Fasting: Learning to Hunger After God

Sermon on Fasting

Look across our country and the world and you'll see that fasting is remarkably commonplace. Every major world religion advocates for it, and in health and fitness circles, things like intermittent fasting have become a huge trend. The personal and health benefits of fasting are widely known and yet the practice looks dramatically different depending on who you talk to. In this article, we'll consider the biblical context of Christian fasting as well as some practical suggestions for how to step into it.

Physical Fasting For Spiritual Gain

Genesis 2:5ff highlights the dual nature of humanity as God creates physical and spiritual beings. Both aspects—dust and breath—are essential to our existence and are declared as "very good." However, the understanding of our integrated nature is often undermined. In a western culture that exalts the scientific or material value of the physical body, many Christian experiences often exalt the value of the spiritual body. Yet this passage reminds us that we are an inseparable whole, with both parts interrelated and influencing each other.

In Christian spirituality, it is crucial to recognize the reciprocal relationship between the spiritual and the physical. Without acknowledging this connection, fasting appears nonsensical. How could a physical act have any spiritual significance? When we grasp the integrated nature of our being, fasting gains purpose. It becomes an opportunity for a physical practice to impact our spiritual experience in a profound manner.

Fasting As Protest Against the Flesh

The New Testament describes a war that exists within all followers of Christ—the flesh vs the spirit (Romans 5-8; Galatians 5). Consistent with the paragraph above, this is not referencing physical vs spiritual but rather a selfish appetite vs a godly appetite—or put another way, the power of evil vs the power of heaven.

The problem is that in our sinful nature, we have a profound bias towards the flesh. We aren't innocent travelers needing to make better decisions as much as captives needing total rescue. Unlike having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other where we can fairly choose which voice to obey, we have a sinful nature that craves self-interest over the ways of Jesus. Like a stubborn child pining for what is unhealthy or harmful, we time and again say, "but I just want it."

By God's grace through Christ, he frees us from this appetite that leads to pain and death. I wish this freedom was instantaneous and complete, but just like sanctification, it has an already/not yet quality. That is, followers of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, are already set free from the power of the flesh, but are not yet fully set free from this appetite. We are still called to set our minds on the Spirit and to put to death the deeds of the flesh.

In this context, fasting is a way to train our appetites and protest against the flesh. It develops the skill of finding comfort, direction, and satisfaction in the Holy Spirit rather in the momentary, fleshly longings of sinful self-desire. In other words, fasting is a helpful tool for attuning our selves to the leading of God's Spirit.

What Is Fasting?

When we come to the Bible and Christian history, we see fasting as a common practice for the people of God. To summarize the scriptural teachings: Fasting is intentionally denying a normal activity in order to more fully experience the grace of God in our lives. 

When most of us think of the practice, we think about what we fast from—skipping meals, not eating meat, abstaining from social media, etc. But the primary aspect is what we fast for. Taking this break from a normal appetite is to create space to enjoy Jesus not to check a box or flex a pious muscle. True and helpful fasting involves fasting from an appetite in order to fuel our desire for God and his ways.

Fasting is intentionally denying a normal activity in order to more fully experience the grace of God in our lives.

Start: What Are You Fasting For?

When we look at the Bible, there are four primary reasons to fast: to seek direction (Acts 13 & 14), to repent (Jonah 3), to grieve a loss (Daniel 10), or simply to enjoy God (Luke 2 & 4). Instead of thoughtlessly jumping into the practice, pause and consider what may be helpful to fast for.

Ask yourself: Do you need God's direction in the midst of a difficult decision? Do you need to repent from a hidden, persistent, and shame-inducing sin pattern? Are you grieving—or have you avoided grieving—a profound loss and need God's help to work through it? Or do you simply want to enjoy the presence of God? Name what it is for. Write it down. Ask the Lord to use this season of fasting towards this end.

Fasting From Food

Note: Fasting from food is not recommended for all people. If you have certain medical conditions or a disordered relationship with food, do not fast from food. Skip ahead to the next section on fasting from other appetites.

The most common type of fasting in the Bible and Christian history is fasting from food. This can be a full fast by skipping one or more meals or it can be a partial fast where you voluntarily remove something from your diet (ex: meat, spices, alcohol, etc.). The most common Christian fasting practice has been from food, sun up to sun down—meaning skipping breakfast and lunch.

Regardless, choose something you have an appetite for and you know will create a tangible gap in your normal functioning. You will be most helped if you miss it. Those hunger pains and unfulfilled longings are what helps train that resistance muscle and reminds you to seek the Lord.

For some basic guidelines, here is a helpful list strait from Adele Calhoun's book, The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.

