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’? 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.
 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.