The Spirituality of Fasting

What the Bible says about fasting and how God can use it to transform your life.

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After doing a deep dive into the physical benefits of fasting, I wanted to revisit its spiritual foundations and learn more about its other advantages.

Jesus and Fasting

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I’ve been blown away by Matthew 4:1 – “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil.”

  • Then Jesus – Jesus, the Messiah, God in the flesh, has just been baptized and received divine anointing and affirmation. Everyone’s watching. Time to go change the world? Nope. Time to be tested.
  • Was led by the Spirit into the wilderness – Wait, what? The wilderness? The place of danger and isolation and loneliness? What about the towns? What about Jerusalem? What about all the needy people? Not yet. First, there were three important battles that needed to be won. So the Father, through the Spirit, sends the Son into the very place that most of us so desperately try to avoid.
  • To be tempted by the devil – This was no cushy spiritual retreat. This was war. This was suffering. This was an opportunity to finally win where Israel had lost; make it or break it time. And he was up against his greatest opponent, the father of lies.

But get this. On top of all that, the next verse says that he fasted for forty days and forty nights and became very hungry. Don’t miss that. The tempting and the fasting went hand in hand, and they were both initiated by the Spirit. When you read the rest of the story, you see how integral the fasting was to the whole experience. It wasn’t just about hunger. It was about weakness, vulnerability, dependence, and ultimately, power.

But Jesus didn’t always fast. In fact, his later refusal to fast at the customary times ruffled a lot of feathers. So much so that his critics even accused him of being a drunk and a glutton.

The point here is that Jesus did not have a legalistic approach to fasting. He did not see it as some cosmic manipulation tool, brownie point earner, necessary evil, or heavy religious burden. He taught that it should be done in secret instead of for show. And he modeled a relationship with food that was fully free, Spirit-driven, counter-cultural, and missional.

So, since Jesus is our ultimate example and clearest picture of God, I think that his approach to fasting should be our foundation. If we engage with fasting from a place of grace, trust, submission, and freedom, then we can avoid the pitfalls of avoiding it altogether or practicing it inappropriately.

Asking the Wrong Question

Grace

What spiritual benefits does fasting offer us? Actually, that’s the wrong question. While fasting certainly offers many inherent physical benefits, the spiritual benefits are imparted through God himself, as an act of grace. Fasting does not change us for God as much as God changes us through fasting.

A Christian Overview of Fasting

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Richard Foster does a nice job of laying down a foundation for fasting in his book, The Celebration of Discipline. His key points follow:

  • “Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it.” John Wesley
  • Why have so many disregarded fasting in our modern age? 1) as an over-reaction to its unfortunate historic bent towards self-flagellation 2) we’ve bought the lie that we need to constantly be eating in order to survive and thrive.
  • “The list of biblical personages who fasted reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of Scripture: Moses the lawgiver, David the king, Elijah the prophet, Esther the queen, Daniel the seer, Anna the prophetess, Paul the apostle, Jesus Christ the incarnate Son. Many of the great Christians throughout church history fasted and witnessed to its value; among them were Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, Charles Finney, and Pastor Hsi of China.”
  • The Bible describes a variety of fasts, and a times throughout church history, fasting has been a normal part of the Christian life.
  • Jesus does not command us to fast, but he assumes we will (see Matthew 6:16, Matthew 9:15).
  • “Fasting must forever center on God. It must be God-initiated and God-ordained. If our fasting is not unto God, we have failed. Physical benefits, success in prayer, the enduing with power, spiritual insights – these must never replace God as the center of our fasting.”
  • “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.”
  • “Fasting reminds us that we are sustained ‘by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matt. 4:4). Food does not sustain us; God sustains us. In experiences of fasting we are not so much abstaining from food as we are feasting on the word of God. Fasting is feasting! When the disciples brought lunch to Jesus, assuming he would be starving, he declared, ‘I have food to eat of which you do not know…My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:32, 34). This was not a clever metaphor, but a genuine reality. Jesus was, in fact, being nourished and sustained by the power of God. That is the reason for his counsel on fasting in Matthew 6. We are told not to act miserable when fasting because, in point of fact, we are not miserable. We are feeding on God and, just like the Israelites who were sustained in the wilderness by the miraculous manna from heaven, so we are sustained by the word of God.”
  • Fasting helps us be more balanced, more effective in prayer, gives us greater guidance for decisions, increases concentration, aids in deliverance for those in bondage, improves physical well-being, can lead to greater spiritual revelations, etc.
  • Prayer and fasting go hand in hand.
  • “Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way. It is a means of God’s grace and blessing that should not be neglected any longer.”

Powerful Quotes on Fasting

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Here are four quotes on fasting I’ve found to be really helpful:

“Fasting helps us to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, even ourselves, to attain the Kingdom of God.” Andrew Murray

“It is as if the man who fasts were more himself, in possession of his true identity, and less dependent on exterior objects and the impulses they arouse in him.” Adalbert de Vogue

“Fasting is what happens to the person who yields the whole person – body, soul, spirit, heart, and mind – to God.” Scot McKnight

“Fasting give birth to prophets, she strengthens the powerful. Fasting makes lawmakers wise. She is a safeguard of a soul, a stabilizing companion to the body, a weapon for the brave, a discipline for champions. Fasting knocks over temptations, anoints for godliness. She is a companion for sobriety, the crafter of a sound mind. In wars she fights bravely, in peace she teaches tranquility. She sanctifies the Nazirite, and she perfects the priest.” Saint Basil

My Top 10 Reasons for Fasting

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As I’ve searched the Scriptures and looked at the scientific research, I’ve created my own top 10 list for why I fast. I share these not to boast or earn my reward on this side of eternity, but to motivate you to engage with this discipline if you aren’t already.

