However, unlike some practices which have developed in the life of the church in the centuries since the Bible was written and formulated, fasting has a powerful and pervasive presence throughout Scripture. Apart from the myriad and diverse examples in the Old Testament, in the Sermon on the Mount—what might otherwise be called the charter for faithful discipleship—after discussing giving to the poor and right prayer, Jesus addresses fasting not as a request or even as a command, but as an assumption: “And when you fast...” According to Jesus, caring for the needy, praying to God, and regular fasting are all equally nonnegotiable practices for the life of the church.
In many ways, while prayer is the central discipline of Christian faith, fasting is the paradigmatic practice of embodied prayer: utterly practical and inescapably bodily, yet intractably spiritual because directed towards life with God and compassion toward neighbor. It is turned “up” toward God, “out” toward others, and “in” toward oneself. It is difficult, and can prove truly painful if extended over a long period of time, but testimony down through the ages claims it as one of the most deeply rewarding practices available to us.
Fasting makes us singularly aware of our frailty as human beings, of the unavoidable mortality that constitutes our lives as creatures. It seems irrational to give up something as necessary to our existence as food, but exactly something of that magnitude is required in order to rid ourselves of the rampant self-deception that we are our own masters, our own providers, our own self-sufficient caretakers. “People do not live on broad alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” As creatures sustained by a loving and radically generous Creator, we must live creaturely lives, conscious of our status as contingent beings dependent on the One from whom comes every good and perfect gift.
As we described it in the introductory study, instead of speeding headlong, unstopping, through the highway of gluttony, the spiritual discipline of fasting pulls us over and tells us to wait. In fasting we learn that food is not what sustains us; instead, God is our food. God sustains us. Not for a moment do we live without the gracious provision of God. And so, instead of eating, we pray. Not only do we pray, we remember those around the world and down the street who are hungry, too. We remember that Jesus was hungry, and that his hunger is the world's hunger. We remember to hunger and thirst first and foremost for righteousness, for justice, for peace—not for steak, or caffeine, or sugar. We remember that the bridegroom has left and we fast in eager anticipation of his return. We remember that the money in our pockets unspent on food can pay for another's meal. We remember, in other words, whose we are, and whom his mind is on, and how it is we live and move and have our being.
Fasting is about renewed remembrance, about the mind transformed in Christ, about the self-control that comes in the regular reply of “No!” to whatever our body tells us it wants. Our bodily existence was pronounced “Good” by God in creation, but in the Fall our desires have been warped and bent, such that we must learn to discipline them according to right desires shaped and taught by the Spirit. Sexual desires are channeled and fulfilled in marriage; work desires are ordered for particular times, while one day a week is given to rest; and so on. The desires of hunger are no less complicated, and certainly no less “spiritual” a matter: we seek to eat certain amounts at certain times, such that are bodies are given the energy they need without feeding the habit of more, which inevitably proves self-destructive. For special events and celebrations, with God’s blessing we feast, eating more than we need as a testament to the superabundance of God’s loving provision and gifts toward us. On other days or for other periods of time, we abstain from eating to remind ourselves and our bodies that sustenance is a gift, that life is not earned, that God is the origin of all nourishment.
And of course, food is not the only thing from which we can and ought to fast. As we have found in exploring the Sabbath and silence and solitude, anything which crowds out space for God in our lives is a prime example of that which can be dismissed, if even only for a time, in order to create space for God’s presence in our lives. Whether it be “stuff” like television and the internet, or habits like shopping and sports, fasting creates the reality that before existed only in our imagination—that life can be lived without the omnipresence of these passing things. When we turn ourselves fully to God, we will see, even if painfully at first, who it is that is truly able to fulfill all our desires.
Therefore our working definition will be:
Fasting is the Christian practice of abstaining from any particular activity, normally food, for the sake of (1) removing obstacles from our lives to encounter God, (2) embodying the trust that our lives are ultimately dependent on God alone, (3) freeing ourselves from some need or desire that has become compulsive or excessive, (4) sharing solidarity with the poor and the hungry in the world, (5) repentance and prayer before or after a time of confession or great temptation, and/or (6) entreaty to God for deliverance in a time of great suffering or uncertainty.