The Lost Spiritual Discipline

I volunteer with a tutoring program at a friendly local megachurch, and when your student doesn’t have any homework, they have you read out loud from missionary biographies as reading practice.

One night, we were reading the story of Samuel Morris, a passionate young revivalist who came to America after miraculously escaping a rival tribe who tried to kill him. Guy had an interesting life.

At one point, Sammy Morris declared that he was going to set aside Fridays as a day of fasting, since that’s the day Jesus died and the day God spared his life in the jungle.

He also happens to have a dorm (and three statues) named after him at Taylor, which is cool.

He also happens to have a dorm (and three statues) named after him at Taylor, which is cool.

I glanced up from the story. “Do you know what fasting is?” My student, a shy seventh grader, shook her head. “It’s when someone gives up food for a set period of time and dedicates the time to God.”

“Oh,” she said. “Isn’t that like anorexia?”

Well. How do you explain to a thirteen-year-old with very little spiritual background the complexities of a spiritual discipline that we rarely practice in the Protestant church (though Jesus seemed to assume that we would)? Especially when it has a lot of superficial similarities to a self-destructive pattern of behavior that we tell young girls to stay away from at all costs?

Awkward silences are my favorite.

Once I recovered enough to say something, I blathered on for a bit about how fasting is usually for a short period of time so it can’t damage your health, and it’s about focusing on God, and, well, it’s just different.

That’s all true, I think, but here’s what I should have said: fasting is not the same as anorexia. Fasting is the opposite of anorexia.

Starving yourself is all about control. Every account I read of anorexia focuses on the obsessive need to measure food intake to the tiniest detail, the feeling of triumph when you can continue to function on next to nothing. The compulsive exercising, the victorious ache of an empty stomach, the obsessive calorie counting of each section of a graham cracker, each bite of celery—determining with ultimate authority what can be allowed in and what will not be worth the cost.

Fasting is about giving up control. It is, for once, saying “no” when you want something, when your whole body is demanding it. It draws out other desires, because when you’re hungry, you get to see the worst of yourself. The weakness, the paralyzing sense of dependency, the desire to find the nearest vending machine, buy out its contents, and stuff them all into your mouth at once—but deciding that no matter how awful it feels, it is worth the cost.

I think this person missed the point.

I think this person missed the point.

Anorexia takes something good—discipline—and twists it. It takes something that is about denying our wrong desires and turns it into denying good desires. It becomes selfish instead of a way to die to self. But so does self-righteous fasting. (Jesus talked about this too.) And so does gluttony…although gluttony might not be what you think it is.

Just like the opposite of love is hate…and apathy, and selfishness, all in different ways. And the opposite of joy is greed and also fear and also arrogance.


It’s like my favorite cooperative board game, Pandemic: there’s one way to win and three ways to lose.

Whichever extreme you’re most prone to, remember that anything that puts the focus on you instead of God is not good.

I love how John Piper put it in a book on fasting: “The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie.” When we get too comfortable, when we never have to take up a cross because people aren’t actually handing them out in middle-class suburbia these days, when the gospel starts to look like the American dream . . . something’s wrong.

Should we talk more about fasting in the Protestant faith? Is it possible to enjoy our blessings a little too much, to the exclusion of things like discipline and dependance on God? I don’t know for sure, but it’s something to think about.


  1. I think the reason you don’t see fasting addressed in the more “Protestant” faiths is because it’s not considered a Means of Grace. The preaching of the Word, The Lord’s Supper, Baptism and Prayer are the means of Grace. We aren’t given any specific promises of blessing as a church when we fast. 🙂 Good to think about though. 🙂

    1. I agree, and I don’t think fasting is required. But Jesus did say “when you fast” and said that his followers would fast when he was gone. I’d put it in the category of a spiritual discipline, not a means of grace. With fasting, I think it can be really helpful for spiritual growth if done with the right attitude, and that we’re missing something by ignoring it altogether. I do agree though, that it doesn’t seem to be emphasized as much as any of the things you listed.

  2. I appreciate the comparisons of opposites! That’s a good way to look at it.

    Fasting is not something I have regularly practiced, I must confess. An occasional endeavor at best. As you mentioned, it’s little taught in most churches today. And it’s often emphasized that you can just fast something you really like, such as Facebook or Pepsi. This always seems like a lame Plan B to me.

    On another note, this post reminds me of another troubling subject that gets little press from the pulpit: honoring the Lord’s day and making it set apart, a day of rest.

    This is another area that seems vague when I watch it in practice. Again, I’m including myself in this failure. Sundays can be exhausting. Busy in a different way than the rest of the week, but still full…often with church functions. Any thoughts on this?

