“Are you nuts? Or have you joined one of those bizarre cults that believes there‘s a space ship in the tail of a comet?” Don’t be surprised if you hear a question like that should you choose to let your friends in on the fact that you voluntarily fast every so often. Nothing seems as silly to the natural mind or as repulsive to the body as fasting. It’s not hard to figure out why. As Kevin Springer has noted, “we live in a consumer oriented society that bombards us with messages of instant gratification. ‘You can have it all!’ ‘Go for the gusto!’ ‘Have it your way!’ (And have it now). To this mindset, fasting does not make any sense at all” (“Hunger for God’s Kingdom,” 9).
Even from a Christian point of view, it seems a little odd. If God has generously created food “to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Tim. 4:3), what possible reason could there be for abstinence? It seems like something reserved for the weird, the odd, or at worst, the masochist.
The reputation of fasting has also suffered because of its association in the minds of many with the ascetic abuses of medieval monks and hermits. In centuries past fasting was often subjected to rigid regulations and was combined with extreme forms of self-mortification and self-denial. Little wonder, then, that fasting seems so often to contribute to that “holier-than-thou” mentality we all want to avoid. There is no getting around the fact that fasting is inseparable, in the minds of many, from showy and ostentatious self-righteousness. Richard Foster points out that “the constant propaganda fed us today convinces us that if we do not have three large meals each day with several snacks in between, we are on the verge of starvation. This, coupled with the popular belief that it is a positive virtue to satisfy every human appetite, has made fasting seem obsolete” (Celebration of Discipline, 47-48).
One thing that will help us in our attitude toward fasting is to distinguish it from other reasons why people don’t eat. For example, fasting must be distinguished from a hunger strike, the purpose of which is to gain political power or to draw attention to some social cause. Some of us are old enough to remember the protest fasting of jailed Irish militants as well as the highly visible fast of black comedian and social critic Dick Gregory.
We must also distinguish fasting from health dieting, which insists on abstaining from certain foods for physical reasons. Saying No to burgers and shakes so you can look better in this summer’s swimsuit is not what this is about. Biblical fasting has nothing to do with anorexia nervosa, an emotional disorder in which a person starves herself to lose weight, either out of self-contempt or in hope of becoming fashionably and loveably thin. Finally, fasting must be distinguished from how it is practiced in numerous pagan religions: to control or appease the gods, or perhaps to make contact with spirits in order to manipulate their power.
B. Are we commanded to fast?
No. But according to Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus simply assumes that we will. Twice Jesus says, “when you fast” (vv. 16,17). As Foster notes, “It is as if there is an almost unconscious assumption that giving, praying, and fasting are all part of Christian devotion. We have no more reason to exclude fasting from the teaching than we do giving or praying” (52). Therefore, although Jesus does not say “If you fast,” neither does he say, “You must fast.” He says, simply: “When you fast . . . “ Matthew 9:14-17 is especially instructive on this point. When the Pharisees queried why Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast, he explained it in terms of his own physical presence on earth. “But the days will come,” he said, “when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Mt. 9:15b).
The point here is that the Messiah has come like a bridegroom to a wedding feast. Such a moment is too joyful and stunning and exciting to mingle with fasting. This indicates, by the way, that in those days fasting was by and large associated with mourning. People fasted as an expression of deep personal longing for something more precious than mere food. Their self-denial was symptomatic of a heartsickness borne of desperation. Fasting is for times of yearning and longing. When the bridegroom is no longer physically with us on earth, then it is appropriate to fast. In this age there is an ache, a homesickness of sorts, inside every Christian because Jesus is not as intimately and powerfully and visibly and personally present as we want him to be and as we know one day he will be (cf. 1 Peter 1:8). And that is why we are to fast.
