Conversatio Divina

Part 5 of 16

A Sacred, Grievous Moment

How Our Reluctance to Fast Reveals a Whole-Body Disconnect

Scot McKnight

01.  Introduction

Christianity has perennially had a problem with the human body. At times in the history of the church, Christians have viewed desires and the body as the enemy. In the past few years, the question seems to have been, “What’s the body got to do with spirituality?” Yet we are finding today a surging interest in what can only be called embodied spirituality. Young Christians express worship with their hands aloft and their eyes closed; more and more find spiritual strength in candles and icons, and some churches are bringing back kneelers. Other churches encourage releasing creative gifts for acting, painting, and art. Fasting, too, is on the rise.

What is this all about? Thomas Howard, an evangelical who first converted to Anglicanism and then to Catholicism, gets it right with these words: “We are all sacramentalists whether our theology admits it or not: we like physical contact with history.” Thomas Howard, The Night Is Far Spent: A Treasury of Thomas Howard, selected by Vivian W. Dudro. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007, 62.Indeed, there is a rise—let’s call it what it really is, a revival—of the value of embodied spirituality. We worship God and we love God in our bodies and with our bodies and in concrete, physical, tangible, palpable ways. Deep in the yearning of humans is the need to “do spirituality” with the body.

This raises a problem for fasting. Fasting is whole-body stuff. Many of us are much more comfortable with candles and icons and kneelers than we are with throwing our bodies into this business of worship and prayer. When it comes down to it, this revival of embodied spirituality has one major territory to conquer for Westerners. We’ve got a body problem. . . . Body talk, my expression for what fasting is designed to be, flows out of our body image. Until we have a healthier body image, an image of the body united with the spirit, it is not likely that body talk (fasting) will occur as it should.

[Fasting should become] natural and inevitable when you and I encounter a grievous sacred moment that summons us to fast. These kinds of sacred moments confront us annually, but we often don’t respond to them with fasting because that practice has become so unnatural. Why? Because many of us don’t see a connection between spirituality and body. Even for the increasing number of people who do see the connection—or at least who want to make that connection—acclimating the body to fasting as a natural response to sacred moments takes time. Since fasting flows out of the natural connection of body and soul, we will do well to look briefly at various body images at work in our Western culture. We begin with the Bible’s wondrous emphasis on our organic unity.

02.  Biblical Body Image: Organic Unity

What strikes a reader today is how significant the body is in the Bible. The ancient Israelites and early Christians “did spirituality” in the body and with the body. What strikes observers of the church is how insignificant the body has become, though there is evidence of a yearning for a more embodied spirituality. Let’s take a quick look at what the Bible says and clarify that what we need to see is this: in the Bible, humans are organic unities.

The Bible uses a bursting bundle of specific terms for humans, and these terms overlap with one another.Still the best study of the anthropology of the Old Testament is that of Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, trans. M. Kohl. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974. The singular contribution of the ancient Israelites to understanding humans is found in Genesis 1:27All Scripture quotations taken from the new Revised standard version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Emphasis added.)

Humans, this text tells us, are “images” (I prefer the Greek word, Eikon) of God. As God’s Eikons, we represent God on earth and govern this world for God. In addition, we engage in relationships with God, self, others, and the entire world. These roles of governing and relating are what it means to be an Eikon. And we do what God has called us to do in this world in a physical body. Like a diamond, an embodied Eikon is a multifaceted organic unity of heart and mind and soul and spirit and body. As a diamond refracts light only when all the sides are working, so we need every dimension of who we are to be at work. But we have minimized the body so much in our spirituality that fasting has become unnatural.

There are many “faces,” or terms for the Eikon, in the Bible. Each of these terms is important, but it is even more important to understand their organic unity:

We begin with the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), where we find the following terms describing the various dimensions of our organic unity:

soul (nepesh)
flesh (basar)
spirit (ruach)
heart (leb)

In the New Testament, we find:

heart (kardia)
soul (psyche)
flesh (sarx)
body (soma)
mind (nous)
spirit (pneuma)
will (thelema)

Let it be said again: in the Bible, all these terms work together to form an organic unity. The Eikon is composed of these things, but the Eikon is a unified person. What has happened is that we have cut the multifaceted diamond into two parts, the good part and the not-so-good part, assigning the various terms for the Eikon to one of two parts. The two parts are “body” and “soul/spirit.” The body is the not-so-good part, and the soul is the good, eternal part. Dividing the Eikon, or person, into two parts is what makes fasting so difficult today. Since fasting is a very physical thing, it must be assigned to the body. And since fasting concerns only the body, it can’t be that important, we think. Here’s what the two parts look like:


Body Soul/Spirit
Body soul
flesh spirit
heart mind
earthly life will
fasting eternal life
no fasting


If fasting is the natural response of a unified person to a sacred moment, then the moment we relegate bodies to the unimportant part of our existence we also cease to see the value of fasting. If we want to discover the deepest dimensions of the Christian tradition of fasting, we will have to reconnect the “body” column with the “soul/spirit” column. When that happens, we will encounter a sacred moment, and we will fast naturally.

