How and Why to Practice Fasting

Christian Life & Theology, Podcast Episodes

Have you ever fasted? Maybe you’ve thought about fasting but weren’t sure where or how to start. Maybe you thought only “hyper spiritual” people fasted. But in Scripture, we see tangible examples of people fasting in all stages of life! Even Jesus – who had all the strength He needed for every task – fasted as an example for His disciples, and His statements about fasting were “when” not “if”!

In this episode of Verity, we discuss what the Bible says about fasting and how to practically undergo your first fasting experience. We also discuss why we fast in the first place!

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Transcription

Phylicia: Welcome to Verity. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer, an author, speaker, and Bible teacher. 

Today, we’re going to talk about fasting. I have only fasted personally a few times in my spiritual life. All of those were very short periods of time. But I think fasting is a practice that I want to make a part of my own spiritual life on a regular basis, partially because of what we see in Scripture and the example of fasting that we’re going to talk about today. But also, through the rich history of this practice in the lives of believers that I want to emulate. So, of course, we have the biblical examples. But when you look through church history, you can’t help but see this legacy of people whose spiritual lives included prayer and fasting. Now, of course, there are other religions that practice fasting as well. But in Christianity, fasting serves a purpose of lament, of drawn to repentance, and mostly of coming to the Lord in humility, and recognizing that He is God and we are not.

Some of the people who are known for fasting are John Wesley. He was known to integrate fasting into his spiritual life. John Knox, one of the things I think is fascinating about Knox is that Queen Mary is said to have made mention of his spiritual life saying that she feared Knox’s prayers more than the armies of Scotland, because he was known to fast and pray on a weekly basis. Now, obviously, we aren’t these amazing spiritual leaders of church history. But what we do know is that each of these people were normal humans, who had a supernatural capacity to accomplish what God had called them to do. I would argue that the reason that they had that capacity is because of the time they spent in God’s presence, both in prayer and in the Word, but also in fasting. That’s why we’re going to touch on this today, in this shorter episode of Verity podcast. If you have questions about fasting and what that looks like how to start, this episode is for you. 

What exactly is fasting? I think a lot of us first hear about fasting in context of Lent. Since the holiday of Lent, the church holiday, has become more popular in recent years as nondenominational churches have adopted more liturgical practices, we’ve become familiar with going without things in order to draw close to the Lord. What’s interesting is that most of the time this isn’t food. Most of the time people are “fasting social media,” or “fasting shopping” or something else. Those things are very good. However, real biblical fasting is to fast from food. It doesn’t mean that fasting other things isn’t important, but it’s not the same. It’s different. Fasting food is the example that we have in Scripture. It’s going without food for a time, a designated period of time, in order to draw near to the Lord in prayer, and sometimes specifically, pray over an issue that’s on your heart. So, a specific issue that you have been impressed to intercede for or to seek the Lord’s face over. 

There are two types of fasting. They are partial fasts, such as Daniel’s Fasts of rich foods and meat, basically vegetarian fast that he did. Or, you have a complete fast. This is what Jesus did in the wilderness, what we see some of the disciples doing, what we see in the Old Testament, which is abstaining from all forms of food, and just drinking water, or sometimes broth, or juice. Now, the Bible is full of passages about fasting. Judges 20:26 says, “When all the people of Israel, the whole army went up and came to Bethel and wept, they sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord.” The people of Israel inquired of the Lord for the Ark of the Covenant God was there in those days. So, the purpose of this fast was lament and seeking the Lord’s face for wisdom in the decision that they were going to be making. We go forward to Ezra 10:6 and it shows, Ezra fasting again in lament, and appealing for repentance of the people, and for revival. In Jonah 3, we see that, there is fasting and mourning over sin as a consequence of Jonah’s preaching. 2 Samuel, we see David fasting and pleading with God for his son’s life. His fasting and mourning over his sin, and also fasting to intercede. In all through the Psalms, we see this example of fasting set forth.

