Fasting part 5

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.[1]  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. 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.


[1] 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.

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Fasting part 4

We have seen something of what the Bible has to say about fasting, and the way it brings us so very powerfully to confronting our created-ness / dependent-ness and our fallen-ness. Fasting is deeply linked with prayer, and is often experienced as accentuating prayer for precisely these reasons.  Prayer is the very literal articulation of our dependence on our God, the deliberate abdication of our creator-complex: Hallowed be Your Name, Your Kingdom come, Your will be done…  Self-sufficiency is the deadly enemy of prayer, and is perhaps the reason we find prayer so difficult.  Similarly with our sinfulness.  Prayer (or at least effective prayer) is not an automatic spiritual transaction.  The Bible is clear that God does not hear or respond to prayer that is not offered from the context of a life lived in pursuit of righteousness.  As James reminds us, it is the prayer of someone who is righteous that is powerful and effective (Jas 5:16).   In a similar vein, the Psalmist reflects: ‘If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened…’ (66:18).  Fasting is the one of the most direct ways of confronting the reality of our sin, exposing it so that we can bring itto the cross in confession (I John 7:7-9).  It is perhaps the very antithesis of cherishing sin.

 Given its spiritual potency, it is perhaps not surprising that the idea of fasting has attracted a good deal of attention throughout the history of the Church.  After the time of the Apostles, the Church’s thinking about fasting quickly focusses on its indispensability to the Christian’s battle with sin and temptation.  One of the first Bishops, Polycarp of Smyrna (mid-second century, modern day Turkey) saw fasting in terms of being part of a Christian’s armoury in the battle against temptation: ‘let us forsake their false teachings, and turn to the word which was delivered unto us from the beginning,  being sober unto prayer and constant in fastings, pleading with the all-seeing God with supplications that He bring us not into temptation, according as the Lord said, The Spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak’.[1]  Similarly Tertullian (a prolific Christian writer at the turn of the third century, living in modern day Tunisia), in his treatise On Fasting saw it as a means to discipline the flesh to obey the Spirit, to strengthen prayer, and a means of humbling self.   

 By the fourth century, one of the greatest theologians the Church has had since the Apostles, the aptly named St. Basil the Great (again based in modern day Turkey), was teaching that fasting was indispensable in our pursuit of Christlikeness (though he allowed for great diversity in practise), and he warns us about the danger preferencing our bodies over our souls.  Basil is clear however that fasting must be done in a context of righteous living (echoes of Is.58).  He uses the analogy of fasting as a medicine that can cure the disease of sin. A century or so later, Augustine (a Bishop in North Africa) follows a similar line of thinking, and saw fasting primarily as a means to defeat temptation.  Such thinking seems to build on Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, and in facing Satan, but it is disturbing to note how quickly the Church seems to have lost the breadth and diversity of the Bible’s teaching.

 By the Council of Nicaea (325 AD)[2] fasting also became more focussed into certain seasons in the Church’s calendar (including Lent!).  Tragically, in spite of Jesus’ warnings, the idea of fasting was also taking on overtones of merit, so that people began to think prayer offered with fasting was more effective, because you’d earned it!  Over the centuries that followed there was a growing sense that fasting was a sign of spiritual superiority, and as such it was seen too often as the preserve of ‘elite’ Christians who were seen as holy enough to embark on certain prescribed fasts, and of little interest to the ‘normal’ Christian life.   Token ‘fasts’ (such as not eating fish on a Friday, or giving up delicacies for Lent) were handed down to the rank and file, but ‘proper’ fasting was for monks and priests.

 The Reformers of the 16th century (including ArchBishop Cranmer who was the architect of the Church of England) reacted against this kind of thinking, and sought to reclaim the idea of fasting as an integral part of the normal Christian life.  It was to be included in our regular devotional life in much the same way as prayer or Bible reading would be.  In this they were recovering the emphasis of earlier years, and bringing the Church closer to the Biblical pattern of fasting.  They argued for liberty of conscience (as opposed to obligating prescribed fasts), commended its use by any Christian where it was an expression of authentic devotion, and condemned it where it was ostentatious, or linked with super-spirituality.[3]  One of the reforming English Bishops, John Jewel thought fasting so central to the life of ordinary Christians that in 1571 he wrote a sermon on it and included it in a collection of sermons that were to be preached in every parish Church throughout the realm (Homilies, Book 2:4). 

