Prayer and Fasting
Gluttony is a deadly sin. More than simply overeating, gluttony is marked by taking far too much pleasure in eating, in eating when we’re down, and in the amount of money we spend annually on food.
We would be hard pressed to find many Americans who are not in some way gluttons. Fasting cuts at the root of our food dependency. When Jesus taught his disciples, He assumed they would fast in Matthew 6. And they lived in a world where the large majority of people were poor, with great numbers wondering if they would have enough food to even make it through the day. He was not addressing a fast-food nation.
We have in common with them our humanity, which blinds us to the ways we depend on things other than God. It is why fasting is a discipline the church has taught since its inception.
Dallas Willard gives us one of the purposes of fasting.
“Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food. Through it, we learn by experience that God’s word to us is a life substance, that it is not food (‘bread’) alone that gives life, but also the words that proceed from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). We learn that we too have meat to eat that the world does not know about (John 4:32, 34). Fasting unto our Lord is therefore feasting—feasting on him and on doing his will.”
In fasting, we let go of our appetites, especially our appetites for food, in order to seek God in matters of deep concern for ourselves and others. Fasting is always connected to prayer. When you fast, you loose the dependency you have on food, whether for one meal or longer, and shift your dependency to God. As you feel the physical cravings and emptiness in your stomach, you are reminded to go to Jesus in prayer.
Fasting from food is not the only form of fasting that we might practice. Whatever we choose to abstain from, it must be something that costs us something. It has to be something we value or spend a good chunk of time doing. And it should be something inherently good. We don’t fast from sinful things–we quit them altogether.
John Wesley writes,
“A fifth and more weighty reason for fasting is that it is a help to prayer; particularly when we set apart larger portions of time for private prayer. Then especially it is that God is often pleased to lift up the souls of his servants above all the things of earth, and sometimes to rapt them up, as it were, to the third heaven. And it is chiefly as it is a help to prayer that it has so frequently been found a means in the hand of God of confirming and increasing…seriousness of spirit, earnestness, sensibility, and tenderness of conscience; deadness to the world and consequently the love of God and every holy and heavenly affection.”
Wesley is saying that fasting is good because we get a glimpse of God unlike other periods of our lives. God chooses to grow in us the qualities Wesley mentions. Fasting is not magic. Like any other part of prayer, it does not get God to do what we want.
Some have wondered if fasting is a regular practice (like Bible reading and prayer) or if it is optional. Jesus assumed that we would fast. It was a practice of the earliest Christians. The reason why we don’t see instructions for fasting in Scripture is because it was so common that everyone knew how to do it. Today, it is so uncommon that we need to be initiated into it.
In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster gives some practical tips for starting to fast as a discipline.
- Start out slow. Don’t try to fast all food and drink for a full day. Instead, try to fast two meals, being sure to drink water or a fruit drink in between. It will take your body some time to get used to going without nourishment. Do this once a week for a few weeks until your body gets used to it.
- Break your fast with a light meal of fruits and vegetables. Don’t overdo it.
- Monitor not only how you’re body is doing, but also how your heart is doing. Take time to praise God, and allow the hunger to remind you of how great He is.
- After 2-3 weeks, attempt a 24-hour fast, drinking only water. Be sure to stay hydrated. You will probably feel hunger pangs, but this is not real hunger. Your body is so used to eating at certain times of the day that it is telling you to eat. Foster says, “In many ways the stomach is like a spoiled child, and a spoiled child does not need indulgence, but needs discipline.”
- Do not call attention to yourself. No one should know what you are doing unless absolutely necessary (like a spouse).
- If you desire, work your way up to a 48-hour fast, still drinking water. Only do this after your body is used to a 24-hour fast.
- DO NOT fast without consulting a doctor. Those with diabetes or other illnesses should not fast.