Fasting Position Paper
By Stephanie Brown, University of Texas dietetics student
Fasting is oftentimes an overlooked spiritual discipline in the modern world. Fasting also has many mixed messages around it, the main contributor being diet culture’s emphasis on the pursuit of intentional weight loss. One thing that is certain, though, is that fasting is important to God. In fact, it is mentioned over 70 times throughout the Bible and as you observe Jesus’ life, He fasted! In Luke 4, Jesus fasted “for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they ended, he was hungry.” If our whole life purpose is to be conformed more and more into the image of Christ - sanctification- then why wouldn’t we also fast?
Let’s now break this down and look at places in Scripture indicating we, too, should fast! During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ most famous sermon, He says “when you fast…” Notice Jesus did not say if you fast, but when. We see in Acts 14, the early church was committed to prayers AND fasting. In Joel 2:12, believers are exhorted to return to the Lord with fasting. He wants our WHOLE heart and indicates this even further in Matthew 6:33. When we fast, our minds are able to focus more on God. During times that would be spent enjoying a meal, we spend time in prayer communicating with our Father in Heaven.
Now obviously we now know we want to fast because Jesus fasted, but why else do we fast? Isaiah 58 is a great chapter in the Bible about fasting, but verse 4 claims fasting can “make your voice be heard on high.” It amplifies our prayers! Struggling to make a decision? Fast. Feeling far away from God? Fast. Need a miracle to happen? Fast. God wants our heart, and this gives Him more of our heart! This can and should be done in the context of both community and in secrecy. We are reminded of our neediness for God as our source of life. We realize and get to experience God as the one sustaining us.
Fasting is also a way to resist the indulgence of our flesh. Now this is probably where diet culture takes fasting out of hand the most. By rejecting diet culture, we know that hunger cues are God-given signals to us! Hunger is a GOOD thing, and we need to eat to honor our bodies. Food is for survival, the flourishing of our physical bodies, and energy to live joyfully and serve God’s kingdom. But let’s think of other ways our body has appetites that we oftentimes sinfully give into: consumerism, power, sexual immorality, gossip, drunkenness, etc. Galatians 5:22 mentions self-control as a fruit of the Spirit that we are given once we believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Fasting is a discipline to starve these appetites of our flesh that draw us away from God. Fasting can absolutely be from many things other than food (social media, caffeine, shopping, etc.), but it definitely does include food too. Food is a necessity to sustain life, so when we fast from food, something essential to our bodies, we are able to be empowered in the Spirit to resist the fleshly desires from things that are not essential to our survival. For instance, 1 Corinthians 7:5 expands upon this idea of self-control in the area of sexual immorality stating, “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Fasting shows us the sufficiency of Christ our King. Now as a caveat, if someone is actively engaging in disordered eating behaviors, fasting from food may not be the best decision right now. An example of fasting for someone engaging in disordered eating patterns could be fasting from exercise. If exercise is a compulsive behavior to reach some ideal, fasting from exercise is thus starving your fleshly desires while keeping your body healthy and safe.
As we look to Jesus’ life, we see our Savior was filled with compassion. There are many times throughout Scripture where Jesus reaches out to the needy. Fasting is an opportunity for our own hard hearts to grow in compassion toward the poor and needy. Fasting is a humbling experience in that we are choosing hunger for a short time while we have food available to reflect on those who have no choice. Furthermore, rather than seeing fasting as a time to “save money from a meal or two,” we can grow in sacrificial generosity to provide a meal to someone in need with the money that would have been used for ourselves (Proverbs 22:9).
It is crucial to re-ground ourselves around the message of fasting. Fasting was NEVER intended to be a means of achieving a certain weight. This crossover of faith and diet culture is popularly seen with Lent, but the whole purpose behind Lent is to draw us into a closer relationship with God. How does fasting from sugar grow you in your relationships with God? Spoiler alert: it doesn’t!
All in all, fasting is an incredible way to reintegrate our soul and our body. In disordered eating, these lines often become blurred, so what a way to bring us back to our bodies' natural, God-given cues. These biological cues are gifts to us! Now remember, this is not applicable to those in eating disorder recovery because there may be an absence of hunger/fullness cues. So if you are in eating disorder recovery, make sure you discuss with your treatment team before deciding to go on any fast. Spend time in prayer and consider starting with something that is not food, such as exercise mentioned earlier, not wearing makeup, caffeine, etc. Would fasting be an opportunity for you and I to grow in gratitude toward the food we do have to nourish our bodies and souls.