I’ve recently been thinking about what fasting is really about. I don’t think I’ve had all that much in the way of good teaching on this topic. Most of my current understanding of fasting is from John Piper’s excellent book A Hunger for God.
Most religions see fasting and other similar disciplines as ways of showing God something. “Look at how much I’m willing to suffer, put aside, etc., for You.” In fact, some religions look at suffering itself as a method of showing devotion to God.
But what about Christian fasting? I do think there is a component to it that is a cry of “I need you this much, O Lord!” But I don’t think Christian fasting is about twisting God’s arm or bribing Him into doing something. I think primarily, fasting is about a deeper understanding of our true dependence on God in our day to day lives.
So in terms of practical issues, what should be allowed on a fast? My thinking is that you can go on various types of fasts. Depending on what the goal of the fast is, different kinds of foods may be omitted. Most things called a “fast” usually entail omitting food, period. But most people I know who practice fasting will allow beverages other than water (juices mostly). From what I’ve read, common types of fasts would be
- nothing taken in (no water or other beverages, no food)
- “water fast” (the only thing taken in is water)
- “juice fast” (fruit and vegetable juices are allowed)
- “vegetarian fast” (not eating meat for a time)
- a fast from a particular food or beverage group (usually something being craved a bit too much)
I think there isn’t a lot of point in being legalistic about fasting. The whole point is whether or not the fast is helping you accomplish the goal of the fast (greater intimacy with God, greater focus on a prayer issue, etc.). It isn’t so much about what you’re eating or not eating.
All of the fasting I’ve done in the past and most of the fasting that I know of by personal friends is in the “juice fast” category. When fasting, I’ll usually take vitamins and drink Gatorade as well as fruit and vegetable juices and sometimes vegetable broths. The fasting I’m familiar with isn’t about cutting off all caloric intake, but rather about denying something intensely craved.
I remember a longer fast I was on around a year ago. I indulged in a latte every morning before work. In retrospect, I wonder if that was a good practice on a fast. Does it make sense to have “comfort food” kinds of beverages while on a fast? I guess that would again depend on the purpose of the fast in the first place.
There are health reasons to avoid certain things while fasting, of course. Milk is usually to be avoided because the fat tends to start up the hunger cycle in your stomach again. Also, caffeine has a greater affect on the body when you’re not eating.
It makes sense that the discipline of fasting isn’t talked about much in the western church. We are a church of abundance. God has blessed the west in a very wonderful way. But that can also make people apathetic about denying themselves for the betterment of their souls. I think we in the western church need to do more fasting as a means of God’s grace to the church. And of course, that should start with me.