves. This is what differs Christianity from the cult-like practises of sects such as Mormonism and JW’s – true Christian teaching should lead people to read, critique and lead them to falling deeper in love with Christ and closer to his teachings. It is not limited to one denomination or movement, there are beautiful practices and principles to learn from all strains of Christianity – the important thing is that it is always read in tandem to scripture with the Bible forming our theology and acting as the counterbalance with which we weigh new or even old and forgotten ideas.

Now…to fasting! Within the last article I brought forward two motivations for fasting; within this article I shall bring one more and then move onto the difficulties of fasting and how that can practically look in church culture.

Spiritual Warfare

John Piper, in his book Hunger for God, speaks about one of the Old Testament’s most famous passages about the subject of fasting, Isaiah 58. In this section of his book, Piper uses an amazing phrase in explaining the act of spiritual warfare that takes place when we fast “Fasting Is Meant to Starve Sin, Not Us”.2

It is clear from reading Isaiah 58 that God sees fasting as deeply practical but also deeply spiritual; the breaking of spiritual chains and cords of slavery are both linked and important. We have partly touched on this in the first motivation of humility but I want to make it explicit, that when we fast we confront the flesh in our lives and our hearts. When we fast we declare war on our own sinful nature in the name of Jesus.

“By submitting the earthly, fleshly desires which the enemy so loves us to become ensnared with, to the self-control that we can have through the power of the Holy Spirit we put to death the power of Satan in our lives. We state the mastery of God in triune perfection over our body, as we follow the Father, living in the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.”3

John Piper

Putting our faith into action through fasting is a powerful way of shouting in the spiritual realm that our faith is in God, not in the world.

It is also worth noting that when we fast, we promote our hunger for the spiritual reality that is to come – the second coming of the bridegroom:

14Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

Matthew 9:14-15

Arthur Wallis in his book, God’s Chosen Fast, titles his sixth chapter “The Time Is Now”.4 The time in which Jesus’ disciples will fast is this present age. In this Jesus says ‘Now while I am here in your midst as the bridegroom you cannot fast, but I am not going to remain with you. There will come a time when I return to my Father in heaven. And during that time you will fast.’ “In this age there is an ache inside every Christian that Jesus is not here as fully and intimately and as powerfully and as gloriously as we want him to be.”5 We hunger for so much more. That is why we fast.

Some of the books and journals that I read in preparation for this article make a very good point in this subject though – we do not believe in gnostic teachings around the body and soul. We do not believe that the soul and the spiritual is good, and the physical is bad. Neither do we believe that we can bear spiritual fruit through putting our bodies through harsh treatment (asceticism). Both lines of thought lead to the harm of the body that God has created us in, either through neglect, physical harm, or debauchery. They are counterfeits of biblical fasting that Satan has manifested in culture as he is fearful of a church that has control over their earthly desires and recognise that we have the authority and instruction to put our body into glad submission of the Holy Spirit.

It is important, however, that we do not mistake the mere removal of food with holiness. In the same book as mentioned earlier, Piper speaks about the danger of the ‘self-indulgent fast’ where a fast is taken through hypocrisy or a sense of duty for religiosity.

“So here we have another test of whether fasting is authentic or not. Jesus said, If you are fasting to be seen by others you have your reward. Isaiah says, If your fasting leaves you self-indulgent in other areas, harsh toward your employees, irritable and contentious, then your fasting is not acceptable to God. So God is mercifully warning us against the danger of substituting religious disciplines for righteous living.”

John Piper

We will also look later at why specifically within our culture we need to be aware of the danger that this poses to some who have an unhealthy relationship with food already (please see Difficulties of Fasting). God wants the submission of the flesh – the way that this looks within your life is your journey with God.

Difficulties of Fasting

I do not want anyone reading this article to think that I am unaware of the challenges behind fasting. Within all spiritual disciplines there is a level of sacrifice and submission but fasting can present different challenges and dangers. These can be cultural and subject to our modern world making meaningful fasting difficult, but they also can be personal difficulties with the removal of food that can cause issues. Our biggest cultural hurdle to fasting, I would say, is the change to mealtimes within western cultures. Mealtimes are often hurried with fewer members of the family sitting together across from each other on a table; more and more families’ meals take place on sofas in front of televisions. This is not to say that this shift is necessarily a negative one, I have always found the relaxation of formal meal etiquette an enjoyable experience. However, I believe that with this shift we lose certain communication and life-experience moments especially when young children are learning what family values are. On the topic of fasting, however, it means that practically to teach into this practice as a family when often you do not see other members of the family unit eat, is challenging.

The main difficulties that I wanted to speak about within this blog, however, are the personal ones that we face individually.  By this I do not mean the standard mental struggle to deprive oneself of physical nourishment to grasp the spiritual, I mean the personal struggles that go beyond this. 1 in 4 people in will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England, between 1.5-3.5 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder.6 Both of these circumstances can make fasting a difficult, and even dangerous discipline to commit to.