Now, what’s interesting is, in Isaiah, we’re going to look at Isaiah 58, is that the concept of fasting, though a principle all throughout the Bible, isn’t just fasting to put on some spiritual maturity or to appear more holy, which Jesus talks about in Matthew 6. But in Isaiah 58, it says, “Is not this the fast that I choose to lose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked to cover him and not to hide yourself from your own flesh, then show your light break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up speedily. Your righteousness shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” So, I read a little further than verse 6, actually read through verse 8. 

But what the Lord is saying through Isaiah here is that, you can fast, and you can pray, and you can sacrifice as much as you want, but if your heart is not aligned with the Lord’s, that fasting is useless. It’s just an outward expression. So, if you are fasting, and praying, and pursuing these spiritual disciplines, but you are abandoning the oppressed and the homeless, and you aren’t paying attention to the needs of people around you, then you are not fasting in accordance with the Spirit of God. You are just fasting for yourself.

So, let’s go forward now to Matthew 6, where Jesus talks about this exact thing in a different context when He’s confronting the spiritual leaders of the day. He says, “And when you fast,” notice that He says, when. not if. “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. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that you’re 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.” This is actually the third time in Matthew 6 that Jesus says, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” What do we know about studying the Bible? When we see things in threes, we should pay attention that repetition means that this is very important, this is powerful.

He’s basically saying in these three passages, He talks about giving, praying and fasting, not to do it publicly for attention and celebration, but to do it privately for the sake of the Lord, for your relationship with the Lord. So, this isn’t about appearing holier or making yourself into something greater than you are. The heart of fasting is humbling oneself before the Lord. That really is the motivation to a fast, to humble yourself before the Lord, and oftentimes to appeal to Him for a specific purpose. 

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This brings us to why we fast. It is to humble ourselves, but also it has to do with lamentation or repentance. Lament is something that’s an often forgot in spiritual practice. It’s grieving over sin, loss or division. You can lament sin like David did. You could lament loss, so experiencing grief over the loss of a loved one or a sickness and illness, accident, financial loss. They can be grieving division in the church or a need for revival. Fasting can be a part of the grieving process in interceding for revival and restoration. You may be fasting to lament for repentance, but you could also fast and lament over the brokenness of this world and asking the Lord to intercede into a situation. In both cases, you’re really humbling yourself and inviting dependency on the Lord, inviting the power of God into that situation, intentionally surrendering to Him, and depriving yourself of food for a set period of time in order to focus your attention on the spiritual and to make yourself more attentive to God’s movements. 

The few times that I have fasted, and I say a few times, because the recent years of my life, I have often been pregnant or breastfeeding. So, during those times, fasting food was not appropriate. But now that I’m not in that season at the moment, it’s something that I am planning to integrate into my own spiritual walk again. Earlier in my walk when I was practicing this on occasion, and working full time by the way, I would add, [giggles] which does add an element to fasting that can make it a little bit difficult, the point of it is to direct your attentions to the Lord. When I was not eating food– and by the way, I love food. When I was not eating food, every time I had a hunger pain or I thought I want a snack, or oh, I want coffee. It directed my attention back to the Lord. It reminded me, “Why am I going without food today?” Oh, it’s to pray for this specific issue. It’s to remind me of my dependency in the Lord, and remind me to lift up this issue to Him. It’s saying I take this issue so seriously that I’m going to go without today in order to bring that issue to the Lord and remind myself through the loss of food of how seriously I take this, how seriously I take my walk with God, and how much I need His strength in order to intercede on this issue, and in order to make it through this day. 

Specifically, when I was fasting while working full time, that meant not having the office donuts, and not going to the office coffeemaker, and turning down lunch dates, or only bringing broth to drink during the day, so that I could still focus on my tasks. It wasn’t always easy, but I specifically remember fasting over a period of time when Josh and I were trying to get engaged, and he needed a job. He applied to no less than 35 jobs and he was not finding anything. So, I would walk down to the prayer chapel, I worked at a Christian university. Walk down to the prayer chapel, and pray on my lunch breaks, and there were a couple different times when I fasted for a day or two as we were walking through that season. I remember just how powerful that experience was in turning my attention to the Lord. I focused to Him, and not just becoming ambivalent about the issue that we were walking through.

