One of my favorite movie scenes features a young man walking through a London street market after he’s lost the girl. As Bill Withers sings “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the camera follows the man as he walks through a full year—from fall to winter to spring to summer—as the market, its people, and the weather change around him.
William’s experience reflects our own—perhaps even spread over decades. We may walk through our days and years amid almost constant outward change as little changes in us. In large part, we’re doing the same stuff on a different day. If we’re not careful, we might find ourselves moving blindly through our days, subjects to a cruel tyranny of sameness that diminishes our experience of the natural richness of creation.
And as any tyrant does, that sameness looks to extend his dominion through our engagement with our cultural and spiritual environments. We condition our homes to maintain a single temperature. We live oblivious to the changes in seasonal food—eating tomatoes and strawberries in January, if we like. Such has not always been the case, and even the church calendar reflects some of that seasonality. At the very least, the calendar has always meant to illuminate the fact that life is neither one long feast nor one long fast, but a kind of dance with regular rhythms of each, with the aim of cultivating genuine delight in God. As St. Athanasius (fourth century) said, “Sometimes the call is made to fasting, and sometimes to a feast.”
02. An Overview of Feasting and Fasting
Feasting and fasting represent the major movements in the sort of temporal symphony that is the church calendar. A musical symphony highlights its celebratory first movement—upbeat, bright, and joyful—by contrasting it with a slower, more contemplative second movement. Similarly, the calendar alternates its feasts with fasts (and sometimes commemorates feasts with fasts, but more about that below). Both practices have rich biblical precedent, and both have enjoyed broad practice for much of church history, yet neither gets appropriate focus in the modern church. In this essay, I hope to point readers toward a more balanced view.
On one hand, feasting gets more than its due in the modern world. After all, many Western Christians never know want or hunger. We still live, as Richard Foster wrote nearly forty-five years ago, in a culture fascinated with food. Where Foster saw “shrines to the Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples,” we now see many more food options—some fast, some slow, and some in between. On the other hand, so much casual plenty has caused us to forget the spiritual use of a feast, which is not overindulgence but a wise celebration of God’s provision and promise.
At first glance, fasting has fared better. A Google search for “fasting” yields more than half a billion results. But the searcher must skip to the third or fourth page of results to find the first mention of Christian fasting. The bulk of the pages feature discussions about fasting’s health benefits (especially weight loss). The same is true of books—many encourage fasting for various health reasons, but very few consider fasting as a spiritual discipline. As with feasting, then, any eternal value of fasting has been largely set aside in favor of its potential temporal benefits.
Because of its importance, and because of the Protestant church’s relative silence on fasting in recent decades, what follows focuses on fasting. We’ll consider feasting in a second essay later this year.
03. Fasting in the Scriptures
Our reorientation must begin with a short overview of the Scriptures. Far from offering an exhaustive treatment, my aim is simply to illustrate the presence and purpose of fasting in the Scriptures.
Moses is the first biblical personage who practiced a fast, when he “neither ate bread nor drank water” on the mountain with God (Deut. 9:9).Scot McKnight describes fasting as a “natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment,” but Moses’ fast appears to be rather a period of preparation (comparable to Jesus’ fast in the wilderness). Most commentators also believe that the command to “afflict yourselves” on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27, ESVAll Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.) suggests a fast; at any rate, fasting that day became Jewish practice. It is not until the book of I Samuel, when Israel repents of its idolatry and turns wholly to the Lord, that the people proclaim and practice a fast.
These two examples represent two distinct but related functions of fasting in the Old Testament: as an act of purification and one of humbling oneself in repentance.
Additional instances of fasting in Israel’s history, from David’s reign through the Exile, continue to illustrate the way that fasting brings together body and spirit in a nearly unique way among the spiritual disciplines. Whether absolute (taking no food or water, as Moses did) or limited (eating vegetables only, as Daniel did), they illustrate a mirroring in the body of a spiritual reality—that is, the hunger and thirst for God’s presence and righteousness.
The prophet Isaiah devotes a whole chapter to fasting (chapter 58). Specifically, he compares an unacceptable fast to God’s chosen fast, which aims “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (Isa. 58:6). He goes on to commend fasting for those in need: the hungry, the homeless, the naked. These are profoundly gospel-bound purposes for fasting, focusing the attention of the person fasting on need rather than desire.
In the New Testament, the most well-known example of fasting is the Lord Jesus, who fasted for forty days in the wilderness. The fasting accompanies, or is accompanied by, a period of intense temptation, followed by rest and refreshment (Matt. 4, Luke 4). He later mentions fasting twice, both times suggesting that it is normative for those who will follow him. The first, in the Sermon on the Mount, begins with “When you fast . . .” (Matt. 6:16–18). His explicit instruction is on the inward—or, to be more precise, God-ward—orientation of fasting. “Anoint your head and wash your face,” he said. Fasting should be directed to God, “unto the Lord.” His teaching suggests that fasting is a private matter, and that despite its primary concern, is not on the mechanics of fasting but the spiritual effect on the person fasting.
Jesus’ second mention of fasting comes in response to a question. “Why do we and the Pharisees fast,” asked the disciples of John, “but your disciples do not fast?” (Matt. 9:14). Again, Jesus’ response assumes that “the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (verse 15). This statement not only assumes that fasting will be part of the Christian way, but also suggests a third purpose for fasting: to mourn. This isn’t a new purpose, though, as David says he “afflicted [himself] with fasting” (Psalm 35:13) when a friend was sick.
A fourth reason for fasting, to commit members of the community for ministry, comes from two examples in the Book of Acts. During a period of community fasting and prayer, the church at Antioch commissions Paul and Barnabas for missionary work (Acts 13:2). When they complete their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas do the same for the churches they planted, committing their elders to the Lord (Acts 14:23).