There is in this regard a fascinating parallel between fasting and the Lord’s Supper. The latter is a feasting that looks backward in time, whereas fasting is a feasting that looks forward in time. The breaking of bread and drinking the cup is done “in remembrance” of our Lord’s historic, and therefore past, act of sacrifice. Thus by eating and drinking we celebrate the finality and sufficiency of that atoning death and that glorious resurrection. We should never fast from the supper of the Lord, even when we are fasting from other ordinary “suppers”. On the other hand, as Piper explains,
“by not eating—by fasting—we look to the future with an aching in our hearts saying: ‘Yes, he came. And yes, what he did for us is glorious. But precisely because of what we have seen and what we have tasted, we feel keenly his absence as well as his presence. . . . we can eat and even celebrate with feasting because he has come. But this we also know: he is not here the way he once was. . . . And his [physical] absence is painful. The sin and misery of the world is painful. . . . We long for him to come again and take up his throne and reign in our midst and vindicate his people and his truth and his glory” (A Hunger for God, 84).
When we sit at Christ’s table with other believers we gratefully, fearfully, joyfully feast upon that food and drink that remind us of what has happened. And when we turn away from the table where otherwise daily meals are served we declare our deep yearning for what has not yet happened.
How may we sum up these thoughts concerning our obligation to fast? Richard Foster comes right to the point: “There simply are no biblical laws that command regular fasting. Our freedom in the gospel, however, does not mean license; it means opportunity. Since there are no laws to bind us, we are free to fast on any day” (51).
C. Why should we fast?
I have identified fifteen reasons in the Bible for fasting. There may be more, but these will give us a good start.
The key is to remember that fasting is always motivated by deep desire. Whereas there is certainly a measure of physical pain that comes with fasting, I want to insist that, contrary to popular opinion, fasting is not the suppression of desire but the intense pursuit of it. We fast because we want something more than food. We say no to food for a season only to fill ourselves with something far more tasty, far more filling, far more satisfying. That is to say, if one suppresses the desire for food it is only because he or she has a greater and more intense desire for something more precious. Something of eternal value.
We don’t fast because we hate our bodies and look to punish them. Whatever immediate discomfort we may experience, it is a sacrifice that pays immeasurable long-term benefits. We do not fast for pain, but for the pleasure of experiencing still more of Christ Jesus and the revelation of his powerful presence. In other words, fasting is perfectly consistent with Christian Hedonism! More on this later.
1) Fasting was practiced to avert God’s judgment and displeasure against his people. Fasting per se could not turn away God’s wrath, but only insofar as it was an expression of conviction for sin. See 1 Sam. 7:6; Joel 2:12; Jonah 3:5-8; Judges 20:26 (cf. Esther 4; 1 Kings 21:9; Jer. 36:6,9).
2) The people of God often fasted in preparation for war, with a view to seeking God’s protection and blessing. Thus, fasting is especially appropriate in times of national emergency. See 2 Chron. 20:1-4; Joel 2:15.
3) Fasting was one way of seeking God’s help for deliverance from personal troubles and oppression. It was a sign of utter reliance on God alone to help and save. See 1 Kings 21:27-29.
4) Fasting was often an expression of sincere and heartfelt repentance from sin and humility before God. Indeed, the only fast day for Israel was the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-31). See also Neh. 9:1-2; Ps. 35:13 (“I humbled my soul with fasting”); Dan. 9:3; Joel 2:12-13; Jonah 3:5-8.
5) Fasting also signified or expressed mourning, sorrow, deep grief, and sadness. See especially 1 Sam 31:13 (fasting following the death of Saul and his sons); 2 Sam. 1:12 (David fasted on hearing of Saul’s and Jonathan’s death); 2 Sam. 12:15-23 (David fasted while grieving over the fatal illness of his son); 1 Sam. 20:34 (Jonathan fasted out of grief over his father’s treachery against David). It is as if one says: “It would not be proper to enjoy the pleasures of food at a time of such tragedy and sadness and loss.”