So, the point of fasting is lament and/or repentance, and ultimately to humble oneself before the Lord. We have so many biblical examples that show us how to fast, what to fast, why to fast, and of course we have Jesus as the ultimate example who was God, and yet, He also fasted, and gave us that example. He also says here in Matthew 6 that fasting is really important, that it’s not if you fast, but when you fast.

So, in this final part of this episode, I want to talk about how to start fasting. Because if you are starting out and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, that sounds really hard,” I’ll tell you, yes. It can be very hard. But I still think that you’re very capable of integrating this if you take it a little at a time. I would encourage starting out with a short fast. Maybe, even half a day or one day from breakfast to dinner, you can start out with something small like that, where you’re letting go of coffee, and lunch, and snacks for that eight-hour period of time, and instead focusing that time on prayer. You could do a one- or two-day fast, so extending a little bit longer, or maybe try a partial fast where you’re only eating vegetables like Daniel, instead of eating everything that you normally eat. 

Make sure you prepare yourself for a fast by drinking plenty of water. This is a good idea all the time. But drink plenty of water before and during. That’s so, so important because your body is going to need that. Also, make sure that the day before you start a fast, you aren’t bingeing on Oreos, and Doritos, and storing up your food for fast, because that actually can make you feel sicker and cause you to crash. Particularly if you consume a lot of caffeine and sugar the day before you start a fast, it would be much better to transition to a vegetarian diet the couple days before you start a fast, and then go through your fast whether that’s a day or two.

Once you’ve attempted to shorter fast, then you can ease into longer periods at a time. Again, the transition is really important, water is really important to sustain you for that time. I have done broth-based fasts before. So, I felt that was important when I was fasting at work because I needed the protein in order to pay attention. At that point in my life, I was drinking a lot of caffeine. So, coming off of the caffeine caused me to be really tired at work, and the broth protein really, really helped with that. Something to consider is, if you do drink a lot of caffeine, you’re going to be off caffeine for your fast. So, I would recommend weaning off of caffeine about a week or so before you start your fast. Otherwise, it’s going to be a pretty steep crash, and it’ll be hard for you to sustain your fast for that day or two. 

Another thing I encourage is accountability. It would be great if you could fast with someone else for your first day. I think that having that accountability, someone to talk with, and pray with as you’re walking through it, really helps to stick with it. It can work really well to do this with your spouse if you’re married, or even your boyfriend or girlfriend because having your spouse with you, I think it’s hard when you’re fasting and your spouse isn’t, and yet, you might be cooking the meals or sitting at dinner and everybody’s eating. So, if you’re both fasting, that can be a really great way to have accountability and to walk through it together. Now, obviously, I have fasted when Josh was not fasting, and it was possible but I’m saying that is helpful if you both happened to be fasting even if you’re praying for different things.

Lastly, don’t rush the process. Remember that this is a spiritual discipline. It’s slow, it takes time. Concentrate on other spiritual disciplines alongside fasting. Things like Bible study, journaling, prayer, stillness and silence, and worshiping through music, these are all great spiritual disciplines to incorporate into your fast. I love the book, Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. It’s fantastic. He has a whole chapter on fasting that would be so helpful. But then, all of his other chapters about spiritual disciplines, like I just mentioned, would work super well coordinated with your fast. 

I hope this was helpful. If you’re thinking about fasting, the show notes for this episode will be on my blog at phyliciamasonheimer.com. I’ll also have some links including a link to a fantastic series of articles by Desiring God on fasting and how to do it, how to prepare your body. Especially if you are on medications, it’s really important that you talk with your doctor before you choose to do a fast because you don’t want to be removing obviously your medications or necessary nutrients from your body when that may be necessary for you. So, be sure to check with your doctor or holistic practitioner before you choose to do a fast if you are on any medications or supplements that could be compromised if you are no longer eating food. All the show notes again will be on the blog and the transcription will be up within a week or two. Thanks for listening you, guys. 

*NOTE: This was not discussed in the episode, but if you have a history of eating disorders, it is unadvisable to pursue fasting food until you know you are in a good mental space, have accountability for the fasting process, and are able to participate in a fast without triggering past habits and trauma. Try fasting from something other than food, such as social media, shopping, or something that will not be a trigger for you.