04. Fasting in Church History
What seems clear from all these biblical examples is that fasting ought to focus attention away from lack and on God as the ultimate source. As Dallas Willard writes in The Spirit of the Disciplines, “Fasting unto our Lord is therefore feasting—feasting on him and on doing his will.”Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1988), 166. John Chrysostom said something similar: “Fasting of the body is food for the soul.”
It’s no surprise then that early Christians and their leaders sought to make this part of the life of the church. The following selection of their sayings not only confirms this reality but also demonstrates how they approached fasting, how they practiced it, and what they hoped fasting would do in their souls.
We ought to enter seasons of fasting with joy. “Let us enter the Fast with joy, O faithful. Let us not be sad. Let us cleanse our faces with the waters of dispassion, blessing and exalting Christ forever.” (Coptic Orthodox Lenten hymn)
- The earliest Christians fasted to prepare for baptism, and it was a communal rather than merely an individual practice. The Didache (first century) says, “Before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, and any others who can.”
- Clement of Rome (d. 99) saw fasting as one of several spiritual disciplines for “mortifying the flesh,” denying the passions. “By your fastings and prayers and perpetual watching, together with your other good works, mortify the works of the flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit”
- According to the Shepherd of Hermas (second century), fasting is not merely abstinence from food but an opportunity for generosity. “Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord.”
- John Chrysostom (d. 407) wrote that true fasting and feasting arise from communal peace. “For where there is enmity and strife, there can be neither fast nor festival.”
- Chrysostom also wrote that fasting prepares the Christian for the rugged road that lies, unforeseen, ahead. “When the fast makes its appearance, like a kind of spiritual summer, let us as soldiers burnish our weapons, and as harvesters sharpen our sickles, and as sailors order our thoughts against the waves of extravagant desires, and as travelers set out on the journey towards heaven. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven, rugged and narrow as it is. Lay hold of it, and journey on.”
- He also recognized that fasting, like every spiritual discipline, can be used wrongly. “Fasting is a medicine. But like all medicines, though it be very profitable to the person who knows how to use it, it frequently becomes useless (and even harmful) in the hands of him who is unskillful in its use.”
- Finally, Chrysostom saw that fasting must involve more than simple abstinence from food. “Let the hands fast by being pure from plundering and avarice. Let the feet fast by ceasing from running to unlawful spectacles. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely on handsome faces, or to busy themselves with strange beauties. For looking is the food of the eyes, but if it be such as is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast and upsets the whole safety of the soul. But if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting. For it would be among things most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to touch even what is forbidden! Do you not eat meat? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of your eyes! Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies. It is written, “You shall not receive a false report” (Exodus 23:1).”
- The desert fathers practiced a variety of disciplines of abstinence, including fasting. They taught that fasting and humility go hand in hand, and their sayings bear this out. “Abba Isidore said, “If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride; if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and glorify himself.”
- “There was a man who was leading an ascetic life and not eating bread. He went to visit an old man. It happened that pilgrims also dropped by, and the old man fixed a modest meal for them. When they sat together to eat, the brother who was fasting picked up a single soaked pea and chewed it. When they arose from the table, the old man took the brother aside and said: “Brother, when you go to visit somewhere, do not display your way of life, but if you want to keep to it, stay in your cell and never come out.”
- Fasting ought not to blind us to the requirements of Christian charity. “Once two brothers went to visit an old man. It was not the old man’s habit, however, to eat every day. When he saw the brothers, he welcomed them with joy, and said: “Fasting has its own reward, but if you eat for the sake of love, you satisfy two commandments, for you give up your own will and also fulfill the commandment to refresh others.”
- Fasting is one means of spiritual growth; it is not an end to itself. We must never be shortsighted about the goal of our Christian life with all its efforts. It is nothing less than theosis, union with the Living God. “Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said: ‘Abba, as much as I am able I practice a small rule, a little fasting, some prayer and meditation, and remain quiet, and as much as possible I keep my thought clean. What else should I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten torches of flame. And he said: ‘If you wish, you can become all flame.’
- Basil the Great (d. 379) wrote, “Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes. Fasting repels temptations, anoints unto piety; it is the comrade of watchfulness and the artificer of chastity. In war it fights bravely, in peace it teaches stillness.”
- “Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord. True fast is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood, and perjury. Privation of these is true fasting.”
- Isidore of Seville (d. 636) taught that fasting can be an exercise in mindful eating. It is not only abstinence from food, but also “frugality of fare.”
- Augustine (d. 430) suggested at least seven benefits to fasting. “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself.”
Lastly, St. Peter Chrysologus (d. 450) wrote that fasting’s aim, again, is increased awareness of (and ultimately, union with) God. “Fasting, as we all know, is God’s fortress, the camp of Jesus Christ, the rampart of the Holy Ghost, the standard of faith, the mark of charity, and the trophy of holiness.”
05. Practices to Consider
As you reflect on the place of fasting in your own Christian practice, consider the following possibilities.
- Read Isaiah 58, noting Isaiah’s description of the two ways of fasting. I’ve noted Isaiah’s focus on justice (see above). What else does he consider important? Consider especially his use of the word delight in verses 13–14.
- I’ve mentioned fasting as one of the rhythms of the Christian life. In a 2007 article, Lynn M. Baab writes about the “holy rhythms” of Sabbath and fasting. How might fasting play a role in your own discipleship? Write a prayer asking God to give you wisdom and direction about the practice of fasting.
- In addition to the content you’ll find here on Conversatio.org, several books and other resources on fasting are worth your consideration, including Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines, Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney, A Hunger for God by John Piper. Additionally, abundant resources for fasting exist in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the latter of which prescribes 180 to 200 days of full or partial fasting throughout the year.