6) Ezra fasted as part of his request that God provide him with a safe journey (Ezra 8:21-23). Here we see that Ezra refused an army escort so that he could testify to king Artaxerxes about the power and faithfulness and sufficiency of God in protecting his people. Instead of the king's help he sought God's help and he sought it through fasting. Notice also that here again fasting is an expression of humility (v. 21). Fasting is a humbling of ourselves because in it we feel and express our absolute dependence on God and our refusal to trust ultimately in any human resource or power. Fasting is also portrayed here as an expression of seeking God with life-and-death seriousness: "so we fasted and sought our God" (v. 23).
7) Fasting is a way of expressing one’s concern for the success of God’s work (Neh. 1:3-4). Daniel was well into his 70’s when he sought the Lord by “prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes,” all of which was the fruit of his desire to see Israel set free from her captivity in Babylon (Dan. 9:3).
8) Fasting serves to humble and rebuke us as it reveals how much of our happiness depends on the external pleasures of eating. See Ps. 69:10.
9) Fasting teaches us self-control and self-discipline. Our belly must not be our god, as it is with some (Phil 3:19; Rom. 16:18). See esp. 1 Cor. 9:25-27. Richard Foster put it this way:
"More than any other single 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. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. David said, 'I humbled my soul with fasting' (Ps. 69:10). Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger, then we know that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ” (48).
John Piper agrees:
"What are we slaves to? What are our bottom line passions? Fasting is God's testing ground --- and healing ground. Will we murmur as the Israelites murmured when they had no bread? Will we leave the path of obedience and turn stones into bread? Or will we 'live by every word that proceeds out the mouth of God?' Fasting is a way of revealing to ourselves and confessing to God what is in our hearts” (“Man Shall not Live by Bread Alone,” 4).
10) Fasting is a powerful weapon in spiritual warfare. See Mt. 4:1-11 (Jesus fasted in preparation for resisting the temptations of Satan) and Mark 9:29 (Mt. 17:14-21). Fasting heightens our complete dependence upon God and forces us to draw on him and his power, and to believe fully in his strength. This explains why Jesus fasted in preparation for facing the temptations of Satan in the wilderness (Mt. 4:1-11; see Mark 9:29; Mt. 17:14-21).
It is important to note that as Jesus was standing on the brink of the most important public ministry the world had ever seen, he chose to fast! Have you ever paused to reflect on the eternal consequences of what transpired in the wilderness of Judea those forty days? Heaven and hell hung in the balance. Had Jesus wavered, had he faltered, had he balked, all hope of heaven would have been dashed on the very rocks with which the Enemy tempted him. Of the dozens of things Jesus might have done to withstand this temptation, he is led by the Spirit to fast. “Therefore, we owe our salvation, in some measure (not to overstate it), to the fasting of Jesus. This is a remarkable tribute to fasting” (Piper, 55).
Countless examples from the history of the church could be cited that bear witness to the power of fasting. Charles Finney described his own experience as follows:
“Sometimes I would find myself, in a great measure, empty of this power. I would go and visit, and find that I made no saving impression. I would exhort and pray, with the same result. I would then set apart a day for private fasting and prayer, fearing that this power had departed from me, and would inquire anxiously after the reason of this apparent emptiness. After humbling myself and crying out for help, the power would return upon me with all its freshness. This has been the experience of my life” (“Power from on High,” 9-10).
11) Fasting opens our spiritual ears to discern God’s voice. The gentle words of the Spirit are more readily heard during times of fasting. During times of fasting God often grants insights and understanding into his will and purpose, or perhaps new applications of his Word to our lives. The following incident is recorded in Acts 13:1-3.
“Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers . . . . And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.”
Here we see Saul (Paul) and Barnabas, together with leaders of the church in Antioch, seeking direction from the Lord as to where they should go as a church, in terms of ministry. Their desperation to hear God’s voice and follow God’s will could find no more appropriate expression than through bodily denial. As they turned away from physical dependence on food they cast themselves in spiritual dependence on God. “Yes, Lord, we love food. We thank you for it. We enjoy it as you want us to. But now, O Lord, there is something before us more important than filling our mouths and quenching our thirst. Where would you have us go? Whom shall we send? How shall it be financed? Lord, we hunger to know your will. Lord, we thirst for your direction. Feed us O God!”