    Christians would be in hearty agreement with the other 9 Commandments, but this one seems all over the place…

    1. Oooh, now I really want to write a blog post on the Sabbath! Good thoughts, and I think it would be interesting to bring up. Look for it sometime this summer!

  3. Excellent post!
    I wouldn’t say I fast regularly, but being a Catholic, I do during lent at the appointed times. I admit that’s kind of scraping by on the minimum though…
    Oh yes! Please do a post on Honoring the Lord’s Day! I would be extremely interested in seeing that!

  4. Look at the purpose of fasting in the old testament

    2 Samuel 12: 16-18: David fasted and wept for his dying child.

    Esther 4:3, 16: The Jews fasted when threatened with extermination at the hands of Haman.

    Jonah 3:6-10: Nineveh fasted when Jonah pronounced judgment on them.

    Notice the common thread from those examples, which could be multiplied from other Old Testament passages. Those who were fasting were faced with extreme circumstances of impending death or God’s imminent judgment. Greatly distressed and conscious of their utter helplessness, they suspended their normal eating habits in an urgent, extraordinary seeking of God who alone could deliver them from their distress.

    In other words, their fasting naturally flowed from profound spiritual urgency. It was not the product of routine spiritual ritual. It expressed deep dependence on God in times of uncommon anguish. In Joel 2:12-13 we read:

    “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.

    Fasting was an outward expression of the inward reality of a shattered heart. It was an urgent response of repentance and great humility. It was the seeking of deliverance from a gracious God in profoundly desperate situations.

    Old Testament fasting presupposes the spiritual realities of sin, judgment, repentance, helplessness, and dependence on God. It is a serious mistake to pursue external fasting without an earnest appreciation for the more important internal reasons that prompt it. Someone who casually pursues fasting as a religious duty without a broken heart actually mocks the reason for its existence.

    the purpose for fasting in the new testament: In Matthew 9:14 the disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus and ask why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast? So evidently Jesus’ disciples were not fasting while he was with them. Jesus answers with a word picture. He says, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” With those words Jesus teaches us two things: one is that fasting was by and large associated with mourning in that day. It was an expression of broken-heartedness and desperation, usually over sin or over some danger. It was something you did when things were not going the way you want them to.

    But that’s not the situation with the disciples of Jesus. This is the second thing he teaches: the Messiah has come and his coming is like the coming of a bridegroom to a wedding feast. This is just too good to mingle with fasting. So Jesus was making a tremendous claim for himself here. In the Old Testament God had pictured himself as the husband of his people Israel (Isaiah 62:4f.; Jeremiah 2:2; 3:20; Ezekiel 16:8; Hosea 2:19f.). Now his Son, the Messiah, the long hoped-for one, has come and he claims to be the Bridegroom—that is, the husband of his people, who will be the true Israel (cf. John 3:29). This is the kind of partially veiled claim Jesus made about his identity with God. If you had ears to hear, you could hear it. God, the one who betrothed Israel to himself in covenant love, has come.

    This is so stunning and so glorious and so unexpected in this form that Jesus said, you just can’t fast now in this situation. It is too happy and to spectacularly exhilarating. Fasting is for times of yearning and aching and longing. But the bridegroom of Israel is here. After a thousand years of dreaming and longing and hoping and waiting, he is here! The absence of fasting in the band of disciples was a witness to the presence of God in their midst.

    “Then They Will Fast”

    But then Jesus said, “But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” This is the key sentence: “Then they will fast.” When is he referring to?

    Some have suggested he was referring just to the several days between his death and resurrection. They would fast just for those days. But that is very unlikely. For several reasons. One is that the early church fasted after the resurrection, as we have seen in Acts 13:1–3 (cf. Acts 14:23; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27). The other is that in Matthew 25:1–13 Jesus pictures his second coming as the arrival of the bridegroom. In other words, the Bridegroom is taken away until the second coming of Christ.

    So I think Arthur Wallis is right in his sixth chapter of God’s Chosen Fast: “The time is now.” Jesus is saying: Now while I am here in your midst as the Bridegroom, you can’t fast, but I am not going to remain with you. There will come a time when I return to my Father in heaven. And during that time you will fast. That time is now.

    It’s true that Jesus is present with us by his Spirit. But Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:8, “We [would] prefer to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord.” In other words, in this age there is an ache and a longing—a homesickness—inside every Christian that Jesus is not here as fully and intimately and as powerfully and as gloriously as we want him to be. And that is why we fast.


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