Getting hungry for God. Literally.

Why we fast. And why we try to call every act of self-deprivation “fasting.”

FAST /fast/ v. Go without food [for God].
2. n. A period of going without food [for God].

Whenever I talk to people about fasting, their knee-jerk reaction is “No food? No food? No FOOD? You’re outa your [profane adjective] mind.” After all, this is the United States, where a 20-ounce soda is called a “small.” In this nation, the stomach rules.

This is why so many Christians are quick to redefine the word “fast.” My church, fr’instance, is doing a 21-day “Daniel fast.” I’ll explain what that is in more detail; for now I’ll just point out it’s not an actual fast. Nobody’s going without food. They’re going without certain kinds of food. No meat, no sweets. But no hunger pains either.

That’s why it’s not a fast. Fasting, actual fasting, is a hardcore Christian practice. The only things which go into our mouths are air and water. In an “absolute fast” you even skip the water. Now, we need food and water. If we don’t eat, we die. And that’s the point: Push this practice too far and we die. But God is more important than our lives. That’s the declaration we make when we fast: Our lives aren’t as important as God.

Why do we do such a thing? For the same reason Jesus did it, when he went to the desert for the devil to tempt him. Mt 4.1-2, Lk 4.1-2 Fasting makes people spiritually tough. It amplifies our prayer and meditation by a significant factor, which is why it’s a prayer practice. When we deprive our physical parts, and shift our focus to the spiritual parts, those parts get exercised; they get stronger.

We reject our culture, which teaches us we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of anything. We recognize God, not food, is our source of life. Our minds get better attuned to God’s will. We hear him better, because our bodies physically feel our need for him. We detect spiritual things faster. We discern the difference between good and evil better.

Yeah, fasting does all that. That is, when we’re praying as well as fasting. If you’re fasting but not praying, it’s time wasted.

Don’t get me wrong. Other forms of self-deprivation do it too. Dieting for God, or going without certain beloved things and hobbies, because God’s more important than our desires, will also achieve the same things fasting can. Just not as quickly; not as intensely. The stakes just aren’t as high. Fasting is hardcore, remember? Going without bacon, as hard as that might be for you personally, isn’t life-threatening. (In fact it’s better for your health.) But though a small thing, it’s still a sacrifice, and part of the proper mindset: “God is more important than my palate.”

But do we gotta?

Still, talking to people about depriving themselves of anything will make them balk. And a quick search of the bible will show ’em fasting isn’t commanded, so they’ll immediately say, “Hey, God never commanded anyone to fast, so I don’t have to!”

(Yeah, I say “quick search of the bible” like they’re gonna search the bible. More likely they’ll search Google. Or ask knowledgeable Christians like me, “Does the bible say we have to fast?” and take our words for it.)

Hey look, it’s Charles Stanley talking about fasting! In Touch Ministries.

No, fasting isn’t mandatory. God commands no one to fast. The one time he appears to order it, he was actually telling people the sort of “fast” he wanted: To actually obey his commands, instead of practicing rituals in their place. Is 58.3-10 Y’know, dead religion. God wants living religion. So the “fasting” God commanded was purely metaphorical.

Since we don’t have to fast, many don’t. When their churches call for a time of prayer and fasting, they might do the praying, but they’ll pass on the fasting. Or they’ll “fast” in as minor a way as they can. Hey, they tend to skip breakfast anyway, so there y’go: “I’ll fast breakfast.” Won’t even miss it.

(Well actually: If you commit yourself to going without breakfast during an actual fast period, you’re gonna discover yourself inexplicably so tempted to have breakfast on many mornings. You think the devil’s gonna pass up this fun opportunity to mess with your head? Get you to feel rotten about yourself because you can’t achieve such a small thing for God? Oh, you bet it’ll try to get you to slip this one up. Bacon and doughnuts everywhere.)

Thing is, Jesus presumed we will fast. Otherwise he wouldn’t have said Ótan nistévite/“When you fast,” Mt 6.16 but “If you fast,” or “You could fast.” Jesus deliberately picked an unambiguous word. He expects there’s gonna be fasting.