 Unfortunately, in spite of his best efforts, I’m not sure it has ever been fully rehabilitated into the ‘normal’ Christian life.  Fasting, where it is known of at all, can still carry overtones of super-spirituality, perhaps belonging to a more ritualistic age when the Church didn’t have such a handle on grace.  In many circles fasting is little understood, and still less practised.  We are the weaker for it. 

[1] Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians 7:2.

[2] The Council of Nicaea was a significant conference of Bishops, pastors and theologians that met to discuss a number of issues around belief and practise that were facing the Church at the time.  Amongst other things, they produced the first draft of what we now call the Nicene Creed, and which we sometimes use in our services.

[3] Zwingli, for example, allows great liberty on this issue, saying, “Let each one fast as often as the spirit of true belief urges him”.  You were free to fast if you felt it was appropriate or helpful, but you emphatically weren’t under obligation to do so as you would have been under the Mediaeval Roman Catholic system.

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Fasting part 3

We have begun to explore the spiritual discipline of fasting, as a means of confronting us with our own intrinsic created-ness and therefore our dependent-ness.  Fasting massively heightens our sense that we do not have life in ourselves, and as such has the potential to craft in us a far more appropriate frame of heart, mind and soul as we come boldly before the throne of grace.  But it does more than this.  Remember in our first article I made the point that the purpose of fasting is to induce hunger.  Well, hunger doesn’t just expose our created-ness; it can also expose the reality of our heart, and of our falleness.

 How does this work?  We’ve all heard of comfort eating.  Perhaps one or two of us have indulged in it.  Food has powerful emotional and psychological effects on us.  Eating is far more than simply an efficient way of taking in energy.  We can almost self-medicate with food, and there are times when we eat not because we are hungry, but in order to repress certain feelings: sadness, fear and anxiety.  Human beings are deeply integrated creatures, and as we have already begun to sense how spiritual a thing food is, it would hardly be surprising to realise that food can repress not just emotional or psychological dynamics, but also spiritual ones. 

 Let’s take an obvious example: think about how hungry you would be after even a couple of days without food.  And with that hunger, there would be a low grade impatience or irritability that might blow up into anger at the slightest provocation.  Why? We’d say that our impatience, anger, resentfulness is because we haven’t eaten.  Isn’t that a justifiable reason: because I’m hungry?  But what is it about hunger that intrinsically makes us irritable, short tempered, impatient or resentful.  Or to put the question more pointedly, do you think Jesus behaved in such ways when He was hungry? …even when He had fasted 40 days?  I doubt it.  Jesus was holy and righteous, and so He didn’t sin even in the midst of life-threatening hunger.  We sin because we are sinful, not because we are hungry.  We behave like that because that is what we are really like.  Usually we mask and repress our sin with a good meal, and we can hide those attitudes from others and even from ourselves.  But fasting, and the hunger it brings, exposes the reality of our hearts - which is a good thing, by the way!  When sin is exposed, we can bring it to the cross.


And so in Deuteronomy, Moses explains the LORD’s wisdom in inciting Israel’s physical hunger in the wilderness.  ‘Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands.  He humbled you, causing you to hunger, and then feeding you with manna … to teach you that man does now live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD’ (Deut. 8:2-3).


