Spiritual Disciplines – Fasting
By Keri Vermeulen
In the western world, the idea of giving up anything that makes us feel good, gives us comfort, or improves our social status seems preposterous. So, the Christian spiritual practice of “fasting”, or giving up food for a set amount of time, seems out of step with pop culture. The spiritual purposes of fasting are often misunderstood. Which is a shame, considering fasting is right up there with prayer and giving as devotional practices Jesus expected His followers to undertake. And the list of people in recorded in the Bible as those who fasted is impressive, including: Moses, King David, Daniel, Elijah, Queen Esther, the Apostle Paul and Jesus Himself.
Although abstaining from food is practiced in faiths and lifestyles outside of Christianity, author and theologian Richard Foster says we have a long way to go to get back to biblical balance in fasting. In his bestselling book Celebration of Discipline, Foster writes: “Because of the secularization of modern society, “fasting” (if it is done at all) is usually motivated either by vanity or by the desire for power. That is not to say these forms of fasting are wrong, necessarily, but their objective is different from the fasting described in Scripture. Biblical fasting always centres on spiritual purposes.”
Modern Day Discipline
The central focus of Christian fasting must always be God, and the fast itself must be God-initiated. The practice of fasting needn’t seem old-school, or liturgical. There are modern, devout Jesus followers who are quietly – and powerfully – undertaking the spiritual discipline of fasting.
After a period of prayer, fasting and waiting, Langley residents Paul and Heidi Hughes followed God’s call for Paul to leave his career, and, a year later, another call to start a church in their home. It wasn’t a comfortable choice – Paul, with a PhD in Hebrew and Old Testament Studies, was an associate professor at Trinity Western University. After fasting and prayer, and confirmation from God, Paul left his tenured position, and the couple waited, prayed, fasted and listened for another year before hearing from God to start a church. Today, the church they founded in their living room, The River Fellowship, has been meeting for about 10 years, and has grown into a Sunday night meeting at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church (and now a second Sunday morning fellowship in Vancouver).
Meeting with the couple at their home to discuss the principles, reasons and practicality of fasting, there is no sense of strict self-denial and asceticism hovering in the air. Quite the contrary, the Hughes ooze with loving warmth, great faith and biblical authority. And it seems perfectly acceptable to sip a delicious café latte and nibble cookies while discussing the discipline of fasting.
Outcomes of fasting
“Two very key directional things (in our lives) have come during fasting and prayer,” shares Heidi, a gifted jewellery maker and visual artist by trade. “So that’s kind of interesting because if you look in the Bible, in the New Testament and the Book of Acts, Paul lays hands and ordains a bunch of leaders and elders, and then they fast. So there is directional stuff that comes with fasting and prayer.”
References to fasting in the Bible are numerous, and Jesus treated this discipline like it was a given, saying to His disciples in Matthew 6:16: “when you fast” (not “if you fast”). Jesus’ expectation is one that Heidi and Paul have taken seriously in their ministry.
“When we started the River, the assumption on our leadership, and especially in my own life, was ‘when you fast’, not ‘if you fast’,” shares Heidi. “I used to go to a prayer meeting on a Thursday, and God started to ask me to miss breakfast on a Thursday. I started fasting at this intercessory prayer meeting, and I was blown away how quickly that became kingdom – I was just seeing God do crazy things. I called them my special Thursdays.”
In Celebration of Discipline, Foster cites several benefits of fasting, including decision making, increased power in intercessory prayer, better concentration, physical well-being, godly revelations and deliverance from spiritual bondage and strongholds. Paul recounts an overseas trip they had taken – and Heidi had water fasted for 20 days in preparation. During that trip, as Paul and Heidi ministered, shared prophetic words and saw many people delivered from spiritual strongholds, such as drug and sex addictions. “When you fast and pray, it’s like you’re moving yourself out of the way so you can be a conduit through which God’s Spirit flows, and His kingdom purposes are fulfilled through you,” says Paul, who himself has been healed from anxiety and depression, after he and Heidi prayed and fasted together for a breakthrough.
There is often worry around the prospect of a fast, including fear that we won’t be able to carry it out, that we will be too hungry, tired or grouchy. Then there is concern that fasting is for selfish reasons (either for weight loss, or to get God to do what we want Him to do). Fear not, these practical tips should help you decide when, how, if and what to fast.
• Just say ‘yes’. “Once you say ‘yes’ to the Lord and you deny yourself, the power comes from the Holy Spirit. Most of the time people won’t know I’m fasting, because I’m glowing,” shares Heidi.
• It’s not all about you. We don’t fast to get God to do what we want Him to. It’s about God’s will. Fix your eyes on Him as you fast. “That is the only way we will be saved from loving the blessing more than the Blesser,” writes Foster.
• Seek support and wisdom. Seek Christian leaders and mentors who practice fasting. “We do a three-week fast every January and invite anyone who wants to join,” shares Paul. “We don’t just teach it, we model it.”
• Go slow. Try a small fast first, says Heidi. Try giving up one meal, or food for one whole day. If you have medical issues, try giving up sugar, coffee or alcohol for a period of time.
• Smile. Fasting isn’t a time to complain, moan or brag to your friends about your hunger. Jesus tells us not to draw attention to our fast. Focus on God, and worship Him.
• Trust God. As Heidi says, “if your fast is truly from God, you will be given the grace to get through it.”