In Jesus’s culture, you fasted when you were in mourning. Someone died, or you were sorry for your sins. You lament; you don’t eat. Fasting sorta comes naturally. (As opposed to Jews today, who may sit shiva in lament, but family and friends bring ’em a whole lot of food.) Pharisees fasted twice a week, Lk 18.12 and Jesus didn’t necessarily expect his followers to fast that often. But sometimes.

And our churches presume we’re gonna fast. Sometimes during regular fast times, like beginning-of-the-year fasts, like Lent and Advent. Sometimes for special revelation or dire needs. The leaders call everyone in the church to fast and pray. And if it’s our church, we should participate. If I fast and pray along with them, maybe God’ll tell me what he wants them to hear. More likely he’ll tell lots of us, and we’ll just confirm one another. But if I’m not fasting and praying along with the group, I’ll always wonder, “Is that really what God wants us to do?”—and live in unnecessary doubt.

I know; you might object, “Fasting is voluntary, and what business does any church have in turning voluntary things into mandatory things? That’s just legalism. We have freedom in Christ.” Yes, you do. Now stop turning “freedom in Christ” into your rubbish smokescreen for the real issue: You don’t wanna fast. Your stomach is more important than God.

I don’t blame you for not wanting to fast. It’s no fun, and I like food too. But when a church calls for a fast, it’s because the leadership is seeking God, and wants your help. If you’re not gonna help, go find a different church. One which doesn’t expect or want your help.

Nope, fasting isn’t mandatory. No good works are; we’re saved by grace. But now that we’re saved by grace, what does God expect of us? Good works. Ep 2.8-10 You know what’s a good work? Fasting.

How to fast.

Our only rule about fasting? Jesus’s ordered us to not show off.

Matthew 6.16-18
16 “When you fast, don’t be like the sad-looking hypocrites
who conceal their faces so they look to people like they’re fasting.
Amen! I promise you all, they got their credit.
17 You who fast: Fix your hair and wash your face,
18 so you don’t look to people like you’re fasting, except to your Father in private.
And your Father, who sees what’s private, will repay you.”

We need to avoid fasting in circumstances where our practice will be obvious.

So this means don’t fast on holidays. Don’t fast on Easter, when you’re expected to rejoice and celebrate Jesus’s resurrection. Sabbath is a holiday; whatever day you’ve picked for it, don’t fast on Sabbath, ’cause you’re allowed to rest, not stress out over food. Advent and Lent are fast days, not holidays, but they’re dotted with Sabbaths, so go ahead and rest from your fast on those days.

Don’t fast on days, or during meals, when you’re typically expected to eat with others, like a business lunch, family brunch, birthday party, dinner date, wrap party, or just dining with friends. Don’t figure you’ll just drink water and enjoy their company. For no matter how much you try to draw attention away from it, you not eating is gonna stick out like a zit on your nose.

The point of fasting is to forego calories and draw closer to God. So why’re you going to any of these social functions anyway? Pray. Visit family and friends once you’re done fasting.

That said, any other fasting guidelines I have to offer are based on the purpose of fasting: Prayer, and growing closer to God.

Certain churches don’t declare a fast for that reason. They do it because they want to discipline the congregation: They feel you’ve been sinning, or aren’t repentant enough, or need to otherwise feel bad. You’re horrible sinners; you need to suffer. That sort of thing. And that’s not at all what fasting is about. Never was. Not even in the Old Testament, when people fasted in repentance. Then as now, they wanted to hear God. If fasting is used as punishment, or to exert the leaders’ authority, that’s abuse, and that church is a cult. Get out of there.

The leaders of any church should know fasts are voluntary, and that sometimes people are gonna skip a certain fast. Sometimes for valid reasons: They have low blood sugar, or they need to take their medications with food, or there’s a wedding coming up, or it’s Christmas. If fasting is gonna violate your health or your conscience, they should know better than to press the issue. And you shouldn’t violate theirs either: If they want to fast twice a week, let them. All of you should encourage the right spirit behind fasting: Seek living religion, and its emphasis on an interactive relationship between God and us. Not the brainless ritual of dead religion.