There is much to learn here about the importance of fasting. Note four things in particular (Piper, 106-08).
(1) They were fasting after the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is important for the simple reason that some argue that fasting was an OT practice no longer relevant for people in the church age.
(2) They fasted together as a group. Clearly they did not believe that Jesus' warning about fasting to be seen by men (Mt. 6:17-18) precluded corporate fasting. When you fast as group others obviously know, but this is evidently not a violation of Christ's instruction. Evidently the church leaders at Antioch take Jesus to mean not that we sin if someone knows that we are fasting, but that we sin if our motive is to be known for our fasting so that men applaud us. Group fasting has marked God's people all through Biblical and post-Biblical history.
(3) Their fasting became the occasion for the Spirit's guidance to be communicated to them. Don't miss the obvious causal link that Luke draws. It was while or when they were ministering to the Lord and fasting that the Holy Spirit spoke. Indeed, it would not be too much to say it was because they ministered to the Lord and fasted that He spoke. I’m not suggesting that fasting puts God in our debt, as if it compels him to respond to us. But God does promise to be found by those who diligently seek him with their whole heart (Jer. 29:12-13). People who are merely “open” to God rarely find him. God postures himself to be found by those who whole-heartedly seek him, and fasting is a single-minded pursuit to know, hear, and experience God.
(4) What God said to them in the course of their fasting changed history. This revelatory word was spoken in a moment of spiritual hunger for God’s voice to fill the void left by mere human wisdom. The results, both immediate and long-term, are stunning, for prior to this incident the church had progressed little, if at all, beyond the eastern seacoast of the Mediterranean. Paul had as yet taken no missionary journeys westward to Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, or Spain. Neither had he written any of his epistles. All his letters were the result of the missionary journeys he was to take and the churches he was to plant. This occasion of prayer and fasting, it would seem, “resulted in a missions movement that would catapult Christianity from obscurity into being the dominant religion of the Roman Empire within two and a half centuries, and would yield 1.3 billion adherents of the Christian religion today, with a Christian witness in virtually every country of the world. And thirteen out of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament (Paul’s letters) were a result of the ministry that was launched in this historic moment of prayer and fasting” (Piper,107).
John Wesley recorded in his journal a time of fasting that seemed to have altered the course of history. The king of England called for a solemn day of prayer and fasting because of a threatened invasion of the French (1756). Wesley wrote: "The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God heareth prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility." In a footnote he later added, "Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted” (“Journal,” 147).
12) Fasting sharpens and intensifies our intercessory prayers. Arthur Wallis has noted that
“Fasting is calculated to bring a note of urgency and importunity into our praying, and to give force to our pleading in the court of heaven. The man who prays with fasting is giving heaven notice that he is truly earnest . . . . Not only so, but he is expressing his earnestness in a divinely-appointed way. He is using a means that God has chosen to make his voice to be heard on high” (42).
On Monday, April 19, 1742, David Brainerd recorded in his journal that he set apart this day for fasting and prayer. He said of his experience that day:
“I felt the power of intercession for precious, immortal souls; for the advancement of the kingdom of my dear Lord and Saviour in the world; and withal, a most sweet resignation and even consolation and joy in the thoughts of suffering hardships, distresses, and even death itself, in the promotion of it. . . . My soul was drawn out very much for the world, for multitudes of souls. I think I had more enlargement for sinners than for the children of God, thought I felt as if I could spend my life in cries for both. I enjoyed great sweetness in communion with my dear Saviour. I think I never in my life felt such an entire weanedness from this world and so much resigned to God in everything” (7:162).
