Posted by: Philip Rushton | February 12, 2013

Fasting: Discovering life-restoring limits

The season of Lent, which is the 40 day period that leads up to Easter, begins tomorrow. As such, I thought it might be helpful to talk a bit about the Christian practice of fasting. Historically, Lent is a time where many people fast. In fact, this 40 day season is sometimes referred to as the Lenten fast. You often hear of people abstaining from certain foods, or incorporating fast days into their weekly schedule.

However, many of us do not know much about fasting. It is one of those disciplines of the faith that seems obsolete. One of the reasons why fasting is not talked about very much is because we live in a culture that legitimizes excess when it comes to food. Gluttony has become one of those respectable sins that seem harmless. Richard Foster writes, “in a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of step with the times.”

Fasting, however, is a biblical idea. Almost all of the major characters in scripture fast, including Paul and Jesus. Even though Paul rejected the legalism of the Pharisees, he continued to “fast regularly” (2 Cor 6:5). In Matthew 6:16 Jesus says, “when you fast, don’t make it obvious . . .” Notice Jesus does not say, “if you fast,” but “when you fast,” thereby implying that he expects his disciples to incorporate this practice into their lives.

Since this is a biblical idea I thought I would share a few thoughts about why this practice is beneficial to our spiritual growth. I think we need some motivation to consider this practice, because it is a bit of a tough sell. Tony Jones puts it this way, “The Desert Fathers and Mothers found it so difficult to maintain a life of prayer, silence, and fasting in Jerusalem and other cities that they retreated to the wilderness – and they had never seen a billboard for McDonald’s or a TV ad for Mountain Dew!” If people found it hard 2000 years ago, it will be even harder for us today.

One of the major reasons why fasting is a beneficial spiritual discipline is that it helps to reveal the things that are controlling us. Marjorie Thompson writes, “fasting reveals our excessive attachments and the assumptions that lie behind them. Food is necessary to life, but we have made it more necessary than God.” When you take away food, our attachments and addictions are exposed. That is why fasting is a helpful discernment tool. It helps us discover the things that are taking the place of God in our lives.

Along with this, fasting helps to bring balance back to life. Richard Foster writes, “ Our human cravings and desires are like a river that tends to overflow its banks: fasting helps keep them in their proper channel. ‘I pommel my body and subdue it,’ said Paul (1 Cor 9:27).” Fasting teaches us self-control, which in turn helps us find balance. We probably have all experienced how overindulgence leads to frustration. Not only does it make us physically sick and tired, but it can also make us feel emotionally and spiritually frustrated. When our desires overflow the banks we get caught up in a flood of frustration.

I love how Majorie Thompson explains this dynamic in her book Soul Feast. She writes:

Perhaps we can see, then, that the discipline of fasting has to do with the critical dynamic of accepting those limits which are life-restoring. Our culture would seduce us into believing that we can have it all, do it all, and (even more preposterous!) that we deserve it all. Yet in refusing to accept limits on our consumption or activity, we perpetuate a death-dealing dynamic in the world. That is why the discipline of fasting is so profoundly important today.

I love this idea of “life-restoring limits.” When we are intentional about limiting indulgence we experience restoration and growth. It is similar to the idea of exercise. When we actually put in the effort to work out we feel good afterward. The same thing happens when we limit television, or excessive food. One person in our Wednesday night class on the spiritual practices used the metaphor of camping. When you go camping you accept certain limitations. You get away from T.V., you cook with limited resources and you spend time out in nature. While these limitations can be inconvenient at times (especially if you camp with kids), it is often life-restoring. While camping you often have more time for meaningful conversations with the family, you have space to enjoy nature and you can experience the refreshment of a simpler life.

Lastly, and most importantly, fasting is a means of communing with God. First and foremost fasting is not done for the benefits, but as an act of worship to God. In Zechariah the God says, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?” (Zech 7:5). This implies we can fast for selfish reasons and miss the point. John Wesley says, “first, let fasting be done unto the Lord with our eye singly fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven.” What this means practically is that our fasting will be done in the context of prayer. We replace food with prayer.

I would encourage you to consider trying out the discipline of fasting during Lent. There are many ways to practice fasting. Sometimes it is simply going with less food on a regular basis. Abba Poemen says, “For my part, I think it is better that one should eat every day, but only a little, so as not to be satisfied.” John Stott fasted daily by never having a second helping at meals as a way of standing in solidarity with the poor and building in regular limits. Others fast from certain foods that are becoming addictive and unhelpful. Others work towards regular day long fasts. If you consider this please consult your doctor if you have health problems. Diabetics, heart patients, expectant mothers and other should not do long fasts. If you do try out day long fasts it is important to work up to it. Start with a partial fasts that allow fruit and vegetable juices. It is also helpful to start by giving up only 2 meals and practicing a 24 hour fast. Many find it helpful to eat lunch and then fast for dinner and breakfast and break the fast during the following lunch. Try this a few times before giving up fruit juice and then try with water only. Lastly, you can also try fasting from things that are not food. Many people put limits on things like media and technology.

At the bottom of the post I have attached a “Guide To A Meaningful Lent,” which went out in the bulletin this week. You can download this by clicking on the link. It is a planning guide with a number of ideas for how you might make the most of the Lenten season. It includes ideas for different fasts, a reading schedule that encourages you to read and journal through the Gospel of John between now and Easter, and a calendar with all of our special worship services during Lent. My prayer is that Lent will be a meaningful time of spiritual renewal for you this year!

Guide To A Meaningful Lent


  1. Great!

  2. Very inspiring. And I love the book “Soul Feast” by Margaret Thompson. I’ve gone throught it twice – it’s a great book to use for a Bible study.

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