It was no accident that when Jesus re-enacted Israel’s temptation in the wilderness the first temptation He faced was to ‘tell these stones to become bread’ (Matt.4:2).  Again, it is the LORD who induces hunger (remember that it was the Holy Spirit that lead Jesus into the wilderness), but this time there was no sin to be exposed.  In the Exodus wanderings, Israel’s desire for food had quite simply triumphed over their desire to be the LORD’s redeemed people.  When faced with the possibility of life in the presence of the Tabernacling God, Israel’s hunger caused them instead to look back to slavery in Egypt.  ‘If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt!  There we sat around pots of meat, and ate all the food we wanted…’ (Ex.16:2-3); ‘We remember the fish ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic’ (Num.11:5).  Really?  The ancient Church would have chosen slavery, oppression, tyranny and death … along with a good meal, rather than freedom in Christ?  Perhaps this lies behind Paul’s rather curious description of people whose ‘god is their stomach’ (Phil.3:19)?  


Hunger exposed the terrible reality of Israel’s hearts, even as it exposed the raging purity of Christ’s.  When pushed to the edge of life itself, Christ’s passion resolutely remained for ‘every Word that comes from the mouth of God’.  He would rather die of hunger than violate the commands of God.   He knew that life was not found in a merely physical existence - well fed, but enslaved to sin, tyrannised by the one who holds the power of death, alienated from the Father.  Such is the love that burned in the heart of the Son, that His hunger for faithfulness eclipsed His hunger for bread.  ‘O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you … I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.  Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you’ (Ps.63:1-3)

 ‘Your love is better than life’?  Such a liturgical response comes easily to the lips of the well-fed, when appetites are sated and a sinful ‘self-preservation’ attitude is safely held at bay by the absence of any immediate threat to life.  But how long would we have to go without food, before we would cheerfully choose life over the love of the Lord…  before we would squander our inheritance and despise our birthright for a pot of stew (Gen.25:29-24)… before we would gladly leave the Presence of the LORD, and return to Egypt?  Fasting draws us into these deep questions, and gives them a power they wouldn’t otherwise have.

 The Lord provided for both Israel and Christ in the wilderness.  Manna rained down from heaven for Israel (Ex.16:4); angels came and attended Christ (Matt.4:11).  But for Israel the Manna was a daily reminder of their failure, and need of a Mediator (Num.11:33); for Christ the Father’s provision ushered in the beginning of His public ministry.  ‘Jesus (who is that Mediator) returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit’ (Lk.4:14)



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Fasting part 2

OK having busted a few common myths, where do we being to think constructively about fasting? It’s surprising how much there is about food in the Bible once you start thinking about it.  Quite a few of Jesus’ parables feature banquets; miracles are based around food (e.g. feeding of 5,000).   In fact Jesus Himself came ‘… eating and drinking...’ (Lk.7:34); both in the Garden of Eden and in the New Creation, our relationship to food is highlighted.  Food features in the rhythm of our worship as we share communion.  Feasting is an intrinsic part of worship throughout the Old Testament, as the Church focussed on the coming of Christ (Lev.23); and when people offered sacrifice they were to eat part of it themselves in the presence of the Lord.  The Law was given in the context of an incredible feast (Ex.24:9-11), and commanded Israel to praise the LORD when they had eaten and were satisfied (Dt.8:10).  More sobering is that our relationship to food is radically altered after the fall, and is an aspect of the curse (Gen.3:17-19).  It was a principle part of the temptation to return to Egypt during the Exodus (Num.11:15), and of Jesus’ experience of temptation in the wilderness (Matt.4:3-4).  You can pretty much chart out the whole story of creation with food and what is eaten by whom.

Given the deep connections – positive and negative – between our relationship with food, and our relationship with God, it is unsurprising that fasting (& feasting) is so prevalent.  Many fasts in the Bible are for a day (e.g. Jdgs 20:26; I Sam.7:6; Jer.36:6), although examples of longer fasts include 3 days (Esther 4:16), 7 days (I Chron.10:12), or fasts of undetermined length (Jonah 3:5; Neh.1:4; Lk.2:37).  I suppose the most famous fasts are 40 days (by Moses in Dt.9:9 & 10:10; Elijah in I Kings 19:7-8; and of course Jesus Himself in e.g. Matt.4:2).  Jesus expected the Church to fast, though not till He after He had ascended (Lk.5:35; Mt.6:16-18). 