13) To fast is to worship. Anna (Luke 2:36-37) worshipped “by fastings and prayers” (v. 37; cf. Acts 13:1-3). The example of Anna, in a certain sense, stands as a rebuke to us. She fasted for years in anticipation of the coming of Messiah. But he has now come. We now have the blessings he came to provide. Piper applies this to us in pointed fashion:
"Shall we long for him less than Anna longed for him? Does the fact that we have had him with us for 30 years and have his Spirit now make you long less or more? O what an indictment of our blindness if the answer is less. I say, let us long for him and yearn for him and look for him with more intensity than Anna and Simeon. Shall we have less devotion than these pre-Christian saints? We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father. And shall we hunger less for his appearing?” (“Fasting for the King’s Coming,” 3).
14) Fasting can be an expression of our generosity and compassion toward those in need.In Isaiah 58:1-3 God issues an indictment against his people. But what Isaiah calls sin looks amazingly like godly religious fervor! Five things are noted:
· they are "seeking God" (v. 2)
· they "delight to know God's ways" (v. 2)
· they ask God for "just decisions" (v. 2)
· they "delight in the nearness of God" (v. 2)
· they fast and humble themselves (v. 3)
Yet their fasting does not please the Lord! Why? The reason is made clear in vv. 3-5. The ethical accompaniments of their fasting are abominable: they are motivated by selfish desire (v. 3b), they are unfair and harsh to those who work for them (v. 3c), they are irritable and contentious and stir up strife and get into fights (v. 4a)! This is not the kind of fast that God chooses or desires. If your fasting leaves you selfish, grumpy, abrasive, angry, and insensitive to the needs of those around you, please, for heaven’s sake (and for the sake of everyone else), eat something!
The fast that God chooses or desires results in several activities. There are thirteen of them but Piper has helpfully reduced them to seven general categories:
(1) In this fasting, we are called to lift the burden of bondage (see vv. 6,9).
(2) In this fasting, we are called to feed the hungry (v. 7a).
(3) In this fasting, we are called to house the homeless (v. 7b).
(4) In this fasting, we are called to clothe the naked (v. 7c).
(5) In this fasting, we are called to be sympathetic; to feel what others feel because we have the same flesh as they do (v. 7d; cf. Heb. 13:3; the point of this latter text is, you have the same flesh they do. So put yourself in their place and feel what they feel.
(6) In this fasting, we are called to put away gestures and words that show contempt for other people (v. 9).
(7) In this fasting, we are called not just to give food, but to give ourselves, our souls, and not just to satisfy the stomach of the poor, but the soul of the afflicted (v. 10).
The results are equally explicit:
(1) If we fast like this, the darkness in our lives will become light (vv. 8a,10b).
(2) This sort of fasting results in physical strengthening (vv. 8b,11b).
(3) God will be in front of us and behind us and in the midst of us with righteousness and glory when we fast his way (vv. 8c,9a).
(4) If we fast like this, God promises to guide us continually (v. 11a).
(5) If we fast like this, God will satisfy our souls (v. 11b).
(6) If we fast like this, God will make us like a well-watered garden with springs that do not fail (v. 11c).
(7) If we fast like this, God will restore the ruins of his city – and his people (v. 12).
15) Fasting is feasting! Or, what to eat when you’re on a fast! The ironic thing about fasting is that it really isn’t about not eating food. It’s about feeding on the fulness of every divine blessing secured for us in Christ. Fasting tenderizes our hearts to experience the presence of God. It expands the capacity of our souls to hear his voice and be assured of his love and be filled with the fulness of his joy. Dallas Willard explains:
“Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food. Through it, we learn by experience that God’s word to us is a life substance, that it is not food (‘bread’) alone that gives life, but also the words that proceed from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). We learn that we too have meat to eat that the world does not know about (John 4:32,34). Fasting unto our Lord is therefore feasting – feasting on him and on doing his will” (Spirit of the Disciplines, 166).
