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steak and wine

Fasting: A brief history (Hint: it isn't just for monks)

For those who have grown up Roman Catholic, or in other liturgical churches that observe the Christian calendars, fasting is not an unfamiliar concept. Even in the remotest reaches of Protestantism, there is some respect for it as a personal spiritual discipline. In fact, I spent part of my childhood in a church that is as far from liturgical as one can get. And yet, several families had a weekly fast, usually on Sunday afternoons. The idea was to deny the self and its bodily desires, and instead to take the time that would have gone to eating and meal preparation, and spend it praying and studying the Bible.

Fasting has a long and noble tradition in Christianity. Fasting is not directly commanded in the Bible, except for the fast required of Israel in the law of Moses, in observance of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27). However, the practice of fasting was common, particularly in times of trial or as a show of penitence.

For example,

“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
(Joel 2:12, New International Version)

Isaiah says this:

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
“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— when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
(Isaiah 58: 3-10, New International Version)

Daniel, and three of his companions, observed a kind of fast while they were serving in the court of Nebuchadnezzar. They asked to eat vegetables and drink water, instead of feasting on the meat and wine from the King's table. They likely did this to avoid eating unclean animals, or perhaps it was because the meat still had blood in it, in violation of the law of Moses. They were rewarded by God for their faithfulness:

To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds. (Daniel 1:17, New International Version)

In the interest of brevity, I won't belabor every single example of fasting to be found in the Old Testament. For those interested in looking into this more deeply, I commend some of the following Old Testament passages, offering examples of fasting: Psalms 35:13, Ezra 8:23, nehemiah 1:4, Ezra 8:21–23, Jonah 3: 5-10, Judges 20:26, Psalms 109:24, Esther 4:15–16, 2nd book of Samuel 1:12, 1 Samuel 31:13, 2 Samuel 12:16, 2 Chronicles 20:3, 1 Chronicles 10:12.

In the New Testament, Jesus himself is noted to have fasted during his time of testing in the desert (for example Matt 4:2). He later had some powerful words to say about fasting, while delivering his famous "sermon on the mount":

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:16-18)

Jesus assumes that fasting is a part of the spiritual life of his hearers. He is not addressing the problem of whether or not to fast, but rather the issue of motivation and secondary gain--namely the social approval that may come from appearing pious.

As the Christian church evolved over the centuries following the days of Jesus, the discipline of fasting evolved as well. Specific days and seasons of fasting emerged, and strict guidelines developed. Christians were to fast during Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter. The season of Advent also developed as the Christmas season's version of Lent. Christians were to fast also for several hours prior to receiving communion.

With the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, ritualized fasting fell out of favor. Luther and his colleagues felt that the prescribed fasts amounted to an external work, and rejected the Catholic Church's rules on when and how to fast. Luther felt that fasting should rather be an individual choice. He wrote:

Of fasting I say this: It is right to fast frequently in order to subdue and control the body. For when the stomach is full, the body does not serve for preaching, for praying, or studying, or for doing anything else that is good. Under such circumstances God’s Word cannot remain. But one should not fast with a view to meriting something by it as by a good work.

In Zwinglian Switzerland, reformers even made a show of eating sausage during Lent.

On the other hand, John Calvin taught that every day of one's life is a fast--all of one's days ought be lived in such a self denying way as to resemble fasting: "...the life of the godly ought to be tempered with frugality and sobriety that throughout its course a sort of perpetual fasting may appear." (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3.3.17).

Why Fast?

First, as we have already seen, fasting was part of the spiritual life of ancient Israel, and was practiced by those to whom Jesus taught. He assumed they would be fasting.

Fasting is commended as a discipline that can help us grow in faith. It may be seen as the flip side of prayer. Whereas prayer is about entering into God's presence, fasting is about loosening our grip on the things of the world around us, which hinder our access to God.

In a way, it is like exercising, building up spiritual muscles that will help us to resist temptation. Often it is bodily cravings that entice to sin. Jesus told his disciples on his last night, "Watch and pray, for the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak". Fasting is one way to learn to master our bodies, to strengthen that weak flesh.

Here is more from Calvin's Institutes of Religion:

Let us say something about fasting, because many, for want of knowing its usefulness, undervalue its necessity, and some reject it as almost superfluous; while, on the other hand where the use of it is not well understood, it easily degenerates into superstition. Holy and legitimate fasting is directed to three ends; for we practice it either as a restraint on the flesh, to preserve it from licentiousness, or as a preparation for prayers and pious meditations, or as a testimony of our humiliation in the presence of God when we are desirous of confessing our guilt before him.
(Institutes, IV.12, 14, 15)

Fasting: It is about food ...

Fasting may be defined more broadly than just giving up meat. Food is, however, a huge part of our lives, and a source of earthly pleasure. Therefore one can't really speak of a fast without talking about food. This may mean abstaining only from certain kinds of food, like meat or desserts, or it can mean something more intense, like water only. I would not advise attempting a "supernatural" fast (like going with no food for 40 days, or no water for several days). Our bodies may be weak but that doesn't mean we regard them as evil--they are gifts to us from God. Fasting isn't about starving or arriving at a point near physical death. The goal is to help our souls, not to harm our bodies.

For a really down to the details discussion on how to fast from food, here is a good resource: Personal guide to fasting

...but It isn't only about food

We should also be loosening our grip on other worldly pleasures besides food. One noted preacher has suggested "4 S's":

"So here are a few thoughts in advance of Lent. We can start with small, physical things which show our need of discipline while having an eye towards things we can do without – and which can even benefit us by being shed. Here are my “Four S’s” – seconds, sweets, salt and spirits (as in wine, not angels). Think about any one, any combination, or all together as something to fast from. Your body as well as your soul will feel better by Easter...

Then, more profoundly, think of fasting and abstaining from your sins. Think of Isaiah again. Proud, loud bearings and looks. Selfish, greedy habits. Foolish, scandalous or slanderous talk. Away with it! Take it to the dump. Then think of filling the holes created by these sins with kindness, generosity, and words and deeds of encouragement."

May you be blessed as you partake in this and other disciplines of the spiritual life.

Other Sources:

  • Luther quoted in Baab, Lynne, 2006, Fasting, Spiritual Freedom Beyond our Appetites, Downers Grove, Intervarsity Pres: 60)
  • A New Hampshire church (Christ Redeemer Church, Hanover) has a good collection of biblical references and other information about fasting, located here.
  • Wikipedia has a nice history.
  • Sermon by Fr Andrew Mead, former rector of St. Thomas Church, New York City: Online here.

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