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Safety Tips for Spiritual Fasting: The Intersection of Food and Faith

By Fitoru | 27 November 2019
alarm clock made of plate, spoon and knife

Spiritual fasting is a different animal from fasting for weight loss or a juice fast for detox and cleansing. That being said, the type of fast that is motivated by spiritual discipline still prompts some of the same questions as the others. Is biblical fasting safe? Are there any tips you can use to keep your mind on God’s word instead of your own hunger? This article has answers to these questions.

The Purpose of Fasting in the Bible

Modern calls for fasting by the church are often different from those forms of Christian fasting that are found in the Bible. Here is what Scripture (both the Old and New Testament) says about fasting practices, and why fasting is done.

1. To Seek Guidance from God

  • Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the Lord. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the Lord. Judges 20:26

This form of fasting is done not to influence a response from God, but to make oneself more receptive to His communications.

2. To Strengthen Prayer

  • So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer. Ezra 8:23

Prayer and fasting are often connected in the Old Testament, especially in intercessory prayer that asks for God to intervene. Scholars say that fasting is meant to supply a note of urgency to prayer, lending extra force behind the plea when it’s considered in the court of heaven.

3. To Seek Protection

  • Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. The people of Judah came together to seek help from the Lord; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him. 2 Chronicles 20:3-4

Fasting is also seen in the Old Testament connected to seeking deliverance from harsh circumstances or encroaching enemies. It is a type of fast that is usually conducted with a group of other believers. 

4. To Manifest Grief

  • Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days. 1 Samuel 31:13

The expression of grief even in nonbelievers often involves a sort of fasting, with friends and loved ones imploring the grieving individual to eat when they have lost their appetite due to a profound personal loss. This is done intentionally in the Bible, a time of fasting dedicated to expressing grief at the loss of life or the loss of nations. Another example is seen when David fasted to mourn the death of his child (2 Samuel 12:16).

5. To Humble Oneself

  • When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son. 1 Kings 21:27-29

Fasting is meant to express humility before God, but not (as scholars and faith leaders point out) to be a stand-in for humility itself.

6. To Repent

  • When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord.” Now Samuel was serving as leader of Israel at Mizpah. 1 Samuel 7:6

Fasting as a sign of repentance expresses internal grief and shame for sins committed. Fasting to mark a return to God expresses a seriousness about future obedience to moral commands. Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights on more than one occasion, on behalf of the sins of the people of Israel so that God would not destroy them (Deuteronomy 9:18, 25-29; 10:10).

7. To Minister to Others

  • Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— Isaiah 58:3-7

Fasting can be used as a time to ignore the needs of oneself and focus on the needs of others. 

8. To Express Worry and Distress

  • They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Nehemiah 1:3-4

Fasting in a state of concern over the acts of God we cannot understand is much like fasting for grief in that it is a tangible manifestation of anguish.

9. To Deny Temptation

  • Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Matthew 4:1-11

Fasting done by Jesus Christ himself was done to deny the temptations of the devil. Many in recovery from addiction find spiritual connections to this form of fasting.

10. To Express Worship

  • [A]nd then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Luke 2:37

Fasting in connection with the love and worship of God is another biblical example of how spiritual fasting can be used to serve your faith.

The Purpose of Fasting in the Bible

Tips for Safe Spiritual Fasting

Those fasting for spiritual purposes often do so to heighten their focus on religiously significant events, such as Ash Wednesday fasting or Lent fasting which sometimes involves 40 days of intermittent fasting to seek absolution. Modern Catholic practices call for partial fasts, like requiring that those above the age of 14 abstain only from meat on Ash Wednesday and on every Friday during Lent, and for those over 18 to participate in longer fasts on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. 

However, those who are physically or mentally ill are exempt from fasting because abstaining from meat or denying yourself pleasurable foods like chocolate for the sake of spiritual growth is never meant to cause physical harm, but instead prompt spiritual communion and promote self-control. For those who are fit enough to fast, how should it be done safely?

1. Prepare Your Body

The Christian faith is not the only one that practices fasting. Muslims also fast during Ramadan (a month-long period of time), as do those practicing the Jewish faith on the full fast days of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur. Those fasts are observed from sunrise to sunset, but however your faith dictates the practice of fasting, it’s advised that you prepare your body for the sudden deprivation.

By eating smaller meals in the days leading up to the fast, you can ease your body into the transition and hopefully cause less physical discomfort than you would experience by entering a fast “cold turkey.”

2. Plan for Nutrition

Fasting is not starving. It’s abstinence for the sake of your spiritual life. No matter which manner of fasting you choose, you are encouraged to consume some form of nutrition. First, here are some of the different ways to fast as seen in the Bible.

  • Partial fasts: Described in Daniel 10:3, partial fasting refers to abstaining from “luxuries” like meat, wine, and lotion. This sort of fasting may not even apply to food, which means for those who are not healthy enough for a dietary fast, abstaining from anything you crave that distracts you from God (be it alcohol or social media platforms) would be appropriate. It’s even suggested in 1 Corinthians 7:5 that a married couple could agree to abstain from sex to focus on prayer.
  • Complete fasts: Abstaining from solid food but consuming liquids like water or juice is known as a complete fast. A juice fast would provide you with more energy and nutrition, especially if you make your own using whole foods. Some scholars believe that Jesus must have had water in the desert during his temptation (Mathew 4:1-4) as the Scripture does not mention thirst, only hunger.
  • Absolute fasts: This is also known as a “supernatural” fast, and involves consuming no food at all and no water. Paul went on such a total fast for 3 days following his meeting with Jesus (Acts 9:9). This style of fast should be done only with approval from a doctor and should never exceed 3 days, as that is how long humans can survive without water. The shorter the better for this extreme form of fasting.

Whatever you allow yourself to eat, set yourself up for success by making sure you get the nutrients you need to stay healthy and focused on your spiritual goals. This could mean using intermittent fasting techniques for the smaller meals you eat before sunrise and after sunset, it may mean including coffee in the liquids you consume to keep up your energy, or it may mean including MCT oil in your juice or water so that a gnawing hunger does not distract you from your faith goals.

3. Seek Private Support

Fasting is meant to be done privately, just like giving to charity. “Showing off” your devotion to gain praise on social media (for example) could mean you’re fasting for the wrong reasons. Matthew 6:16-18 explicitly warns against boasting or advertising your fasting, saying, “[Y]our Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” 

However, that doesn’t mean you have to fast alone, or that you can’t speak of it if, say, a co-worker wonders why you aren’t eating lunch. Tell people only if necessary, but if it would help your spiritual goals to fast with your family or other members of your church, then it would be entirely appropriate to ask them for advice and support, whether it’s about fasting tactics or how to make sure your fast serves your faith.

Fast Times

The spiritual benefits of fasting in a busy modern world could be profound for you and the people in your life. Should it help you focus on the things that truly matter to you, teach you the personal discipline you know you’re capable of, or help you reach a place of spiritual well-being after a moral slip, a great loss, or a crisis of faith, then we only hope that you utilize spiritual fasting practices as safely as possible.

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