Look again at Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 4. I’m sure Jesus appreciated their concern for his welfare, but he wanted to make a point. So when they insisted that he eat something, his response was startling: “I have food to eat that you do not know about” (4:32). No, Jesus didn’t have a double-meat Big Mac hidden inside his robe. Nor were his words “a clever metaphor, but a genuine reality. Jesus was, in fact, being nourished and sustained by the power of God” (Foster, 56). Wesley Duewel put it this way:
“Fasting in the biblical sense is choosing not to partake of food because your spiritual hunger is so deep, your determination in intercession so intense, or your spiritual warfare so demanding that you have temporarily set aside even fleshly needs to give yourself to prayer and meditation” (Touch the World through Prayer, 97).
The point is that fasting is a feast. Fasting is all about eating! It is about ingesting the Word of God, the beauty of God, the presence of God, the blessings of God. Fasting is all about spiritual gluttony! It is not a giving up of food for its own sake. It is about a giving up of food for Christ’s sake. As Jesus himself made clear in Matthew 6:16-18, either we abstain from food for the praise of men or for the reward of our heavenly Father. The point is, we are always driven to fast because we hunger for something more than food. As strange as it may sound, fasting is motivated by the prospect of pleasure. The heart that fasts cries out, “This I want more than the pleasure of food!” And “this” can be the admiration that men give to people with will power, or it can be the reward we seek from God alone without regard to the praise of men.
D. The Dangers of Fasting
The real danger of fasting is more than the potential physical side effects. Jesus warns us in Matthew 6:16 not to be like the hypocrites. Hypocrites are those who undertake spiritual disciplines, such as fasting, to be seen by men. This is the reward they are after. All of us at some time have felt the satisfaction of this kind of reward: the ego-boost that comes from being admired for our "spirituality" and acknowledged publicly for our "zeal". It truly gratifies the flesh when people make much of our accomplishments, especially our religious accomplishments. Jesus says that if this is the reward that motivates your fasting, you shall surely receive it. But that's all you will receive! If the praise of men is what you desire, you shall have it, but none from God.
Jesus calls this sort of fasting "hypocrisy". Why? Because true, godly fasting is motivated by a heart for God, not human admiration. If these Pharisees wanted to be totally open about their reason for fasting, they should have distributed an explanatory tract which read: "The ultimate reason why we're fasting is to solicit the praise and admiration of men and women." Then they would no longer be hypocrites. It wouldn't make their fasting godly, but it would at least eliminate hypocrisy from their list of sins! Their hypocrisy consists of putting a public face on their fasting which purports to be their way of seeking God's approval when in fact it is their way of seeking man's approval. As Piper explains,
"there are two dangers that these fasting folks have fallen into. One is that they are seeking the wrong reward in fasting, namely, the esteem of other people. They love the praise of men. And the other is that they hide this with a pretense of love for God. Fasting means love for God – hunger for God. So with their actions they are saying that they have a hunger for God. But on the inside they are hungry to be admired and approved by other people. That's the god that satisfies them” (“Fasting for the Reward of the Father,” 3).
Someone might understandably ask at this point, "Does this mean that if someone discovers I’ve been fasting, I’ve sinned or I’m a hypocrite?" No, not necessarily. The value of your fasting is not undermined if someone notices that you skipped dinner. This statement by Jesus does not rule out group fasting either. It is possible to fast with others or it be known that you are fasting and it not be sin or hypocrisy. The deciding factor is your motive for fasting. Simply put, “being seen fasting and fasting to be seen are not the same” (Piper, 74). Being seen fasting is merely an external, and often unavoidable, event. But fasting to be seen is a self-exalting motive of the heart.