 Even from this handful of references we can see that the practise of fasting is deeply established in the life of the Church, but massively varied: in terms of the length of time people fasted, the purpose for which they fasted, and whether it is an individual or corporate discipline; regular and planned (as in Zech.8:19), or spontaneously reacting to situations that develop.  Over the years I’ve read a number of attempts to crystallise the meaning and effect of fasting.  Often people try to reduce fasting to a single idea; but to my mind, it echoes in a number of themes, for example: the love of the Lord is better than life, and spiritual nourishment is more important than physical (Ps.63:3-5); we do not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God (Matt.4:4); hunger for God and His righteousness (Matt.5:6); humbling ourselves before the Lord (Ps.35:13); the means through which the Lord exposes what lies in our hearts, and through which He can discipline us so that we may learn to trust His providence (Deut.8:1-5); practised with intercession / supplication (Ezra 8:21); averting disaster (II Chron.20:3); response to suffering brought about by the Lord in discipline or times of spiritual crisis (Joel 2; Acts 9:9; II Cor. 11:27); seeking wisdom and discernment from the Lord (Jdgs 20:26); spiritual power and effectiveness in ministry (Mk.9:29 see NIV footnote); it underpins times of worship and is the context in which the Church receives guidance for ministry (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23); mourning (Ps.42:3) and repentance (I Sam.7:5-6; Jonah 3:5); anticipation of the coming age (Lk.5:33-39).  It seems to intensify the effectiveness of prayer and response to God, if done with integrity and in the context of wider life of righteousness (Is.58; Zech. 7:3-14 – note that when the prophets attack fasting, it is not the practise itself, but the hypocrisy they harangue; see also Matt.6:16f; Col.2:16-23)

But why does it have this effect of intensifying the dynamics of our relating to God?  I’ve never read a theology that fully explains this.  My best guess is that it confronts us with the reality of our own mortality, and of our immediate dependence on God for life and the provision of what we need to continue in life.[1]  The point of fasting might be that it brings front and centre our own intrinsic created-ness and therefore our dependent-ness.  Thus humbled, and acutely aware of our reliance on the Lord for life itself, we are well-placed to approach the throne of grace in an appropriate frame of mind, heart and soul.  Within hours of beginning a fast we can begin to feel cold, hungry, weak, tired, and irritable.  It is tempting to try to turn it into show of strength, and to speak of it as if it demonstrated titanic spiritual heroism.  But it is a grotesque parody of fasting that leads to self-righteous pride (Lk.18:9-14).  To fall foul of this would be to catastrophically miss the point and to critically undermine its purpose (Matt.6:16-18).  It is meant precisely to expose our weakness, vulnerability and impotence before our God, and so our reliance on Him (Ps.109:24).   It may expose more than this, but it should not expose less. 



[1] Something similar might lie behind the sacrifice of sleep for the purposes of Bible study & prayer (e.g. Ps.63:6; 119:148 etc).  It is – similar to fasting – the sacrifice of something critical, and confronts us forcibly with the fragility of our createdness.  It is this purpose in fasting that I think means the vocabulary of fasting is restricted to those things on which we depend for life.  Giving up TV, or meat, or chocolate might be a good thing to do, but it isn’t fasting.  However important we might feel these things are, it isn’t life-threatening to go without them.

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Fasting part 1

As we are exploring ways in which we can deepen our life of prayer together, I have been scheduling Days of Prayer (5th May; 23rd September; 25th November), and suggesting that people might want to fast on those days.  We have also scheduled a week of prayer (w/b 27th June), which will culminate in our Joint-Church Day on 2nd July.  On 2nd July I will be laying out something of the future that, as PCCs, we believe the Lord has been calling us to.  And again, in talking about that week as a time of preparing for our time together I have been speaking of ‘prayer & fasting’.  We may be familiar with the idea of praying together, but what about fasting together?

