Fasting has been observed by Christians from earliest times. Jesus himself practised fasting. When he received the gift of the Holy Spirit, he entered the wilderness and fasted. (Luke 4: 1-2). There are scriptural references to fasting in the Old and New Testaments and fasting in Lent is a widespread practice.
For the Christian, fasting is done for a spiritual purpose, producing a positive effect achieved through self-denial. Fasting disrupts the process of ‘going our own way and doing our own thing’ and reminds us of our reliance upon God. Each pang of hunger reminds us that we are doing something we don’t have to do, because we love God. Each gentle reminder of our self-denial is an opportunity for prayer. Beneficial aspects of fasting are evident, even in shortened periods of fasting such as skipping a meal. Deeper benefits of fasting come after longer periods of self-denial. At these times, the mind seems much more attuned to God’s will for us, perceptive of God’s voice, and willing to respond.
Length of Fasts
The normal fast involves abstinence from solid foods but not from water or other liquids. The body can survive quite well, even benefit from, periods of abstinence from food, but water is essential to good health. Simply skipping a meal can be spiritually beneficial and can be considered fasting. However, there seems to be a direct relationship between the length of a fast and the benefits gained from it. A normal fast is from one to three days long. A one-day fast usually begins after a meal-lunch or dinner – and lasts until that meal the following day. Thus, only two regular meals are missed. Combining fasting with a retreat day of prayer, meditation and bible study can be very useful. This is long enough to make one feel uncomfortable from the lack of food and conscious of the act of self-denial. The individual is reminded to pray and is demonstrating humility before God by the very act of self-denial. I have found fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday to be meaningful for me. Reaching a deeper communication with God may require a three-day fast. It is best not to plunge into a three-day fast without some experience with shorter periods of fasting. The three-day fast is especially appropriate when guidance is being sought from the Lord on matters of real consequence in the life of the individual such as; a possible vocational change, seeking one’s ministry, or dealing with a recurring problem.
Sometimes a fast can take the form of abstaining from one or more types of food or drink, such as meat or alcoholic beverages, over an extended period of time. In doing so, one may feel led by God to deny oneself some form of food or drink, indefinitely. Several years ago, fasting from drinking alcohol during Lent, led to my giving up alcohol consumption completely.
Private and Community Fasting
Jesus cautioned us against making a display of our righteousness in fasting; “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.” (Matt. 6: 16) When we fast privately we should keep the matter, insofar as practical, between God and us. Church leaders and others sometimes call for days of fasting and prayer. There is a sense of fellowship and community of spirit in knowing that others are participating in an act of self-denial.
Some Practical Matters
There are some people who should not fast, or should do so only minimally. Those who are undernourished, or are experiencing physical or emotional exhaustion, should not fast, nor should pregnant women, or people with diabetes or heart problems. As with all self-denial, there is discomfort involved in fasting. If symptoms become alarming, the fast should be interrupted or terminated.
Some Spiritual Matters
Let us not forget why we are fasting in the first place. John Wesley once said, “First, let it [fasting] be done unto the Lord with your eye singly fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven.” Keeping a journal during a fast, can be useful in learning a great deal about ourselves, and what God is saying to us. Fasting can help us to experience the closeness of God’s presence and special love for us. Through fasting we are likely to receive guidance from God, particularly if Bible study is a part of our discipline. Effectiveness of prayers, ability to focus one’s attention rather than being confused and distracted, and special revelations from God, are normal occurrences during periods of fasting.