What, then, is the "reward" that God promises to give if our motive is only to be seen by Him in secret (v. 18)? God sees us fasting and knows that we are motivated by a deep longing in our hearts for Him and for His purposes to be fulfilled in the earth. He knows that we are not fasting to obtain the applause of people. "He sees that we are acting not out of strength to impress others with our discipline, or even out of a desire to influence others to imitate our devotion. But we have come to God out of weakness to express to him our need and our great longing that he would manifest himself more fully in our lives for the joy of our soul and the glory of his name” (Piper, 77). And when He sees this, He responds. He responds by giving to us more of Himself and the blessings secured for us in Christ. He "rewards" us by answering the prayers we pray in accordance with his instruction in vv. 9-13 (that His name be hallowed, that His kingdom come, that His will be done on earth). Surely God can and does give us other things that we seek through fasting (physical healing, guidance, etc.). But chief among the results of fasting is the exaltation of God's name and the expansion of God's kingdom.
So here’s how to avoid hypocrisy in fasting. If at any point, while fasting, you find yourself thinking, “God will love me more . . . God will surely be impressed with me now!” . . . Get in your car and go eat a Quarter-pounder! If you are in the least way tempted to believe, “God will bless me more . . . He will have no choice but to reward my righteousness!” . . . Go eat the biggest, greasiest pizza you can find! If it crosses your mind, “I’m better than others who don’t fast, and I sure hope they recognize it as clearly as I do!” . . . Go to an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord! As Edith Schaeffer has said,
"Is fasting ever a bribe to get God to pay more attention to the petitions? No, a thousand times no. It is simply a way to make clear that we sufficiently reverence the amazing opportunity to ask help from the everlasting God, the Creator of the universe, to choose to put everything else aside and concentrate on worshiping, asking for forgiveness, and making our requests known – considering His help more important than anything we could do ourselves in our own strength and with our own ideas” (The Life of Prayer, 75-76).
E. How should we Fast?
Now for a few practical guidelines. First of all, a progression should be observed in your fasting, especially if this discipline is new to you and you are unfamiliar with its physical effects. Don’t start out with a two-week water fast! Begin by skipping one meal each day for three to five days and setting aside the money it would have cost to give to the poor. Spend the time praying that you would have used for eating.
Remember also that there are degrees of fasting. There is a regular fast which consists of abstaining from all food and drink except for water (Matt. 4:2-3; Luke 4:2). Apart from supernatural enablement, the body can function only three days without water. A partial fast is when one abstains from some particular kind of food as in the case of Daniel while in Babylon (Dan. 10:3; cf. 1:8,12; also see the Addendum). A liquid fast means that you abstain only from solid foods. Most who choose this path are sustained by fruit juices and the like. A complete or absolute fast that entails no food or liquid of any kind (Ezra 10:6; Esther 4:16; Acts 9:9) should only be for a very short period of time. For anything longer seek medical advice. There is also what can only be called a supernatural fast, as in the case of Moses (Dt. 9:9), who abstained from both food and water for 40 days (enabled to do so only by a miraculous enabling from God).
In the early stages you may get dizzy and have headaches. This is part of the body’s cleansing process and will pass with time. Be sure that you break the fast gradually with fresh fruit and vegetables. Do not overeat after the fast. Chili and pizza may sound good after several days of not eating, but please, exercise a little restraint and say No!
How long you fast is entirely up to you and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In the Bible are examples of fasts that lasted one day or part of a day (Judges 20:26; 1 Samuel 7:6; 2 Samuel 1:12, 3:35; Nehemiah 9:1; Jeremiah 36:6); a one-night fast (Daniel 6:18-24); three-day fasts (Esther 4:16; Acts 9:9), seven-day fasts (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 12:16-23), a fourteen-day fast (Acts 27:33-34), a twenty-one day fast (Daniel 10:3-13), forty-day fasts (Deuteronomy 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8; Matthew 4:2), and fasts of unspecified lengths (Matthew 9:14; Luke 2:37; Acts 13:2, 14:2-3).
