Disclaimer. I’m not the most disciplined person, just ask my wife who has been tasked by the Almighty to block every unnecessary tech purchase I can imagine. Still, I am still shocked by the relative dearth of resources for so fundamental a spiritual practice as fasting. With the exception of what amounts to a name drop on some denominational websites and a blip here or there in the Christian media, fasting is persona non grata in much of our conversations and resourcing on faith today.
While fasting may not be widespread in contemporary Christian culture, the practice has deep roots in the Judeo Christian tradition we have received.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, fasted two days a week as a young man and continued the practice, in a moderated way, into his later years. He considered fasting an act of piety and went so far as to describe it as “a means which God himself has ordained.”
In typical fashion, Wesley suggests moderation in the use of the practice:
“Therefore care is to be taken, whenever we fast, to proportion the fast to our strength.”
Heeding such advice, one of our first questions should be “can I safely fast?” There are some excellent medical reasons not to fast. Seeing as at least some of Wesley’s medical advice is suspect(1), I will direct you to this article and, of course, your personal physician. If you determine you can fast but find yourself very weak or you start feeling terrible; listen to your body, drink fluids and and eat something. While some measure of discomfort is to be expected, endangering your health is not a good idea.
People can practice a food fast in different ways: absolute (no food or drink), regular (only water), partial (water and juice) and still others might only avoid certain rich foods (meats). Absolute fasts are often discouraged without consulting one’s physician because of the dangers of dehydration. This practical article on preparing for the Yom Kippur fast is pretty helpful with its emphasis on thoughtful planning and personal preparation.
Fasting as Spiritual Practice
For those who can safely fast as a spiritual practice, there are a variety of ways to approach the discipline. Wikipedia provides a quick overview of the practice as found in Scripture and the traditions of different Christian sects. Despite the fasting heroics of Jesus, a 24 hour fast in which one misses two meals, typically eating dinner one night and missing the following breakfast and lunch, is more sensible for most and far more common.
Christian fasting is most often accompanied by other acts of piety like prayer and Scripture reading. Fasting done outside of some spiritual practice can devolve into something unintended. Opportunities for prayer, reflection and possibly even action (writing letters) should be considered and pursued.
Given how earnestly we talk about rekindling discipleship in our churches, it’s hard to understand why this vein of Christianity seems neglected in favor of an obsession with attending to the remaining vestiges of the attractional church. Any reformation of the church that we might hope to achieve will inevitably fail if it lacks spiritual practices that shape and change the hearts of the people within.
In a consumeristic culture where our inability to tell ourselves “no” could be defined as our most serious social sin, a practice tooled specifically to improve self-discipline might be an area worth our serious investment.
When practiced with the passion individuals like Wesley exhibited, perhaps tempered a bit by modern sensibilities, fasting could well be a key for some to finding new freedom in Christ from the gods of this world: you know, our technology, celebrity culture and that dreaded feeling that we are never quite good enough.
Image Credit: “Christ in the Wilderness” by Ivan Kramskoy, Public Domain.
- In Primitive Physick, Wesley suggests the following “cure” for baldness: “Rub the Part Morning and Evening, with Onions, ‘till it is red; and rub it afterwards with Honey.”