Unfortunately, we have some work to do, and much of it has to do with recapturing a healthy body image. We have to do this work because dualism has worked like yeast into everything we do. . . .

03.  Fasting as Body Talk

What we think of our bodies matters, so maybe you should take a good look in the mirror and in your heart and ask yourself what kind of body image you have. Your body image opens a window into your spirituality.

The thesis of this work is simple: a unified perception of body, soul, spirit, and mind creates a spirituality that includes the body. For this kind of body image, fasting is natural. Fasting is the body talking what the spirit yearns for, what the soul longs for, and what the mind knows to be true. It is body talk—not the body simply talking for the spirit, for the mind, or for the soul in some symbolic way, but for the person, the whole person, to express herself or himself completely. Fasting is one way you and I bring our entire selves into complete expression. The Bible, because it advocates clearly that the person—heart, soul, mind, spirit, body—is embodied as a unity, assumes that fasting as body talk is inevitable.

The emphasis of fasting as body talk operates with another theory: until we embrace a more unified sense of the body, it is unlikely that fasting will return as a routine response to grievous sacred moments. Many today complain that Christians no longer fast; the warnings emerge from the voices of Roman Catholics as well as evangelical Protestants. Here are stereotypical words one can read or hear: “The Bible teaches fasting, and church tradition teaches fasting; therefore, Christians should return to the practice of fasting. It’s the original and ancient way of spirituality.” So says the voice of complaint.

I don’t believe the problem is the willpower of God’s people. The problem is body image. Urging folks today to fast is like urging them to milk their own cows—just as there are no cows in their backyards, so there is no body in their perception of spirituality. Western DNA and fasting are connected by the slenderest of threads. The urge to fast will not return among Christians until we understand the connection of body and soul. What that happens, we will once again discover the A > B > C pattern: (A) sacred moment, (B) response in fasting, and (C) results. As Kathleen Dugan stated, “Fasting in Christianity is only truly itself when it realizes the sacredness of the body.”Kathleen Dugan, “Fasting for Life: The Place of Fasting in the Christian Tradition,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63 (1995): 548.

A reader informed me recently that he and his wife gave up drinking anything but water during Lent. When I told some of my students at North Park University about this family’s practice during Lent, the typical response was this: “What for?” The befuddlement in the students’ question is why urging Christians to fast today requires a new kind of patience. Fasting, frankly, doesn’t make sense to most of us until we have grasped the importance of the body for our spirituality.

04.  Living the Fast

In the early days of researching and writing [my] book, I daily interrupted my work for lunch. One time I turned off the computer for a plenteous luncheon with some church leaders from Indianapolis at Trattoria Pomigliano, my favorite local Italian restaurant. Normally, however, I simply stopped for a lunch by myself at home. When chomping into my daily turkey sandwich, I sensed the oddity of thinking about fasting while eating. I know this: all people think about eating while they are fasting because hunger pains are present. But, I pondered to myself, fewer think about fasting while eating. So I decided that my routine “hypocrisy” of eating while writing about fasting had to end. About a third of the way through [my] book, I began to skip my lunches— which made me think about food more than I normally do—but it gave me the tactile experience of what I was writing. Writing a book, I believe, is a serious—if not also grievous at times—endeavor, and focusing on that seriousness enabled me to convert the process of writing this book into a sacred moment worthy of fasting.

The oddity of my experience illustrates the point [that] what I thought and believed to be important was not what my body was doing. This is not a simple case of hypocrisy, for I wasn’t fooling myself or anyone else. I was being a dualist at some level. I was telling myself, in my mind, that fasting was important and that my book was a serious endeavor, but my body was not engaged. It was good enough for me at that time to think about fasting and even to believe in it—it was good enough to have my spirit say that fasting was good. But a mental agreement wasn’t enough. I sensed a need to make my writing enough of a sacred moment that it prompted a whole-body act. So I started fasting on days I wrote this book. It brought my body and spirit back together. . . .

Most of us know that Christians, unlike Platonists and Gnostics, believe the person is a unity—body and soul and spirit and mind together form the person. We know this, or at least we say we do. But our Western mindset does everything it can to break down the unity of the person, to separate body from spirit and soul. In a world more influenced by the impact of Plato on such writers as Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin, we need to remind ourselves again of the organic unity of humans and the way this reshapes the meaning of fasting.For a good survey of the theories of human nature, see Leslie Stevenson and David L. Haberman, Ten Theories of Human Nature, 4th ed. New York: Oxford, 2004.

