Understanding Fasting


*Originally published in Renovare by Richard Foster

Fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity. Remember, there is nothing wrong with these normal functions in life; it is just that there are times when we set them aside in order to concentrate. Once we understand this, we can see both the reasonableness of fasting as well as the broader dimensions to it.

Ordinarily we think of fasting from food, which is the normal way the Bible speaks of it. But we can fast from many things. We can fast from media. We can fast from noise, hurry, and crowds. We can fast from excessive talk. We can fast from our technological devices, our computers and our cell phones and more. Whatever in our lives is producing an addiction in us is a prime area for fasting. In this way we are learning to depend upon God alone.

Throughout Scripture, fasting is a well-recognized spiritual discipline ranging from Daniel’s partial fast1 to Jesus’s absolute fast2. The list of biblical personages who fasted reads like a ​who’s who” of Scripture: Abraham’s servant when he was seeking a bride for Isaac; Moses on Mount Sinai; Hannah when she prayed for a child; David on two separate occasions; Elijah after his victory over Jezebel; Ezra when he was mourning Israel’s faithlessness; Nehemiah as he was preparing for the trip back to Israel; Esther when God’s people were threatened with extermination; Daniel on numerous occasions; the people of Nineveh, including the cattle (involuntarily, no doubt); Jesus as he began his public ministry; Paul at the point of his conversion; the Christians at Antioch as they sent off Paul and Barnabas for their mission endeavor; Paul and the others as they appointed elders in all the churches; and more. In his teaching on the subject, Jesus simply assumed that the children of the kingdom would fast and was giving instruction on how it could be done with spiritual success3. Not only that, but many of the great Christians throughout history fasted: Martin Luther and John Calvin, John Knox and John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney, and many, many others.

We fast for many reasons. We fast because it reveals the things that control us. We fast because it helps to give us balance in life. We fast because there is an urgent need. Most important of all, we fast because God calls us to it. We have heard the kol Yahweh, the voice of the Lord, and we must obey.

In Jesus’s day, fasting was a well-understood practice. Today, however, there is an abysmal ignorance of even the most elementary aspects of fasting. Hence, we need basic instruction in how to go about fasting: how we begin a fast, how long we should fast, how much water we need to drink during a fast, how we break a fast, and much more.

While the physical aspects of fasting intrigue us, we need to remember that the major work of fasting is in the realm of the spirit. The spiritual discipline of fasting can bring breakthroughs in the heart and mind that will not happen in any other way. It is a means of God’s grace for the continuing formation of the human personality into the likeness of Christ.

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