Finally, never lose sight of the fact that what you don’t eat or how long you don’t eat isn’t paramount. What you do eat, spiritually speaking, is critical. Feed on God. Don’t simply taste, don’t nibble, don’t snack. Feast on him! Seek him. Cry out to him. Focus on him. Invite him to fill you up “to all the fulness of God” (Eph. 3:19). Entreat him to sustain you and supply you and succour you. Then, when your fast is finished, rejoice in the food he has provided and give him thanks for all good things.
Why did Daniel Fast?
A further word about Daniel’s fast seems appropriate here, insofar as he abstained from “the king’s choice food” and from “wine” because he feared “defilement” (Dan. 1:8). Why did Daniel believe the kings’ food and wine would “defile” him, and is that an important consideration for us today when we choose to fast?
Some argue that the food was ceremonially unclean according to the standards of the Mosaic Law (Lev. 3:17; 11:1-47; 17:10-14). But this would not explain why he refused to drink wine as well. In his commentary on Daniel, C. F. Keil, contends that “their rejection of it was, that the heathen at their feasts offered up in sacrifice to their gods a part of the food and the drink, and thus consecrated their meals by a religious rite; whereby not only he who participated in such a meal participated in the worship of idols, but the meat and the wine as a whole were the meat and wine of an idol sacrifice, partaking of which, according to the saying of the apostle (1 Cor. x.20f.), is the same as sacrificing to devils” (80). But Keil fails to note that this would have been no less the case with vegetables which Daniel was more than happy to eat. They too were regularly consecrated to idols.
Joyce Baldwin suggests that “by eastern standards to share a meal was to commit oneself to friendship; it was of covenant significance (Gen. 31:54; Ex. 24:11; Neh. 8:9-12; cf. Mt. 26:26-28). Those who had thus committed themselves to allegiance accepted an obligation of loyalty to the king. It would seem that Daniel rejected this symbol of dependence on the king because he wished to be free to fulfill his primary obligations to the God he served. The defilement he feared was not so much a ritual as a moral defilement, arising from the subtle flattery of gifts and favours which entailed hidden implications of loyal support, however dubious the king’s future policies might prove to be” (83). The problem with this view is two-fold. First, it isn’t clear why this should be spoken of as “defilement”, and second, as the remainder of the book of Daniel bears witness, Daniel and his friends do in fact become the king’s courtiers, very much dependent on him and in his service.
Perhaps meat and wine were regarded as festival food and thus declining to eat it was a sign of mourning or penitence, certainly an appropriate decision while in exile. But this does not adequately account for Daniel’s reference to “defilement”. Some have argued that he turned down this food for purely ascetic reasons, hoping thereby to hear and know and love God more intimately. That’s certainly possible, but it is also entirely conjecture insofar as no such reason is given by Daniel.
I am inclined to agree with John Goldingay that “pagan food and drink simply epitomize the pagan uncleanness associated with exile (cf. Isa. 52:11). This reflects the fact that what we eat and drink, like what we wear and how we speak, generally constitutes an outward expression of our self-identity and commitments. . . . Daniel’s abstinence thus symbolizes his avoiding assimilation” (19). In other words, eating the palace provisions, at least in Daniel’s way of thinking, entailed a compromise of faith that getting a new name, learning Babylonian culture, and serving in a Babylonian court did not.
We must remember that Israel's own food laws and dietary restrictions were designed, in part, to highlight and preserve their distinctiveness as God’s people over against all other peoples. Insofar as God’s people are no longer identified in terms of national or ethnic distinctives (the church is a trans-national, spiritual organism) and given the fact that the dietary laws of Israel have been set aside (cf. Acts 10 and elsewhere), today we need not concern ourselves with the sort of “defilement” that Daniel faced. We should also keep in mind the apostle Paul’s instruction that “nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom. 14:14) and that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).
Finally, we should also take note of Daniel’s spirit and tone in declining the king’s food. A person of principle and deep moral conviction who steadfastly refuses to compromise need not be rude, discourteous, or abandon common sense to make a point. One can be holy without being obnoxious.