05.  Organic Unity and Our Definition of Fasting

As noted, humans are made of God’s Eikons. A variety of terms can be used to describe humans in their various facets, terms like soul and spirit and body and heart. But no matter which term we use, you and I are organic unities, and we cannot lose sight of that unity.

There is, however, a reason that dualism develops. Each person, however you divide up the terms, is both an outer physical person and an inner spiritual person. The Bible does not say the body contains a spirit, like a beaker into which we pour a liquid, but that each person is a spirit and is body. In other words, the Christian tradition teaches that there is a duality about humans, but there is not a dualism. We are one person with an inner and outer dimension, but we are not comprised of two parts—an inner part and an outer part. Neither is it right to think that one is good (the inner) and the other bad (the outer).Philosophers sometimes call body and spirit and soul and conscience “moments” of the person. Body or spirit or soul or conscience are not “parts” of the person, but “moments” of—dimensions of experiencing—the person. Whether we call it “inner and outer” or “moments of the person,” the point we need to make is this: God designed us as unified persons who are embodied. Understanding the difference between [the dimensions of ] our duality is very important for fasting.

The problem for fasting is that, for centuries, Christians have had a tendency to let our duality slide into a dualism—with the inner or spiritual realm overwhelming the outer, bodily person. Can we find a middle way? Can the Eikon be restored to an organic unity within itself? I believe so. Biblical fasting is about joining the material to the immaterial, the body to the soul, the body to the spirit in a unified, organic act. (The terms soul and spirit in the Christian tradition are not always easy to distinguish, so I use them interchangeably here.) Fasting in accordance with the Bible occurs when the whole person—the embodied spirit or the “inspirited” body—fasts. Lynne Baab got this right in her study of the biblical view of fasting when it comes to expressing grief:

When we are deeply absorbed in grief, habitual activities and normal pleasures feel inappropriate and out of place. We want to shout, “Stop the world! The one I loved is no longer alive, and I can’t bear it!” That desire to stop everything normal, to let ourselves be absorbed by our loss and pain, is manifested by stopping our consumption of food.Lynne M. Baab, Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 71.

Fasting is the expression of the whole person, and when the whole person is united within itself, fasting is natural.

Before we continue, remember our definition of fasting. Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life. Now let’s put some flesh and bones on the word fasting. Fasting is choosing not to indulge in food and sustenance. The biblical sense of fasting normally involved not eating anything from sunup to sundown (twelve hours) or perhaps from sundown to sundown (twenty-four hours). Absolute fasts involve denying the body food and water. Rarely does a fast in the Bible extend beyond twelve hours, though sometimes it does.

To say that fasting means “not to indulge” opens up the door for some creative ideas. Some today use the word fasting for not watching TV during Lent, abstaining from desserts, or not watching sports on Sunday. Each of these can be a good discipline for specific individuals, but I do not believe it is accurate to call these things fasting. Why? Because fasting in the Bible describes not eating or not drinking. In the Bible, fasting is about not eating food or (rarely) about not drinking water. To choose not to watch TV or not to eat savory meats on Friday is not fasting but abstinence. . . . Some differ with me here; I ask only to be permitted to use the terms as I judge the evidence.

Fasting is a choice not to eat for a designated period because some moment is so sacred that partaking in food would deface or profane the seriousness of the moment. When Israel sinned and called for a fast connected to repentance, eating would have shattered the seriousness of the repentance. They felt it necessary that the body be afflicted to express their repentance. When Israel summoned others to fast in order to plead with God to protect the nation from war, eating would have profaned the sacred respect for the nation. When Israel grieved over death, any kind of physical comfort or pleasure would have broken the somber nature of their grief.

I believe biblical fasting begins right here: because of the sacredness of some moment or a task ahead, an embodied person chooses to avoid physical indulgence for a period of time in order to focus attention on God. Fasting, to return to our A > B > C pattern, is a response to a sacred moment. One fasts because it seems a privilege to eat in this sacred moment. What I am impressed with as I read the Bible is how rarely the C element (results) even comes up. What is very important to realize is that C is never the motivation for B. The motivation for B (fasting) is always A (the sacred moment).

I want to explore the responsive nature of fasting in one more way. At the very core of fasting is empathy with the divine or participation in God’s perception of a sacred moment. When someone dies, God is grieved; when someone sins, particularly egregiously, God is grieved; when a nation is threatened, God is grieved. We could provide more examples. The point is this: fasting identifies with God’s perspective and grief in a sacred moment.

Fasting enables us to identify with how God views a given event; fasting empowers us to empathize with God. Fasting is about pathos, taking on the emotions of God in a given event. . . . [It] is a response to a sacred moment and not an instrument to get what we want. When people tell us they are fasting, we should ask, “In response to what?” instead of, “What do you hope you will get out of it?”

