Some (more) thoughts on fasting

I recently finished a 40-day fast. A good friend of mine asked me if I would jot down some of my thoughts on fasting, so I guess this post is that. I did write an article on fasting some years ago. I gave it a reread and I more or less still have the same ideas. Maybe they’re a bit more defined now.

I should start out by noting that I don’t claim to be much of a fasting expert. This 40-day fast was only the second or third “long fast” I’ve ever done. In June of 2005 I fasted for 28 days while pursuing God specifically about the question of whether or not Vivian and I should have kids. God definitely answered those prayers, although I didn’t feel a specific leading during the fast itself. And without jumping too much to the chase, that’s at least one lesson longer fasting has taught me: it isn’t any kind of “magical spiritual formula.”

At least 2 sides

There are at least 2 different categories of things to consider when talking about fasting. The “practical” side of things (like what Christian fasting really is, what do you do, etc.) and the Spiritual side. I’ll break up my thoughts via those two categories, just to give this article a bit of structure. Otherwise, it will probably just degenerate into a list of more or less unrelated stuff.

Spiritual considerations

In terms of the Christian and spiritual side of fasting, I can’t really recommend John Piper’s book A Hunger for God too highly. It really discusses Christian fasting from just about all angles. Most of what I understand as truly Christian attitudes about fasting is well developed by Piper in that book. I honestly can’t add too much to that.

Piper tackles many ideas, starting with the question “Is fasting even Christian, really? I mean the cross has paid our debt to God, why would we need to do anything semi-heroic like fasting to get God’s attention?” Indeed, if our motives for fasting are about manipulating God to our wills, we’re not thinking about it in a Christian manner.

One sentiment that Piper returns to again and again in the book is the fasting Christian’s cry to God, “This much I need You, oh God!” I think that sums up decently the main thrust behind fasting as a Christian.

A self-imposed trial

One aspect of fasting that I don’t recall Piper hitting on too hard is that it really comes down to a type of self-imposed Spiritual trial. One of the ramifications of that is you end up facing the same kinds of difficulties that you face in any kind of trial. Specifically, sins that you struggle with when not fasting will likely be magnified when you fast. For me that meant me being shorter with my wife and kids, preferring self over others, etc.

When I’m fasting, I try hard to let the hunger pains be a recurring reminder that I need God desperately. I want the physical lack I’m feeling to translate to a deeper understanding of my spiritual lack. When I neglect the means of grace that God has given to me (prayer, worship, and the scriptures being primary) my inner man is spiritually starving. I want the hunger pains during fasting to remind me to go to God. And indeed, hunger strikes many, many times in a given day. If each of those realizations of my need is turned into a small appointment with God in prayer, I can only benefit.

Spiritual danger

There are real temptations that are directly a result of fasting, too. A maybe-obvious one is the temptation to pridefulness about what you’re doing. I pretty much had to fight that one daily. The feeling of “Wow, I’m really doing this!” is pretty ever-present. I tried to turn that thought around with a prayer of “God, I know that this is really meaningless without your blessing on it – please help me!”

Another temptation that I found myself battling nearly every day was to revel in the weight I was losing. I have need to drop a few pounds, and in fact I’ve been told by a doctor to do that. I’ve made a lot of progress in that area before the fast, but over the course of the fast, I dropped 33 lbs. As the weight was coming off, I couldn’t help but get excited about the progress. And that isn’t a problem in itself. The problem was that I found myself being preoccupied with the weight loss. I couldn’t wait to get on the scale in the morning, I would think about it many times during the day, I would plan ahead “if this rate of weight loss continues, I’ll be at X lbs by this weekend!”, etc., etc. I was glorying in what should be at best a nice side-effect of an activity that is supposed to be all about spiritual progress.

Two views of need

Another aspect of physical fasting that points us towards spiritual realizations is that we don’t really need food the way our body tells us that we do. Don’t get me wrong, we do need to eat. I’m not advocating for some kind of “super spirituality” that would teach that the physical can be transcended just by meditation. But I can do without food for a day. And while I’m doing without food, my body will essentially be screaming at me that it is going to die without it. That’s just not true. What is true is that without God, I would be dead. I do not exist autonomously without God’s provision for me. To badly paraphrase R. C. Sproul, without me, God exists just fine; without God, I would not exist at all!

To argue in almost the opposite direction, it is also true that I do have very real needs. Fasting can serve as another reminder that I am not autonomous. When I deceive myself into thinking that I can be self-sufficient, fasting reminds me that I am anything but that.

When you understand these elements of what fasting really is, the number of days that you fast and the type of fasting that you do (water only, juices, etc.) isn’t overly important. I would note that in my experience long fasting (which I would call fasting for over a week) definitely feels different and seems to produce different effects in me than shorter periods of fasting.

More fasting?

I think I want to fast more often than I do. In the future, I think I’ll try to revisit fasting a few times a year. Not all fasts have to be 40 days in length (obviously) and not all fasts have to have the same elements.

It seems to me that fasting is an almost neglected practice in the western church. And that’s a bit of a shame, because it seems to be a natural way to fight the problem of affluence that we face. We in the west rarely have to struggle with hunger (or other kinds of lack). We tend to see God as just always giving to us, always blessing us, and we can then struggle anytime real trial comes our way.

Practical considerations

Let me clue you in about a little secret of fasting. It really isn’t as difficult as it seems. The major hunger is over by day 4 or 5. After that, your body settles into a sort of malaise. You’re still hungry every day, but day 20 isn’t 20 times as hard as day 1. Not nearly.

In my earlier article I mentioned about the different types of fasting (water, juice, etc.) and the correlation between what you allow for yourself and what you’re trying to accomplish. For this fast, I really didn’t restrict my fluid intake. I allowed myself milk, coffee, tea, water, colas, fruit smoothies. I even had a few milkshakes when things were particularly tough – more so at the beginning of the fast than at the end. Some people would see that as “cheating” on the fast. But given the choice between having a milkshake and getting strength to continue fasting vs. stopping the fast, I chose the former. Believe me, a milkshake is no substitute for a sandwich when you haven’t eaten solid food for 30 days.

That said, there is definitely value in being more restrictive. You get more of an empty longing in your body that can be used to drive you to a deeper realization of your need for God. I just don’t think I had it in me to go 40 days with stronger restrictions in place. I look forward to fasting again sometime for a shorter amount of time while placing more limits on myself to experience that kind of fast.