Fasting: Food for the Soul
Brandon Hook, online editor | English major
A deeper look into the reasons behind the spiritual discipline of fasting.
Fasting is more than just a diet—it's a prayerful exercise in restraint for a purpose. (Photo by Jon Dickson)
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably skipped over that little part in the beatitudes where Jesus starts to say, “When you fast, do it in secret” (Matt. 6:16). When I fast? Why would I ever fast?
That’s about as far as I get before rushing on to the next part of the sermon. To me it’s about as relevant as the Hebrew food regulations are to evangelical youth groups.
But New York Times best-selling author Jentezen Franklin thinks differently.
“[Jesus] made it clear that fasting, like giving and praying, was a normal part of Christian life,” said Franklin. “As much attention should be given to fasting as is given to giving and to praying.”
Franklin is a pastor at Free Chapel in Irvine, Calif. and has written numerous books on fasting. These include: “Fasting: (Volume I) Private Discipline That Brings Public Reward” and “The Fasting Edge.”
But if fasting is as important as Franklin says and if Jesus commands it, there have to be reasons to fast. So why should we?
Discipline and Restraint
Fasting sharpens us.
“When you make fasting a way of life, you get even closer to God and grow in your spiritual walk like never before,” said Franklin. “Making fasting a lifestyle is like a lumberjack who takes time to rest and sharpen his ax periodically to be able to effectively finish the job set before him.”
It sharpens us through discipline and restraint—a practice Practical Theology Professor Dr. Michael Bruner believes is hard to come by today.
“The main reason I fast is because it helps me exercise this little known discipline called restraint,” said Bruner. “And I think we live in a culture that is unrestrained. We don’t know as a species how to exercise restraint, and we live in a world that encourages unrestrained activity.”
Bruner sees this lack of restraint played out in various parts of our lives.
“We don’t exercise restraint in what we buy, hence the housing market crash,” said Bruner. “We don’t exercise restraint in how accessible we make ourselves to the rest of the world, hence the exploding popularity of Facebook. We live in a culture of excess in virtually every area of our lives.”
The fruits of restraint can sometimes look different from what we expect, as they remove comfort. Russ Masterson, pastor of Church of the Apostles in Atlanta, Ga. and author of “40 Days Without Food: Divine Goodness to a Starving Soul,” experienced these consequences firsthand.
“Anytime we remove comfort we start to see all the stuff that’s in us,” said Masterson. “And it’s always been there—it’s just normally covered by a layer of comfort. Fasting brings to light a lot of things you otherwise would never see about anxiousness, worry, self-value and anger.”
Masterson fasted for 40 days, drinking only fruit and vegetable juice after he hit a crossroad in life following college. He felt God telling him to fast and said that while it exposed faults, it increased repentance and understanding of God’s grace.
“In fasting, when you come face to face with depravity, you realize that His grace is even greater,” said Masterson. “You constantly realize you lack things. Grace covers all the temptations and lack of faith I didn’t even realize were there because it was absorbed in comfort. His grace is covering me all the time. I didn’t know how full and immeasurable it was.”
The human being, according to Dr. Craig Keen, professor of systematic theology, can be understood as someone who longs and who is hungry and thirsty.
But this longing is not necessarily for food and drink. Keen believes human beings can be hungry for God. He also believes this hunger is intertwined with our bodies—it’s what our bodily life is all about. Fasting can draw attention to this hunger.
But understanding our hunger for God, according to Keen, requires us to rethink physical hunger.
“When we are in a place where there is an abundance of food, we think of things like hunger or thirst as about winning a certain kind of feeling of being filled,” said Keen. “We don’t quickly associate eating with life. So to be hungry just means I want to fill up my stomach.”
There are those, however, for whom food is a scarcity. Their understanding of hunger more closely resembles our hunger for God.
“Especially in a culture where food insecurity is constant, the point of eating is very seldom to get filled up,” said Keen. “It is rather in order to be alive. Not only to avoid being dead, but also to have the kind of life and vitality and energy it takes to do work.”
Keen thinks that to draw attention to that dependence on God is probably a helpful thing.
For Rhea Briscoe, speaker around the United States and pastor for Snowdrop Ministries, fasting is about clearing our vision and hearing from God.
“You don’t fast to change the heart of God,” said Briscoe. “You fast so that you are more in tune to His voice. You say, ‘Lord, I’m choosing to deny myself because I want to hear from you.’”
Briscoe recently did the Daniel Fast with her ministry team. The Daniel Fast is a 21-day fast based on the actions of the biblical character Daniel. Daniel ate only fruits and vegetables and drank only water to avoid defiling himself with the food of King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel also refrained from precious breads, sweets and alcohol.
Briscoe reminds her ministry team members to pray throughout fasts.
“Fasting without prayer is just a diet,” Briscoe said. “If you’re denying yourself food and feeding your spirit, that’s a fast.”
Briscoe prays not only for herself, but also for those in her ministry while she fasts. She has spent most of her children’s lives fasting for them every Monday with her husband, completely abstaining from food. Her focus on others reminds us that fasting can be done for the sake of others.
Professor of Biblical Studies Dr. Bruce Baloian remembers his mother-in-law fasting for him during his defense for his Ph.D., where he felt “calm as a cucumber.”
How should you fast?
According to Baloian, the Bible tells us to fast, but it doesn’t give us a formula for how we should fast. Jesus simply tells us to fast in secret to avoid being noticed by people while we fast. Baloian emphasized that religious action, such as fasting, should not be a dead ritual.
Baloian said that Jews fasted once a week for one day, sun up to sun down. The Pharisees fasted twice a week, and fasting was often associated with Holy Days.
Fasting does not necessarily have to mean abstaining from food. Isaiah 58 prescribes fasting from injustice. Scottish Christian minister, teacher and author of “My Utmost for His Highest” Oswald Chambers recommends ministers to fast from eloquence to plainly teach the truth.
This season of Lent, which started on Feb. 22, may be a great time to fast from Facebook, food, injustice, driving, and relationships—whatever you think will push you out of your comfort zone, force you to exercise restraint, and bring you closer to the “Reason” you fast.