As a Christian, what spiritual discipline do you find most challenging to put into practice?
The answer to this question will vary from person to person, but for many Christians, fasting from food (or other things) lands pretty high on that list. It is not uncommon for Christians to have little to say when the spiritual discipline of fasting is brought up; sometimes, they even avoid talking about it at all. The practice of fasting is not widely taught or modeled within the Church, which, in part, is a reason why fasting may not come naturally for many of us. Sadly, many churches overlook it altogether.
As we await Christ’s return and continue our daily pursuit to be more like him, one thing we know with certainty is that to grow and thrive as Christians, our practice of spiritual disciplines is part of training ourselves for godliness:
. . . Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
The practice of fasting is given in Scripture as an expectation for Christians.
The importance of fasting cannot be overlooked in Scripture. It is integral throughout the Old Testament, and the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament speak of it multiple times. One of the most well-known examples can be found in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus spoke of fasting as an expectation for Christians as he said, "When you fast . . ."
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:16-18).
So, why is fasting important for Christians?
While fasting can be challenging to practice, it is also significantly important. Let’s use fasting from food as an example. Practicing fasting from food creates an interesting dynamic within us as it goes against our human nature. God created us with the basic need to eat, and abstaining from that need is not natural to our body and mind. The body and mind have been creatively programmed to give us signals and feelings to tell us when we are hungry. When that hunger desire hits, and we start receiving those signals, they are unmistakable. We take notice, and the innate need to address our hunger quickly moves up on our priority list for the day. The longer we go without fulfilling our need for food, the more pronounced those signals from our body and mind become.
As we go without food - our daily source of nourishment - for an extended period, or for any period at all, we are reminded of our weaknesses and limitations as humans. This should encourage us to look instead to God as our true source of strength and sustenance. This is the spiritual purpose of fasting - the transformation of our hearts.
There are ways to stay focused and encouraged during a fast.
All that physically happens within us as we abstain from food during a fast can quickly become a distraction that takes our focus away from the spiritual purpose of fasting. So, what can we do in those moments? I want to share some tools to encourage you during a fast when you find yourself distracted and your flesh feeling weak.
1. Remember, discipline needs direction.
Before you start a period of fasting, set your direction by establishing a goal of how long you expect to fast and from what you will be abstaining. Whatever your goal, once you set it, having direction will help eliminate some of the distractions during your fast once hunger kicks in. Your goal does not need to be a long period of time, especially if you are new to fasting. If you don’t know where to start, pray and seek God’s insight.
You may need to start small; fast for a day and build from there.
In addition to setting a goal, set a purpose. Fasting is not something you simply endure until it's over. Instead, every time your stomach growls, let it be a reminder of your purpose for fasting in the first place. Here are a few examples from Scripture of how you can use fasting for a specific purpose:
- Use fasting to seek God’s guidance (see Judges 20:26-28).
- Use fasting as a time for repentance (see 1 Samuel 7:6).
- Use fasting as an act of worship (see Luke 2:37).
If you get to the point of setting a goal and a purpose, you have already taken important steps to prepare your heart and mind. By preparing your heart and mind, you are setting yourself up to overcome those physical distractions during your fast.
Without clear direction, you open the door to give yourself the easy out once hunger kicks in. You may find yourself saying, “Well, it’s been about 8 hours; I think that's enough." However, with a set goal and purpose, although those same bouts of hunger may ebb and flow, it will be much easier to look beyond them and redirect your focus back to God.
2. Remember, an actual spiritual battle is going on around you.
Galatians 5:16-18 says, "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law."
The flesh (death/sin) and the Spirit (life eternal) are at odds with each other. As you battle your physical desire to eat, it serves as a reminder that there is also a spiritual battle around you.
By fasting, you surrender something that satisfies your flesh (i.e., food) to make more room for the Spirit to grow and work in your life.
Set your mind on this. Meditate on this. Praise God for his victory over the flesh.
It is no coincidence that immediately following the warnings Paul gives us against the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:16-18, he also gives us hope in the battle through the Fruit of the Spirit: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law" (Galatians 5:22-23).
By denying your flesh and walking with the Spirit, you produce spiritual fruit in your life. The world cannot overcome these fruits. These fruits are the result of victory in Christ. Galatians 5:24-25 says, "And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit."
Fasting reminds us of the battle going on around us between the Spirit and flesh, Christ’s victory over this battle, and the fruit we can bear by living according to the Spirit.
3. Remember to seek the Spirit in both planned and unplanned ways.
Each day of your fast, schedule time throughout the day to seek God. Having a set time to pray, read Scripture, or sit in silence before God honors him with your time. Psalm 105:3-4 says, "Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice! Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!" This act of seeking the Spirit continually does not need to be legalistic; simply make it a priority.
You will find that even during unplanned times, God will speak to you as you eagerly seek him.
Two great resources for seeking the Spirit can be found in the last two sermons of Pastor Deven’s current sermon series, Thrive: Rooted in the Basics. First, in his sermon on the Role of the Bible, we are reminded that our God speaks to us through his Living Word - listen for his voice! Second, in his sermon on the Role of Prayer, we are reminded that we are all God’s children, and he is our Father through adoption and new birth. Seek him as your Father through the precious gifts of prayer and his Word!
May all glory be given to God.
As Christians, fasting is not something we are suggested to do; it's something we are called to do. As we continue to grow in the spiritual discipline of fasting, may we remember to give all the praise to God!
If you've never fasted, please don't feel intimidated or discouraged. Remember to start small, set a clear direction and purpose, and seek God when your flesh feels weak. It's all about allowing God to transform your heart!