We recently led the church on a week of fasting. People who had not fasted before took on the challenge to fast and pray for a number of days and the results were amazing. It changed all their lives and they can’t wait to do another one. Jesus called doing the will of God “food” (John 4:34). As someone who fasted regularly, the Son knew how to eat well from the Father’s table.

Perhaps for too long fasting has been thought of as something that “super Christians” do – a strange breed of believers who really enjoy starving themselves. Or it’s the proverbial last resort. When all else fails, I will skip lunch; a bizarre “God will hear me if I’m hungry” theology which, for many Christians, puts their prayers into bold print, making them easier for a short-sighted God to read.

But I’m sure that fasting is supposed to be normal. In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus says, “when you give…”; then “when you pray…”; and then “when you fast…” So fasting was to be as routine to the Christian as prayer and the giving of our tithe. Don’t get all hungry on me now, but fasting is actually a “when” not an “if” issue.

There are three basic components of fasting in Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 6. First of all, fasting accompanies prayer. It is a time of being intimate with the Father. Fasting does not necessarily move mountains, but it is the biblical method of moving the Christian to God. Curiously, I have known folks who have undergone a fast but not especially prayed. This is normally called a diet, isn’t it? While the prospect of dropping a dress or collar size may well be attractive, weight loss is never a genuine by product of fasting as the body is ever so keen to put it all back on again later. If your fast is not allowing you time in prayer, perhaps because of work or family commitments, then maybe you need to rethink the timing. Fasting is about praying.

Secondly, fasting is about sacrifice. I have read all kinds of different approaches to fasting – various rules and regulations, what you can drink and what you can’t, and for how long, etc. After fasting forty days, we read that Jesus was hungry (Matthew 4:1) and so it is obvious that fasting is to go without food, rather than any strange notion that it means abstaining from TV or chocolate. Jesus said that the person fasting would need to hide their discomfort (verse 17), and anyone needing to hide the fact that they haven’t seen ‘Corrie’ all week definitely needs to pray! As for drinking, we normally recommend that people should drink whatever they wish, although others might insist that it should be water only. Unfortunately, this means that the faster is often suffering from caffeine detox rather than drawing close to God, which would seem counter-productive. My prayer partner used to fast by cooking a meal and then liquidating it before having a gloriously long drink (yeah, I thought that was cheating too). But the faster must decide for themselves the balance of their hunger struggle over being able to truly pray, particularly if they are going to fast for days at a time. Some should seek medical advice if they have doubts about their physical ability to fast, although never ask your lukewarm Christian friend if you should. They’ll always tell you not to…

Finally, the fast should be broadly secret. A friend of mine was regularly invited to social meals on his fast, and he would usually make up some deception as to why he couldn’t come. To break the ninth commandment doesn’t sound like what Jesus is talking about! In fact, He is warning us against doing ‘acts of righteousness’ for others to see (verse 1). The ‘secrecy’ factor associated with fasting has actually led to there being a dearth of those able to model prayer in this way. Pastors leading a church into the lifestyle of fasting have had to blow their cover and trust God that their reward is still valid. There’s no need to get proud because you’re fasting anyway; it’s just normal Christianity. But best to keep it quiet where you can.

I’m sure that fasting is the missing spiritual discipline that would suddenly make Christianity work as it should for so many. Is God speaking to you about this? Have a cake while you think it over.

Originally published in JOY Magazine, September 2009

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