Fasting is one of the most misunderstood and ignored of all of the spiritual practices. That doesn't mean you shouldn't give it a try. The Scriptures don't command fasting, but Jesus practiced it, and he spoke about it as if he assumed his followers would do it.
The challenge with fasting in our culture is that we tend to associate it with dieting and health trends. But that's not what fasting as a spiritual practice is all about.
In his book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, Richard Foster outlines four reasons to fast:
- It's an act of worship.
The primary purpose of fasting is to worship God. Any physical benefits, success in prayer, or spiritual insight come second to the opportunity to connect with God by experiencing your dependence on him.
- It reveals what controls you.
Foster wrote: "We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately . . . Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear—if they are within us, they will surface during fasting." That may sound a little scary, but you have to know in which areas you're weak before you can pursue growth in those areas.
- It reminds you that you are sustained by God.
When Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness after forty days of fasting, the enemy tempted him to turn stone into bread in order to sustain himself. Matthew 4:4 says: "Jesus answered, 'It is written: "Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."’” Fasting offers us the chance to focus on how God is our source of life.
- It brings balance to your life.
Fasting provides a concrete reminder of what's most important in life. We all tend to let our appetites take precedence. The act of fasting acts as a kind of reset button. Yes, we need food to sustain us, but that doesn't mean we should organize our lives around our appetites.
How do you fast?
A three-day fast in which you consume only water is pretty standard as a spiritual practice. But if you're interested in just trying it out, it's probably a good idea to start small. A one-day or even half-day fast can be a good first step.
Pick a day (a weekend day is probably best if you've never fasted before). Make a plan for how you'll read Scripture and pray periodically during your fasting day. And be ready to give yourself some grace: fasting will probably be easier than you imagined but, like Richard Foster wrote, it's like to reveal the things that control you. It may surface negative emotions like anger or pride. That's a great opportunity to reflect on ways you'd like to grow and connect with your heavenly Father.
So, don't make the mistake of ignoring fasting as a spiritual practice. It may seem odd. It may even seem a little unnecessary. But, more than just about any other practice, it can have a ripple effect on your spiritual life. By focusing you on your connection to God, it can add fuel to your prayer life, make your Bible reading richer, and reset your priorities.
Most important, though, it's a powerful way to worship your heavenly Father.