The spiritual discipline of fasting

By Steve Johnson

In continental Europe in the 16th Century, the Protestant Reformers were critical of the widespread practice of fasting amongst Roman Catholics. The Reformers felt that fasting had become a purely external observance that was only adhered to because it was seen as a sacramental work necessary for salvation. In a colorful act of protest, the Swiss Reformation started in 1522 when a dozen of theologian Huldrych Zwingli’s friends feasted on smoked sausage on the first Sunday in Lent (the season when the church required people to fast from eating meat).

According to a 2004 study conducted by the Barna Research Group, the people most likely to engage in religious fasts are adherents of non-Christian faiths. In fact, non-Christian people of faith are twice as likely as Christians to engage in fasting. There’s a long history of finding an excuse to neglect this Spiritual discipline. Methodist movement co-founder John Wesley wrote: “Of all the means of grace there is scarce any concerning which men have run into greater extremes, than that of…religious fasting.” Likewise in his book Sinning Like a Christian, Bishop William Willimon notes that: “While fasting was an approved Christian discipline, excessive fasting was condemned as a sign of sin in body and soul. The Christian moralists knew that the compulsive and aggressive ‘faster’ could be guilty of the sin of Pride.”

Yet historically, Methodist practice has varied from that of their fellow Protestants and evangelicals. According to The United Methodist Church website: “Fasting has been a part of Methodism from its earliest days.” Yet most United Methodists are as unfamiliar with the history and practice of fasting as the rest of Christians in America. In light of this, let’s look at: the Biblical basis for, the Methodist history of, and practical tips for observing the Spiritual discipline of fasting.

So what is fasting?

In Devotional Life in the Wesleyan Tradition, Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies professor Steve Harper noted “the fundamental definition for fasting in the Bible: to abstain from food.” Fasting is when a believer voluntarily abstains from food for spiritual purposes like: focusing on prayer or ministry to the needs of others; seeking deliverance, protection, or guidance; or expressing concern, grief, humility, repentance, or worship.

Under the Old Covenant, the Lord commanded one regular fast for every Israelite on Yom Kippur. “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must fast and not do any work—whether native-born or an alien among you —because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of rest, and you must fast; it is a lasting ordinance” (Leviticus 16:29-31).

Four additional national fasts initially looked back (respectively) to: the breaking of the city wall of Jerusalem in the fourth month (2 Kings 25:3-4), the destruction of Jerusalem in the fifth month (Jeremiah 52:12-15), the assassination of the men of Judah in the seventh month (2 Kings 25:25), and the siege of Jerusalem in the tenth month (2 Kings 25:1). Yet the Lord ordered that the mood on these established days of fasting be changed in order to celebrate the salvation and transformation he had accomplished for them. “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.’ ”

While national fasts were expected to be observed by every member of God’s chosen nation, other fasts are better characterized as congregational fasts. The prophet Joel wrote: “Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly…” (Joel 2:15-16a). Likewise, in Acts 13:2 the members of the church at Antioch “were worshiping the Lord and fasting…”

Yet some might argue that just because examples can be found of a practice in the Bible, that is not the same thing as a command. Yet fasting is commanded in the Old and New Testaments. “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning” (Joel 2:12). Fasting was not only commanded, it was expected by no less than Jesus himself: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18, emphasis added).

The first thing that John Wesley did to prepare to receive the Lord’s Supper on Sunday was to fast for the purpose of focusing his attention on God. Wesley also refused to ordain a man to the Methodist ministry who did not regularly fast every Wednesday and Friday. Yet he did not believe fasting was a spiritual discipline reserved for only ministers or the most devout Methodists. When Wesley drafted “The General Rules of the Methodist Church,” he noted that “It is expected of all who desire to continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, by attending upon all the ordinances of God, such are: the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; and fasting or abstinence.”