 In the experience of the Church, fasting is one of the most exciting spiritual disciplines to engage with.  Throughout history, times of Revival are often preceded by a season of prayer and fasting, as an expression of a deep desire to draw near to God, and for the Church to live for Him with renewed passion.  Of course, it’s not a formula, but there is an uncanny correlation nevertheless.  And today, there is often a similar correlation between places where the Church is growing, and the practise of fasting (and sadly the opposite is also true: where the Church is not growing, fasting is often found to be a neglected aspect of our worship).

 But what does the Bible teach about ‘fasting’?[1]  How does it connect with prayer, and why should we practise this spiritual discipline at all?  What are the practical considerations we should bear in mind?  These are some of the issues we’ll explore over this short series of articles.  In the discussion about exactly what fasting is, how it works, how it relates to prayer etc., there are a number of conflicting ideas.  As in so many aspects of Christian life and worship, we need to be disciplined about listening to the Bible in the midst of competing voices.  In this first article, let me simply dispel a few common myths about fasting that have sprung up recently:


Myth 1: let me say up front that nothing will destroy the spiritual power of fasting more swiftly or totally than seeing it as a spiritualised weight loss programme!  Not only does it not count as fasting if you see it as a form of dieting, it rarely works as a weight loss programme, and any weight you lose during a fast (particularly a longer fast) is quickly replaced when you begin eating again.  There are probably physical benefits of resting your digestive system on occasion, and there are numerous diet plans.  You may want to follow such programmes for health reasons, but don’t confuse it with fasting.

 Myth 2: that the point of fasting is to free up time to do some extra Bible study or to pray.  Think of all the time normally spent cooking, eating and clearing up!  Well, you might free up some time (though if you are preparing food for a family it is unlikely), and you might want to spend that time in Bible Study or prayer, but it is a mistake to think that this is the purpose of fasting.  It’s also worth being aware that as you stop eating, you might find it more difficult to concentrate, even on the Bible or in prayer. 

 Myth 3: we can fast from anything – it doesn’t have to be about food.  Fasting isn’t often spoken about, but when it is, this idea often comes up.  It is sometimes linked to the idea that the point of fasting is to free up time for ‘spiritual’ pursuits, and we are encouraged to ‘fast’ from other activities such as listening to music, watching TV, using the internet, or our mobiles.  Again, there may be benefits – even spiritual benefits – to be gained from watching less TV, or spending less time on the internet; and there is certainly benefit to be had from using that time to prioritise the Bible or prayer or worship or service, but this is not fasting.  In the Bible, fasting is always about food.  We’ll come to why next time, but for now, perhaps just note that food and TV / Internet aren’t really in the same category.  Contrary to popular opinion, you won’t die if you go without the Internet!  This observation begins to bring the actual Biblical rational for fasting into focus.

 Myth 4: the Daniel Fast.  Rooted in Daniel 1, the idea has become popular that giving up meat (and alcohol) and restricting ourselves to a diet of vegetables and water (see Dan.1:8 & 12) constitutes a fast.  Again, there may be health benefits, but this isn’t fasting.  Nowhere in Daniel 1 is this referred to as a fast, although a similar dietary restriction is later understood as a sign of mourning (Dan.10:2).  In passing, there are times when Daniel does in fact fast and pray (9:3), but that language is never used in the Bible with reference to Daniel & friend’s decision in Chap.1.  Here the issue is defilement (1:8), and testing the effects of withdrawing defiling food from God’s people (1:12-14).  Perhaps it has more in common with Paul’s teaching in I Cor.10:23-33, than with fasting.

 The point of fasting (going without food, or even food and water e.g. Esther 4:16) is simply and specifically to induce hunger; to get us to a place where we acutely feel our need for food.  Why on earth would you want to do that?  How can that be of any spiritual benefit?  We’ll begin to explore it next time.

[1] There is a sermon series (8 talks) on ‘Prayer’ on the website, and there is a sermon I preached on fasting from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt.6:16-18), where Jesus is particularly tackling the problem of religious hypocrisy expressed in fasting. 

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