Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?
I just did some very quick research about fasting in Scripture. By that very quick search, I believe there are well over 70 references to fasting. To me this indicates a fairly common precept. So it’s somewhat disappointing to know that this Biblical and Wesleyan exercise is not practiced widely in our church. Wesley himself recommended fasting and abstinence as a means of grace by teaching and pattern. Wesley often fasted once per week from sundown on Thursday through late afternoon/early evening on Friday’s.
I’ll admit that I’ve always struggled with the “example” part of this question. I do fast. I believe in the power of fasting and abstinence as a means of grace. I usually practice a weekly fast in the same way Wesley did from supper on Thursday evening until after dark on Friday. I always struggle somewhat with talking about it. I think part of it is that since fasting is foreign to so many people it comes across sounding like “look how holy I am.” I hear the Sermon on the Mount pushing against the temptation toward self-righteousness:
Matthew 6:16-18 (NRSV)
16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
I’ve continued to wrestle with this even as I reflect on this question. What I share here about my own habits of fasting and abstinence is not about my own glorification, but because I believe that God is glorified through the practice.
First, I think it’s important to say a quick word about the difference between fasting and abstinence. Fasting is limiting the intake of food or some other item (television, social media, etc.), while abstinence is abstaining from a specific thing entirely (think the Catholic practice of not consuming meat on Fridays during Lent….that’s abstinence).
In my own life, I’ve seen the grace-filled spiritual benefits of fasting an abstinence in the following ways (and I’m sure others….but hey, I’m writing this in a hurry….I’m still getting to know my brand new daughter).
- Fasting and abstinence help us to seek God’s will. When I’ve approached fasting and abstinence with a specific intention for prayer in mind, I have often found clarity, discernment, and answered prayer.
- Fasting and abstinence are a means of grace that overcome sin. Our heart felt fasting can be a way that we repent and defeat sin in our lives. Joel prophesied:
Joel 2:12 (NRSV)
12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
- Fasting and abstinence create a healthy rhythm of soul-tending. My weekly practice is a rhythm to my devotional life that I protect and hunger for each week. Fasting and abstaining from the things of this world makes me hungry for God! I know that no matter my intention for prayer is or even if I don’t have anything in particular in mind, that the Holy Spirit honors the sacrifice and moves in my life in life-giving, perfecting ways.
Very recently, Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary (my alma mater), called the worldwide Asbury community (faculty, students, alumni, and friends) to a day of prayer and fasting. The day was set aside with several prayer intentions such as a budget shortfall and the seminary visioning process. Classes were cancelled and the entire day was set aside for prayer, fasting, and worship before a Holy God. I was privileged to gather with my Asbury family for this day of prayer. I’ve been blown away reading some of the things that God did during this day. You can read them here for yourself. In short, as the community sought the face of God together: $350,000 was raised to bridge the gap in the budget shortfall that very week. A student was convicted of their unconfessed sin regarding academic integrity and was able to confess and be reconciled to the professor. An international student prayed for God to meet her financial needs for the next school year, that very night she learned that all of her needs would be met by four people. Praise God!
Fasting and abstinence help us realize that it’s not about us. The sacrifice…the fasting, the abstinence, the worship is all about Jesus. The Asbury community was reminded of that. I’m reminded of that over and over. Fasting and abstinence is not a magic bullet…it’s a means of grace that connects us to the living God and aids us in focusing our prayer and our hearts deepest desires and needs (and checking those desires in light of God’s will). I will continue to teach and practice fasting as a means of individual growth for the Christian and as and hope-filled prayer for God to forgive and heal God’s Church.
Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example? I will so recommend.