When approaching any discipline of Christian living, one must be wise about how that shall impact their life. For most disciplines such as prayer, worship, confession etc. this impact will be limited unless you commit to extended periods of prayer/worship and in doing so neglect, for a time, other areas of your life or duties. For others however, it is not so simple. Submission for example can look different depending on your circumstance, submission to authority figures who are teaching immoral behaviour or forcing you to partake in such behaviour, submission to family members who do not love Jesus but you know the importance of evangelism, even within churches there can be times when decisions have to be made about the actions or teachings of leaders or you need to take a time of respite from serving due to personal difficulties. Other examples include Evangelism – a discipline that Foster points to but does not speak explicitly on; for friends of mine who live in persecution there is a wisdom in how they share the gospel of Christ due to the impact that it has on their safety and the safety of their families. So too, there must be wisdom when approaching the discipline of fasting.

For many people in the world today, the restriction of food for the ‘betterment’ of their bodies and mental health has become addictive and, in some lives, idolatrous. Having worked with young people for many years I have seen the destruction that can be caused through the self-harm of an unhealthy relationship with food. Its foundations often are found in the unhealthy way that society and culture in the 21st Century promote male and female bodies, and the abhorrent link between satisfaction and physical appearance (not to mention the continued creation of media that promote this). It can easily create unhealthy relationships between people’s minds and their bodies – the opposite to what God intended. As I have said previously, Christianity does not preach Gnosticism. God cares about the state of the body as he does the state of the mind, as all are beautiful to him as those created in his image. For some this is an area of temptation, to try and control their body in unhealthy ways, and so when approaching fasting they must be incredibly careful and wise, being led by the Holy Spirit.

I have neither the lived nor professional experience to begin to suggest that I have the answer to this topic. The purpose of this article is not to tell you how you should fast if this is your experience with food. That is a personal walk, which must be taken carefully and with accountability to those who know you. For some, fasting is not a good idea, and I do not read anything biblically to suggest that a lack of fasting from food and drink will be spiritually damaging or affect your relationship with your heavenly Father, or limit what he can do in your life. It may be that your equivalent of fasting looks different and does not relate to food but to another section of your life. All I can say is, be wise and remember that disciplines of the Christian walk are not ‘brownie points’, but the natural outworking of a soul that belongs to Christ.

ChristChurch and Fasting

Finally, I’d like to write a small piece about how we can make fasting a more common part of our daily lives in the western church, specifically at ChristChurch. I grew up in a family that had an awareness of fasting as my Dad used to fast regularly, but maybe this is the start of your journey with this discipline. If so, then start slow. Richard Foster makes some great suggestions of how to start in the practice of fasting.

I would suggest spending some time praying and thinking to begin with, seeking God for those motivations for fasting that we spoke about in this article. It may be that you are seeking God over something specific, it may be that you want to start this discipline in order to connect with your Father God in a different way by setting aside time for him during mealtimes. Secondly, start small – maybe missing a meal and using that time to pray and seek God, I have often found that lunch is a good starting meal. Then work your way up to a full day fast. My biggest suggestion would be don’t be afraid to be hungry. In modern western culture we have been tricked into thinking that hunger is bad, it isn’t. I know that I fall foul to this so easily, but it is something that I am trying to work on. However, also listen to what your body is saying; low blood sugars can be dangerous so possibly drink fruit juice as well as water during your fast.

Now that you practically have a starting place, where can we see this discipline grow in church culture? One way is to use natural times of corporate prayer to plan fasting into your diary, once a month we have a Breakthrough Prayer meeting (see the church calendar for the next date), this would be the optimum day to commit to fasting of some sort. For those of you who feel that would be too regular, commit to a fast for one day during the Weeks of Prayer that we have two or three times in the year. Perhaps make it part of your discipleship group, as you go through the course together commit to dates where you will fast and pray over the meal times, writing in a group chat what God has been speaking to you about. You can choose to pray into specific topics during those fast meals/days.

There are many ways that fasting can be incorporated into church culture. The most important thing, however, is that it starts with you. This isn’t enforced, it isn’t duty or responsibility, it shouldn’t be met with ‘oh another thing they want us to do’. Discipline should come from a willing soul and a heart that wants to seek more of their Father God, laying down the physical dependency for a dependence on God.

So, the answer to the topic – Why Fast? I think the real question is Why Not Fast? Please do not think I am being twee or coy with this answer, I truly mean it. Fasting can be a natural part of a disciplined life, it can expand the time we spend with our Father God, it can limit the hold that items such as food have on us, but it doesn’t mean it should be for everyone. So, if there is a reason why you can’t fast, then please hold no fear or condemnation. But if there is nothing stopping you, but you don’t like the idea of it…why? Let’s be a people who strive to greater intimacy with our Father, who set aside the material for the eternal and seek to run the race with all our might. Let us be a people who want to see less of ourselves and more of Christ in our lives and combat the enemies’ schemes with fearful abandon. Let’s be a church of disciplined disciples.

  1. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 44-45.
  2. John Piper, Hunger for God, 124.
  3. Piper, Hunger for God, 124.
  4. Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast, 29.
  5. Piper, Hunger for God, 40.
  6. McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey. https://www.priorygroup.com/eating-disorders/eating-disorder-statistics