  1. Fasting is a core component of submitting my whole body and life to God as an act of obedience, sacrifice, discipline, and humility (Romans 12:1).
  2. Fasting is a key part of warring well and staying alert against Satan’s attacks (1 Peter 5:8). Satan wants me numb, dumb, and out of the fight.
  3. Fasting upgrades my physiology in every way – less disease, less waste, more brain power, more energy, more focus.
  4. Fasting helps me be more effective for Jesus. It helps me run to win (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
  5. Fasting frees up time and energy to focus on things that are more important than food (John 4:34).
  6. Fasting creates new kinds of hunger: hunger for God, hunger to get things done, hunger to connect more meaningfully with others. It activates motivation in me that is otherwise dulled through eating.
  7. Fasting helps me be fully present and alive – with myself, with God, and with others. It takes me out of the coma of complacency.
  8. Fasting helps me remember the suffering of others around the world and share in the suffering of Christ (Philippians 3:10-11, 2 Timothy 2:3-4).
  9. Fasting makes my flesh feel weaker but my soul get stronger (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). It sharpens my spiritual discernment.
  10. Fasting is the ultimate act of self-care. By fasting, I am giving my body the restoration it needs to be at its best.

So there you have it. If you’ve got questions or need help getting started, feel free to email me. As always, your comments are welcome.

The Prime Directive vs. The Great Commission

Live and let live sounds nice, but it’s actually incredibly cruel.

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I’ve been slowly making my way through Star Trek: The Next Generation. I love the cast, music, adventure, and nostalgia of it all.

However, one thing I always roll my eyes at is the Prime Directive. You Trekkies out there already know what I’m talking about, but for everyone else, here’s the gist: The Prime Directive basically states that the crew of the Enterprise should not get involved in the development of a newly discovered civilization in any way, even if it would be helpful for that civilization. Live and let live. Allow evolution to take it’s course. Don’t meddle.

How dumb.

Even when other cultures are on the verge of collapse or are committing genocide or desperately need outside assistance, the crew holds the supposedly moral high ground – generally refusing to help unless they are explicitly asked to or absolutely forced to.

Contrast this with the Great Commission:

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

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Talk about two opposing philosophies! Whereas the Prime Directive is “Go, but don’t change anything” the Great Commission is “Go and change everything.” The Prime Directive is about passive observation, but the Great Commission is about active engagement. The Prime Directive is cold, impersonal, uncaring, and borderline evil, like a doctor or scientist watching a subject in pain but refusing to offer help. The Great Commission is rooted in love, compassion, and a commitment to improving the lives of others. It’s not about forcing anyone to do anything (Mark 10:14) but about sharing life changing good news and letting others decide what to do with it. It’s about investing in the flourishing and development of others instead of sitting back and taking notes.

Listen, I get that Star Trek is just a TV show. But it’s rooted in a secular, immoral, relativistic, and atheistic philosophy of life (compliments of its creator, Gene Roddenberry) which many real people actually adhere to.

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Back in college I read this book called Spirit of the Rainforest, a true story about a Yanomamo shaman. It makes a powerful case for reaching out to those in need instead of arrogantly assuming that they’re better off left alone. You should read it.

But even if you don’t, you already intuitively know how wrong a Prime Directive approach to life is. Because you know from experience the value of a helping hand, a wise word, a sacrificial act, a person who’s taken the initiative to make your life better, even if you didn’t appreciate it at the time.

“Live and let live” sounds nice but is actually incredibly cruel.

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That’s why I love and support the work of organizations like International Justice Mission. They are doing everything in their power to rescue the oppressed, end corruption, fight slavery, and stop violence. They are on the front lines, leveraging their time, energy, abilities, and resources for the good of others. They know that a Prime Directive philosophy of life is part of what created this mess in the first place.

You were born to make a difference. The world needs you to care enough to do something. To sacrifice. To risk rejection. To give without expecting anything in return.

So live the Great Commission. Go and make disciples. God is with you.

From Obedience to Ownership

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Our son Leo loves his trains. And his cars. And pretty much every toy in his room. Which is great, except he doesn’t love sharing them with his little sister. When asked to give Katie a turn, he might hand over his least favorite engine or a block he’s bored with, but sometimes he’s downright Gollumish about it.

As his parents, we get that his behavior is developmentally normal and we do our best to help him understand why sharing is important. “It makes Kate feel happy when you share with her and sad when you don’t. Don’t you like it when Kate shares her toys with you? It’s good to share. God wants us to share.” Etc.

We’re glad when he hands over the goods, but ultimately we want him to do the right thing because he wants to, not just because he has to. We recognize that this is going to take some time.

As adults, we might be (slightly) better at sharing with others, but we all understand the difference between doing what’s required and doing what’s desired. Lately, I’ve been thinking of this tension as the gap between obedience and ownership.

Obedience

Ownership

About what we do. About who we are.
Focus is on maintaining. Focus is on maturing.
Concerned with the rules. Concerned with the relationship.
Expressed through our habits. Expressed through our hearts.

Let’s look at how this applies to our relationship with God.

As his kids, there’s no doubt that he wants us to obey him. But obedience is just the start. His primary concern is with our why, not just our what. So he’s always in the process of trying to move us from “I’m doing this because you want me to” to “I’m doing this because we want me to.”

Making the move from obedience to ownership can be painful. God may let us fail to show us that we’ve been doing the right things for the wrong reasons. Or he may help us succeed in order to reveal how hollow our victories are when our hearts aren’t in them.

Anyone can obey. A dog can obey. A slave can obey. A soldier can obey. But ownership? That’s the stuff of relationship. That’s the stuff of character formation. That’s the stuff of growing up.

Where do you need to move from obedience to ownership? Take some time to ask God, “How do you want this area of my life to become a part of who I am and not just be something I do?”