A new trend in health obsessed culture is called intermittent fasting. Claims of cure all benefits range from weight loss to the end of Alzheimer’s. I think this fad will be shorted lived since there is not much money to be made in fasting and it is incredibly hard to do. The idea of this fad is that one must shorten the window of time in which one eats for a particular day. For example, eating dinner two or three hours earlier with no late-night snack before breakfast the next morning would be a good start. Speaking of Breakfast that is an interesting word. The first meal of the day does indeed break a fast.
Fasting is not a new idea or a new practice. Most every culture and religion have ideas about fasting. Jesus famously fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. Was Jesus on a diet for this famous fast? No clearly that was not the purpose of his fast. However, fasting to improve health may be unique to western culture. What does the Bible have to say about fasting?
Jesus in one of his interactions the community receives what I think is a genuine question.
33 And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” Luke 5:33-35 ESV
It was common for the Pharisees to fast. Their tradition was to fast twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday. So, the question is raised to Jesus why he and his disciples are at a party with tax collectors enjoying themselves while other religious people are fasting? Jesus responds saying that one does not fast at a feast indicating that while he, Jesus, is with the disciples there is no need for fasting. But in the future when Jesus has left this earth then the disciples would fast.
This interaction tells us two key things. First once Jesus is glorified, he expected that Christians would want to fast. That means fasting is a valid topic for contemporary Christians. Second Jesus indicates that there is a right time to fast and a right time to not fast.
If fasting is something, we should think about certainly the Bible would then give us some rules about how to fast and what is considered a fast? But no there are no details on how to fast and there is no actual command by Jesus to fast.
11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ Luke 18:11-12 ESV
Jesus told a parable about how not to approach God. In this parable he tells of a Pharisee praying in public a loud and arrogant prayer boasting of how much he fasts and how much money he gives away. The community Jesus told this story to would have connected with the experience. Jesus tells us two key things about fasting. First Jesus links fasting to giving. So again just as we know we should give we may also want to think about what role fasting might have in our spiritual life. Second the Pharisee boasts on his fasting and his tithe. What we know about giving is that it is not something to boast in. It is something that should be done with a cheerful heart and it should be done quietly.
3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:3-4 ESV
In the same way fasting should be done in secret before God and for God. Fasting is a mostly private and intimate act of devotion.
16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:16-18 ESV
Jesus has left us with two key things to think about when it comes to fasting. First it should be done quietly and intimately. Second fasting is something that has a season and a purpose. When I was young and single, I practiced a weekly 24 hour fast. I would wake up on the fast day and not eat and sometimes not drink anything for an entire day (this took time and practice to do successfully). The next day I would wake up and eat breakfast. It was a season where I was able to draw near to God. I did this privately and prayerfully. After marriage and children, the practice of fasting was long lost because dinner is so important to the social structure. I am not in a current season where fasting like that is practical. There may come a time in the future when the children are grown where fasting may yet again be part of my prayerful devotion.
Having practiced a personal fast in devotion to God I have a few practical suggestions to anyone who might feel called to devote themselves in this way.
Start Slow: Replace one meal (start with breakfast, lunch, or if really brave dinner)
Set a Time: Something that is workable to your situation and your schedule.
Set Rules: What is in and what is out while fasting for you. This is personal between you and God. Pray about this rule.
Fasting is hard but it does not need to be impossible. Failure is likely as well. Our society revolves around food so scheduling time to not eat is incredibly difficult. And that difficulty is compounded by the negative reaction our bodies have to being deprived of caffeine, sugar, and everything else we love about eating.
Also, one more thing. Have a singular reason to fast. The purpose of fasting is to focus ourselves to prayer. Fasting gives us additional focus and intent. Fasting will if done with the right heart and motive draw us closer to God.