“Partial fasts.”

Like I said, self-deprivation can be good, and there’s nothing wrong with doing it for God. But Christians insist on calling these acts of self-deprivation “fasts,” or “partial fasts.” They’re awfully popular among American Protestants.

We go without one category in our diets—meat, dairy, bread, dessert, what have you. Or we give up a meal, like breakfast, brunch, lunch, teatime, dinner, or late-night snack. (And then we overcompensate in our next meal, like Muslims during Ramadan.) We may give up some calories for God, but that’s more dumb luck than intention.

A very popular “partial fast,” the one my church regularly practices, is called the Daniel fast. It’s loosely based on Daniel 10.

The proper context to that chapter: Daniel, living in Babylon, was in mourning, Da 10.2 likely because he was once again celebrating Passover in a foreign land; he couldn’t celebrate it in Jerusalem, and his temple was destroyed. You’ll notice the foods he went without—meat, wine, and the sort of (unleavened) bread he wanted—were Passover foods.

Daniel 10.2-3 KWL
2 In those days I, Daniel, went into mourning three weeks. 3 I ate none of the bread I coveted.
Meat and wine didn’t enter my mouth. I didn’t oil my hair for all of three weeks.

During that time, specifically on 23 April 556BC, God gave Daniel some freaky apocalyptic visions of the future restoration of Israel, and sent him some angels to interpret the visions.

But Christians don’t care about the context, ignore it, and focus only on Daniel’s “partial fast,” which we figure God rewarded by giving Daniel visions of the future. Well, we’d like some visions of the future. So if we go on this Daniel-style fast, maybe God’ll tell us stuff. Follow the formula, get the visions.

Yeah, the idea we can reduce our relationship with God into formulas becomes very problematic. But again: If we’re doing the self-depravation for God’s sake, if we’re praying and seeking him and listening to him, he’s usually gonna answer whether we’re full-on fasting, sticking to a “Daniel fast,” or even just giving up doughnuts for a week. They’re not necessarily gonna be scary-but-hopeful End Times visions. (In fact, if God instructs you to give up the doughnuts permanently, that might be even scarier.) But don’t be surprised when he tells you stuff.

Well. Various Christians wanna duplicate Daniel’s “fast,” and various churches inflict this “Daniel fast” on their members. I’ve seen many different lists defining which foods are and aren’t permitted. Some of ’em mix into it the story in Daniel 1, where he and his friends switched to a vegetable-and-water diet so as to stay kosher. Again, context is irrelevant.

The “Daniel fast” meal-plans are wholly arbitrary. Yeah, all of ’em ban meat, ’cause Daniel didn’t eat meat. All ban wine; same reason, plus a lot of these plans come from teetotaling churches. Most permit fruits and vegetables… but not juices, nor vegetable byproducts. Most permit whole-grain bread, but not tasty bread (as they define tasty): No white bread, no pastries. Even though Daniel was likely going without unleavened bread, they miss the point and permit unleavened stuff, like saltines and matzo, but not butter crackers. Beans, but no coffee. And of course no fats nor sweeteners.

How you can make fine distinctions between fruits but no juices, based on Daniel 10.3, eludes me. None of these Daniel-fast menus come from the bible. They’re all someone’s idea of a tougher-than-usual diet… one they can live with.

’Cause that’s how all “partial fasts” work. They’re fasts we can live with. They’re custom-designed by and for us. You can swap ’em for something harder, like an “Ezekiel fast” where you eat nothing but bean bread cooked over cowflops. Ek 4.9-15 Or swap ’em with actual fasting.

But no matter what we label it, self-deprivation isn’t a fast. It’s a diet. Our “meat fasts,” or “video game fasts,” or “coffee fasts,” or “Netflix fasts”—they’re attempts to sound more extreme or devout than we really are. To be blunt, calling something a fast when it’s not is hypocrisy. Don’t do that. Go ahead and diet for God. Just don’t call it fasting.