Wesley’s main concern was to advocate fasting as a spiritual discipline, and he found that Scripture and early Church writings indicated the most common span was for one day (from morning until evening). These ancient Christian writings further revealed that Wednesdays and Fridays were the days they reserved for fasting each week. (Wesley fasted on Fridays for the bulk of his adult life, excepting a period of thirteen years in which he fasted on Wednesdays too.) Wesley affirmed the benefits of fasting for those who were prone to gluttony or drunkenness, as well as any person who wished supplemental, focused times of prayer. Indeed, Wesley sought to stress the link between the spiritual discipline of fasting and the spiritual discipline of prayer.

The connection between fasting and prayer and the personal necessity of prayer should prompt us to see that fasting is not reserved for one season alone in the church year. Yet for many it has. Fasting has been viewed as special and unusual. In Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology, theology and ethics professor Thomas C. Oden notes that Christ’s forty day period of fasting “came to prefigure the Lenten season of self-examination.” But while fasting during Lent is surely better than not fasting at all during the year, its practice should be viewed as a normal and regular one. Harper remarked that: “Fasting is still a legitimate means of demonstrating he ultimacy of spiritual concerns. For the church, it could be now, as then, that God would bless.”

 

So how and when should you fast?

A partial fast (something Wesley referred to as “abstinence”) may be the safest form of fasting for most people. Practically speaking, a partial fast means restricting yourself from certain types of food. Once he reached adulthood and assumed his preaching ministry, John the Baptist seems to have observed a permanent partial fast as his “food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego fasted from the royal Babylonian food and wine for ten days, requesting “nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink” (Daniel 1:12).

The purpose behind their partial fast seems to have been a spiritual, protective act that symbolized their holy separation from Babylon while reminding them that they were dependent on God for sustenance. You may recall that: “At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food” (Daniel 1:15).

In a similar fashion, The Conference Minutes of 1744 record these words of Wesley: “I purpose generally to eat only vegetables on Friday, and to take only toast and water in the mornings.” Partial fasting may be the only permissible type for: diabetics, expectant mothers, nursing mothers, or people whether other particular physical conditions. Even if you do not fall under any of these categories, partial fasting is a great way to start if you’ve never fasted before.

A normal fast requires you to refrain from all food, but not from water. Your body cannot function normally without water for longer than 72 hours. During Christ’s tempting by the devil in the desert: “After fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry.” Likewise Luke 4:2 states that Jesus “ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them He was hungry.” Since neither parallel passage (nor even the parallel account in Mark 1:12-13) stated that Jesus was thirsty, he probably drank water during those 40 days and nights. When Wesley was feeling weak on a fast day, he would allow himself some water, tea, or broth. (The sodium content in modern-day beef or chicken broth is beneficial in maintaining proper electrolyte levels amongst fasters on low carbohydrate diets like the Atkins Diet and drinking plenty of water will help prevent anyone from becoming dehydrated.) In order to keep from depriving their bodies from all nutrient content, some Christians refrain from eating solid food but continue to drink fruit juice or vegetable juice. This is most popular type of fasting amongst Christians.

An absolute fast means not eating or drinking anything, including water. Esther had all the Jews gathered to fast for her with these instructions: “Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do” (Esther 4:16). Ezra “ate no food and drank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles” (Ezra 10:6). After the risen Christ appeared to Paul: “For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything” (Acts 9:9).

Wesley acknowledged there are times when you are so focused on praying during your fast that you will not eat or drink anything. Consult with your doctor before any type of fasting, particular an absolute fast.

Once you have settled on the type of fast, commit to a day when you will fast and settle on the specific spiritual purpose of your fast. Next, confess to God any fear or anxiety related to fasting. Rather than merely setting aside a set day each week, you may also wish to commit to fast whenever prompted by the Holy Spirit, which could result in less or more fasting than once a week. Whenever and however you choose to fast, my hope is that establishing this spiritual discipline in your own life will draw you closer to Jesus who (after fasting for 40 days) withstood the devil’s temptations.

Steve Johnson has been active in the renewal movement in the Southern Baptist Convention. For the past 12 years he pastored a church in Baltimore, where Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury formed the first Methodist Church in the United States). Now working in Charlottesville, VA as a Freelance Writer, he can be reached via Steve@StevePierceJohnson.com

 

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