How To Fast
In the last two letters, I’ve tried to give a biblical picture of what fasting is and why fasting is still a valuable practice for present-day Christians. But you might be wondering, “How do I actually do it?” Let me give you five practical pointers on how to fast as a Christian that we hopefully can put into practice together this Saturday. Christians should fast sincerely, privately, healthfully, prayerfully, and restfully.
First, fast sincerely. Fasting is primarily inward, not outward. It’s humbling your heart before God that counts; merely making your body uncomfortable has no spiritual value. The Bible strongly criticizes people who fast as an outward ritual while contradicting the meaning of fasting by their attitudes and choices (Isaiah 58). So, don’t become preoccupied with rules for when or what you may or may not eat. What exactly fasting looks like outwardly may be different for different people, but the inward humility, self-denial, repentance, and dependence it expresses is something we all can share in.
Second, fast privately. Jesus is very clear about this: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).
Third, fast healthfully. Your body probably is not used to fasting, so going “cold turkey” for a whole day without food may not be prudent. In fact, abstaining completely from food may be harmful (for example, for someone with diabetes, or pregnant or nursing mothers, or someone who has responsibilities involving strenuous physical labor). You should not feel conscience-bound to fast according to any rigid rule, especially one that would harm your body or keep you from fulfilling your responsibilities.
The good news is that abstaining completely from food is not the only way to participate in the practice of fasting. For example, you can fast for part of a day (maybe foregoing a single meal), or you can eat less than usual or simplify what you eat in some way. Some people find it helpful to forego eating or drinking something they usually enjoy but that isn’t life-sustaining, like sugary foods or caffeine. These are all ways that you can engage your body in the act of humbling yourself in dependence on God without stretching your body to the breaking point, which would actually dishonor God (1 Corinthians 6:20).
Remember, fasting is partly about recognizing and experiencing our human limitations and weakness; for you, that may include conceding that you do need to eat something—and you can do that in grateful and humble dependence on God.
(One more practical note: for anyone, it’s usually best to continue drinking water even when you’re fasting from food.)
Fourth, fast prayerfully. Fasting is only worthwhile if it helps us to pray. Set aside an extended period of time to pray. When you feel hungry (or start to crave something you’ve given up for a time), try to let that discomfort redirect your heart to cry out to God as He teaches you to feel your spiritual need, which is even greater. And plan if you can to come pray corporately at 6 p.m. when we gather at the church building to close the day and prepare together for worship the next morning.
Grace-Based Action Point
Finally, fast restfully. Do not treat fasting as a legal obligation. Fasting is not a “good work” that will help you tally—or forfeit—spiritual points with God. Christians should fast from rest—resting in Christ’s perfect work for us (including His perfect fasting!), and trusting joyfully in the assurance of His compassionate care for our bodies and our souls.
So do not let this Saturday’s call to fasting burden you. You are free in Christ from human religious regulations and arduous outward rituals, so do not let your conscience be bound to any artificial standard of what this Saturday has to look like for you. But you are also free in Christ to joyfully and willingly answer the call of our broader church to join our hearts in the common purpose of concertedly seeking God’s face, God’s forgiveness, and God’s favor for ourselves, our church, community, country, and the world.
Yours in Christ,