  • Don’t fast when you are sick, traveling, pregnant or nursing. People with diabetes, gout, liver disease, kidney disease, ulcers, hypoglycemia, cancer and blood diseases should not fast.
  • Don’t fast if you are in a hurry and are fasting for immediate results regarding some decision. Fasting is not magic.
  • Listen for a nudging from God to fast.
  • Stay hydrated. Always drink plenty of water and fluids.
  • If you are new to fasting, begin by fasting for one meal. Spend the time with God that you would normally be eating.
  • Work up to longer fasts. Don’t attempt prolonged fasts without guidance. Check with your doctor before attempting long periods of fasting.
  • If you decide to fast regularly, give your body time to adjust to new rhythms of eating. You may feel more tired on days you fast. Adjust your responsibilities appropriately. (Expect your tongue to feel coated, and expect to have bad breath.)
  • Begin a fast after supper. Fast until supper the next day. This way you miss two, rather than three, meals.
  • Don’t break your fast with a huge meal. Eat small portions of food. The longer the fast, the more you need to break the fast gently.

“More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.”

—Richard Foster

Fasting From Other Appetites

It's worth noting that not all fasting is from food. There are a myriad of ways to fast from other appetites and they can serve you just as well.

Fasting is typically from good appetites. For example, fasting from lying isn't really a fast. It's just a good, mature decision. Whereas fasting from Netflix (which can be a healthy, creative, and beautiful leisure activity) may very well hit that mark.

Again, choose something you have an appetite for and you know will create a tangible gap in your typical functioning.

Here are some examples of possible fasts—granted some may not be feasible or helpful for your current season:

  • Media. Think news, podcasts, sports, social media, newspaper, radio.
  • Screens. Or non-essential screens. What if your cure for boredom wasn't a screen?
  • Email. Some people set an auto-response telling people to call if they need you.
  • Noise. Of a car radio or podcasts, an overly full schedule, or any other comfort that crowds out silence.
  • Nonessential purchases. It's so easy to buy something extra from Amazon or the supermarket aisle. But what itch is it scratching?
  • Words. Taking time to be entirely silent. Or refraining from excessive talk.
  • Driving. To work, to parish, or some other regular place you go. Walking there slows you down.
  • Any other significant and regular appetite

Fasting clears us out and opens us up to intentionally seeking God’s will and grace in a way that goes beyond normal habits of worship and prayer."

—Adele Calhoun

What's the Point of Fasting?

In the short term, fasting will likely lead you to experience the grace of Jesus and grow your heart for his kingdom. But over the long run, fasting is meant to produce goodness and justice in this world. This is what God says to Israel in Isaiah 58. The goal of fasting is not an individualistic, emotional experience of God. Rather, it is fair treatment of employees, care for the poor, hospitality to all people—it is embodying the kingdom of God and heart of Jesus right where we live, work, and play.

How can this be? Every single injustice in this world is rooted in the heart of a person who is indulging their selfish, fleshly desire. Whether cognitively or not, they are saying no to the spirit of God and yes to the powers of sin and death. When fasting has it's true affect, empowered by the Holy Spirit, it trains your appetites to hunger after the kingdom of God and resist the allure of evil. Thus, Biblical fasting doesn't make you more religious; it makes you more merciful and just.

For Painful Stories Around Fasting

Some of you reading this may have complex and even painful stories around fasting. It may have been treated as a law that you had to do in order to earn God's favor or used as a measuring stick to evaluate your spirituality. If so, I'm so sorry. That's not the purpose of the practice at all. It's meant to open your heart to the grace and smile of Jesus.

If this is you, please have the freedom to skip this formational practice. Perhaps there will be a time when healing has occurred and fasting might become a joy. That time doesn't have to be now. Instead, lean into one of the previous practices like meditation or prayer, or pause to seek healing for the pain associated with fasting. There are pastors, counselors, and likely friends who would gladly walk with you in processing the pain of your story.

Final Thoughts

Fasting is a gift of grace that can posture you to engage with God deeply and meaningfully. Like going to a drinking fountain for water, no one wants to savor the metal & plastic fountain. They want the nourishment and refreshment of the water. So also fasting is just the tool pointing you to the truest nourishment and refreshment. May your practice of fasting be one that leads you to the living water that never runs dry and satisfies your deepest thirst.

Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works.
If you see a poor man, take pity on him.
If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him.

Do not let only your mouth fast,
but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands
and all the members of our bodies.

Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.
Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful.
Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.
Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.

For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes,
but bite and devour our brothers?

May He who came to the world to save sinners,
strengthen us to complete the fast with humility,
have mercy on us and save us.

— John Chrysostom (347-407)

Key Scripture References:

  • Luke 5:33-35
  • Matthew 6:16-18
  • Acts 13:1-3
  • Isaiah 58:1-12
  • Matthew 4:1-11


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