We saw in our previous article that fasting has had a complicated relationship with the Church over the years. But after a period of particular confusion in the Middle Ages, one French pastor, John Calvin, wrote about fasting in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (kind of a standard text book for the Reformation Church of his day). He felt he needed to address the issue because, “very many, while they do not understand how useful it is, regard it as not very necessary; others also, considering it is superfluous, completely reject it. And, since its use is not well understood, it can easily lapse into superstition” (4.12.14-21).
Proper fasting, for Calvin, has its three central objectives as: weakening and subduing the flesh, aiding in prayer, and a testimony of self-abasement before God. He suggests: ‘Whenever men (sic) are to pray to God concerning any great matter, it would be expedient to appoint fasting along with prayer’. I quite agree. And so I think it ‘expedient’ to invite St. Andrew’s & St. John’s to fast as we approach our week of prayer (w/b 27th June, culminating in our joint-Church day on 2nd July).
While there is obviously no obligation to do so, I would ask that you consider carefully the Biblical teaching on fasting, the extent to which it might benefit your own discipleship, and the impact it may have on our corporate experience of prayer in our life together as a Church. You may feel so excited that you want to fast for the whole week, or perhaps – as it is something you’ve never done before – you’ll try it for a day or two. Might I suggest that if we are going to highlight one day in the week of prayer as a particular focus for fasting, we choose Thursday 30th June, and perhaps join in the prayer meeting at 7.00?
Some practical considerations:
Like many things, it is best to start small and work up. If you have never fasted before, start by simply fasting for one day until 6.00 pm (see previous article for examples of this in the Bible). Once you have experienced this and are beginning to know what to expect, you might feel it is appropriate to fast for longer periods.
Plan your diary carefully. Bear in mind that if you are fasting for more than 24 hours, the first 2 or 3 days can be pretty tough, before your body begins to adjust. You will need to rest more than usual (try to avoid intensive exercise, e.g. gym or sport), wear more clothes, and you may find it more difficult than usual to focus and concentrate over the first few days (even on prayer, and reading the Bible).
If you drink coffee, or take other stimulants, it is often best to wean yourself off them prior to beginning a fast – especially if that fast is going to be longer than 24 hours.
Begin to eat less progressively over a couple of days prior to beginning a longer fast. A fast of 24 hours or less will require relatively little preparation of this kind, but it’s worth preparing properly if you are intending to fast for longer. Likewise, don’t break a long fast suddenly. Come out of a longer fast over a period of a couple of days, starting with small portions of gentler foods and soups.
Don’t be legalistic, and please don’t feel pressured into doing more than you are comfortable with. If you don’t fast, that’s fine. If you meant to fast, but didn’t, that’s fine. You might forget, and eat something out of habit. OK. Don’t beat yourself up – just carry on with your planned fast.
If you are clearly ill or not coping, or if you feel there is good reason why you shouldn’t fast – if you are pregnant, or breastfeeding, or are on medication, or have health concerns, or a complicated history with food that you don’t want to revisit – don’t feel under any obligation. Discuss it with your Doctor and follow their advice, or the advice of official support organisations (e.g. diabetes.org.uk has a number of articles addressing the question of fasting).
Think through ahead of time how you will negotiate situations that may arise: Are there times at work when it might be best to simply be out of the office? How are you to going to respond if someone suggests meeting over lunch? Or going out for a beer in the evening (it’s best not to drink alcohol if you are fasting!)? So much of life revolves around food and drink, and you will need to plan carefully how you are going to avoid it for the duration of your fast.
Don’t publicize it. You don’t even need to make an issue of it within the life of the Church. Some of us will be fasting during that week, some won’t be. And certainly don’t write a blog about your experience, or draw undue attention to your fasting. Jesus teaches us that we will face the temptation to turn this into an advertisement for my own self-righteousness. Best to avoid that if possible.
I hope you’ve found this series of articles on fasting helpful. Do have a chat with me if you would like to think about it further, or have any questions or concerns. Whether you decide to fast during our week of prayer or not, I hope you will gradually weave this exciting discipline into your Christian discipleship, and that through it you will find yourself growing in Christ.
 A quick thought in case you are worried that fasting should be solely an individual and private affair, rather than a public and corporate one (see Matt.6:16-18). I’d suggest that in the same way as our life of prayer should have both individual and corporate dimensions, so should our fasting. It is as appropriate for a Church to fast together as it is for us to pray together.