“And when you fast…” – Matt 6:16

If a 1st century Christian could enter a time-machine and jump into the 21st century, what would they think about Western Christians today? What one thing would strike them the most?

I suspect that they would be shocked at how little we fast.[1]

I have read several 1st & 2nd century Christian documents recently.[2] I am struck mainly by the importance of fasting in many of these texts – as an essential part of Christian practice – even one of the visible markers to distinguish Christians from non-Christians.

This led me to wonder – how could Christians today use fasting as a counter-cultural message to our overfed, self-indulgent Western society?

This post is in four parts:

  1. Why Fasting is Counter-Cultural
  2. Fasting Transforms Who We Are
  3. What Does it Look Like Practically?
  4. Common Objections

1.   Why Fasting is Counter-Cultural

“To deny our own instincts,” says  Mouse in The Matrix, “is to deny the very thing that makes us human.” This quote perfectly summarises the spiritual doctrine of consumerism.

Our culture teaches that every desire should be satisfied immediately – especially physical desires, i.e. comfort, food and sex. It says that human beings flourish by freely indulging every need they find inside themselves. Anything that prevents or delays satisfaction is considered an enemy and an obstacle. Self-denial, on this understanding, is especially perverse; it is nothing more than repression which leads to psychological disorders. You should not deny yourself anything you truly desire, or you will fail to fulfil your true nature and be free.

We find it hard to imagine why anyone would be able to satisfy a desire and yet choose not to. Thus as a culture we have forgotten the virtue of self-control.

Negative Effects of Our Culture

“It is impossible for the mind which is poured into many channels to win its way to the knowledge and the love of God.”
Gregory of Nyssa

Our culture’s warped vision of human flourishing leads to four major negative impacts:

Constantly distracted: A society without self-control becomes characterised by distraction. Everything competes simultaneously for our attention. We have lost the ability to focus on one thing for a long period of time; instead, we “multitask” – flicking rapidly between activities, giving sustained energy and attention to nothing.

Disintegration of the will: With many out-of-control desires competing for our attention and time, we are subject to the tyranny of one feeling after another. Our will is disintegrated, broken into many parts which conflict with each other, a civil war of the soul. The feeling that we want to lose weight gives way to the sight of that delicious cream donut. The desire to get our work done gives way to the easy stimulus of checking Facebook one more time. The feeling that we should save money fades before the impulse to buy a new item of clothing.

Feeding the Vultures: As we satisfy each desire, it grows and changes from a bonus into a dependence: we cease to be happier with it and become only miserable without it. Our needs continually claim more of our time and energy until we are unable to care for the needs of others because caring for ourselves is a full-time occupation.

Weakness of will: The 4th century theologian Gregory of Nyssa used the following analogy to describe human desires:

Imagine a stream flowing from a spring and dividing itself off into a number of accidental channels. As long as it proceeds so, it will be useless for any purpose of agriculture, the dissipation of its waters making each particular current small and feeble, and therefore slow. [3]

“Just so the human mind,” he goes on, “as long as its current spreads itself in all directions over the pleasures of the sense, has no power that is worth the naming of making its way towards the Real Good.”

2.   Fasting Transforms Who We Are

Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory has a scene where a Protestant chats to a Catholic Priest about their differences:

“It seems to me you people make a lot of fuss about inessentials. Fasting … fish on Friday …”

The Priest ponders for a moment and then replies:

“After all, Mr. Lehr, you’re a German. A great military nation.”

“I was never a soldier. I disapprove …”

“Yes, of course, but still you understand—discipline is necessary. Drills may be no good in battle, but they form the character.”[4]

Many Christians forget to fast because they don’t really see the point. They recognise that self-denial is important for avoiding sin, performing our duties and loving others – but why deny yourself when there’s nothing at stake, when nobody benefits, nor would you be sinning if you indulged?

Fasting is like military or sports training, as Greene observed. It’s useless in itself, but its goal is to change your habits and instincts so that when there is something at stake, you have the strength make the right decision. To say that fasting achieves no purpose is like saying that an Olympic sprinter should only run when they are competing in the Olympics. Why run when there’s no medal at stake?

Fasting trains our will and makes it strong. This connection was made in the 2nd century by Polycarp, disciple of the Apostle John. He wrote:

Let us be self-controlled with respect to prayer and persevere in fasting, earnestly asking the all-seeing God to lead us not into temptation, because, as the Lord said, ‘the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.’

Polycarp to the Philippians 7:2

I believe fasting is one of the ways we can recover the importance of self-discipline and self-control, which will overflow into other areas of our lives, making us more whole and our wills more united in their pursuit of God.

Fasting Deepens Our Theology

“After I had fasted and earnestly asked the Lord, the meaning of the writing was revealed to me.”
Shepherd of Hermas 6:1

We know God and the world differently when we fast.

For the last few hundred years Westerners have assumed that everyone sees everything the same way: a blue chair is a blue chair, regardless of who is looking at it. The idea that who we are might have an effect on what we see is dismissed as postmodern relativism.

But actually that idea is more premodern than postmodern. The great medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas said that everything is known according to the ‘mode of being’ of the knower. The 6th century theologian Boethius said similarly “everything which is known is known not according to its own nature but according to the nature of those comprehending it.”[5] Plain factual knowledge doesn’t exist: all knowledge has the shape of the knowing mind it inhabits.