06.  Kinds of Fasting

One area of confusion I hear when people speak of fasting is the various kinds of fasting. It might be helpful if we list the kinds of fasting we find both in the Bible and in the Christian tradition of fasting.

Fasting: I begin with normal fasting, which is sometimes called a water fast. In normal fasting, a person consumes only water for a specific period of time. Because a lengthy water fast makes extreme demands upon the body, some suggest instead a juice fast. In the juice fast, the person consumes only juices—which have more nutrients than water—for a specified period. There are significant differences between water and juice fasting, but for now those distinctions can be left to the side. Liquid fasting is how the Bible portrays the normal kind of fasting, which is the choice not to consume food or sustenance for a given time period.

Abstinence: In addition to the liquid fasts, there is the partial food fast. Because the prophet Daniel abstained from specific kinds of foods, some call this the Daniel fast. Whatever one calls it, some abstain from delicacies or a particular food (chocolate, red meat, pasta, caffeine) for a specific period of time as a form of disciplining the body. Some abstain from all foods except vegetables while others abstain from everything but dry foods and grains. The fourth-century desert fathers and mothers were known for this. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, fasting sometimes involves abstaining from meats, fish, dairy products, eggs, oil, and alcohol. Partial food fasting would be better termed abstinence. As mentioned previously, abstinence is to be distinguished from fasting, which is the choice not to eat any food or sustenance for a prescribed period.

Absolute Fasting: The most radical of all is the absolute fast, during which a person neither eats nor drinks anything for a specific period. . . . [Editor’s note: Jumping into an absolute fast brings with it a number of health concerns and best practices. Before considering an absolute fast, we urge you to read more on the subject, either in Scot’s book or through other resources, and consult with a physician before beginning an absolute fast.]

What kind of fasting did the ancient Israelites and early Christians practice? We can’t be sure—the Bible doesn’t give us a manual on fasting. What seems most likely is that they fasted from evening dinner until either midday the next day or until dinner the next day. It is possible they fasted after breakfast until dinner that evening, but it seems more likely that the term fast described not eating from one evening meal until the next evening meal.

07.  A Warning: No Simple Promises

It is not unusual to find great stories about the sanctity and success of Christians who routinely fast. In fact, there appears to be a cottage industry of connecting great Christians with fasting, then suggesting that great Christians fast, and then suggesting that fasting is necessary to be a great Christian or that is was fasting that made them noble. Alongside this logical fallacy is another: prayer warriors fast, and it is the fasting that makes their warring in prayer with God so effective. I do not dispute that many great Christians have fasted or that many prayer warriors have fasted. What I do dispute is that it is the fasting that made them great Christians and effective in prayer.

This approach to fasting, which probably every preacher or writer on fasting is tempted to copy or use in a sermon, gets our A > B > C pattern mixed up. Yes, sometimes fasters achieve great results, but the results were not their primary motivation. Instead, a yearning out of a grievous sacred moment naturally found its expression in fasting. That yearning is what led to the results, not the fasting. But, again, the temptation is to show how great fasting can be by talking about the impact of great saints who fasted.

08.  Suggested Reading

Baab, Lynne M. Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Dugan, Kathleen. “Fasting for Life: The Place of Fasting in the Christian Tradition,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63 (1995): 548.

Howard, Thomas. The Night Is Far Spent: A Treasury of Thomas Howard, selected by Vivian W. Dudro. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007.

John Paul II. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, M. Waldstein, trans. Boston, MA: Pauline Books and Media, 2006.

Mathewes-Green, Frederica. “To Hell on a Cream Puff,” Christianity Today. November 13, 1999.

Shults, F. LeRon. Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.

Stevenson, Leslie and David L. Haberman, Ten Theories of Human Nature, 4th ed. New York: Oxford, 2004.

Wolff, Hans Walter. Anthropology of the Old Testament, M. Kohl, trans. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1974.


Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. He is the Karl A. Olsson professor in Religious studies at North Park University in Chicago. McKnight’s award-winning blog, Jesus creed, has been rated by as the #1 site for emerging church and continues to increase in readership. He broadened his Jesus creed project in writing a daily devotional: 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed (paraclete, 2008). He is the author of more than thirty books, including the award-winning The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. his most recent books are The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Zondervan, 2008) and Fasting (Thomas Nelson, 2009). Scot and his wife, Kristen, live in Libertyville, Illinois. they have two adult children and enjoy traveling, long walks, gardening, and cooking.

Material taken from Fasting © 2009 by Scot McKnight. produced under arrangement with Thomas Nelson, inc., P.O. Box 141000, Nashville, TN 37214.