The great New Testament scholar Dale Allison applies this insight to Bible reading:

What we see is always a function of our being. Adults see differently than do children,  and bats perceive the world differently than do flies. … Knowledge of Jesus has a  similar correlation. For Jesus was, among other things, a moral teacher, and the truth of  his teaching is in the living. Those who seek to conduct their lives in the light of the  canonical accounts of his life and speech will understand him differently than those who find guidance elsewhere.[6]

What changes when we fast? Obviously the text of Scripture doesn’t change. No, what changes is the parts we resonate with, prioritise, think important – the connections we make between things, the living relevance of a passage. What changes is the way we understand the life of Jesus-discipleship. To live as Jesus taught is to know things about him that cannot be known any other way. Some truths can only be found from the inside.

When I fast, my attitude towards the world shifts. I remember that my life isn’t about pleasing myself. I have a greater purpose in this world, and whether I am comfortable is not the most important thing. Life becomes to me less of a cocktail party and more of a war of good against evil.

When I fast, it makes me enjoy and appreciate everything I have. On normal days I get more pleasure from the things I gave up than I ever did when I ate them every day.

When I fast, I remember those in the world who don’t have enough food. I remember the huge privilege and luxury it is to live in a wealthy nation. I am moved to think more, and perhaps do more, for the poor and underprivileged – maybe even with the money I saved from not eating! As the Early Church Father, Clement of Rome, said:

“Fasting is better than prayer, while charitable giving is better than both.”
2 Clement 16:4

3.   What Does it Look Like Practically?

“Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.”
Didache 8:1

  1. When should we fast?

We forget things without a routine. I have found wisdom in the practice of the Orthodox Church, which follows a regular weekly and yearly pattern. Every week they fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, a practice which apparently goes back to the 1st century. Also every year they fast for Lent and Advent and a couple of other times.

  1. How should we fast?

I used to think that fasting only meant having no food at all for a period of time. Although this is one acceptable form, it is not the one most commonly practised by the early church or by the Orthodox Church, which seems to be the branch of Christianity that takes fasting most seriously. For them, it is usually followed this way:

  • Being vegan.
  • Also avoiding alcohol and olive oil.

There are variations in different places, and some people drop the oil prohibition.

Many people make an exception when they are guests at someone else’s meal table. I think this is a good practice because it prevents you from inconveniencing others.

4.   Common Objections

I have found that some people object to routine fasting for various reasons.

But what about Galatians 4:9-11?

How can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.

Some people read this passage as prohibiting all kinds of calendar spirituality. This means, of course, that it is not only wrong to keep Lent, but also to celebrate Christmas, Easter, birthdays, and even to treat Sundays specially in any way.

This is not how the early church understood Paul. They celebrated Sunday as “The Lord’s Day” without seeing any problem. For them, Paul was worried about specifically Jewish calendar observations. Why was that important?

For Paul, the new covenant has come in Jesus. Just as the Old Covenant was marked by many feasts and rituals, so also the coming of Jesus is marked by changing these rituals. Because of Jesus, we change our holy day from Saturday to Sunday, and we change our fast days from Monday & Thursday to Wednesday & Friday. If we continue to keep the Jewish rituals then we are effectively saying that Jesus didn’t make a difference. That is why the question agitated Paul so much.

We see evidence for the early church understanding of this, for example, in the Preaching of Peter ancient fragment:

Neither worship ye him as do the Jews, for they, who suppose that they alone know God, do not know him, serving angels and archangels, the month and the moon: and if no moon be seen, they do not celebrate what is called the first Sabbath, nor keep the new moon, nor the days of unleavened bread, nor the feast of tabernacles, nor the great day of atonement.

When the early Christians talked about “observing special days and months,” the context was their arguments with the Jews about how important Jesus was. This is also confirmed by Col 2:16-17.

But what about Romans 14:1-3?

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.

This passage could imply that, for the spiritually mature, freedom in Christ means no dietary restrictions and legalistic observations. This freedom is often linked to the idea that, since we are justified by faith, we don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation. Fasting would be trying to win God’s favour, wouldn’t it?

If anyone is fasting to “earn their salvation,” then they should stop now! But that is not what Rom 14:1-3 is about. Here the context is that most meat had been sacrificed to idols, and Christians were unsure whether eating it implied acknowledging the idol. This is confirmed by 1 Cor 8:4-7.

The reasons we should fast, which I gave above, have nothing to do with earning God’s favour. They are about our own spiritual growth and development.

Further Reading

[1] Of course, Matt 6:18 means that everyone might be fasting and I am just unaware of it! But most people think Jesus’ point was to prohibit showing off. I do not think he was forbidding people from fasting together, and the Church has always done this since the beginning. In my experience, a community that fasts regularly also speaks regularly about fasting, but not necessarily in a boastful way.

[2] I’ve been using this excellent website.

[3] On Virginity, VII

[4] Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (Bantam, 1971).

[5] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. S. J. Tester, vol. 74, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 423.

[6] Dale Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009), 47.

The following two tabs change content below.
Barney is the lead editor for the site. A theology fellow at Oxford University, he also hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers.