Perhaps no spiritual discipline is more neglected than fasting. This rings especially true as I write this post on the day after Thanksgiving. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation as well as negative attitudes about fasting. Our inability and/or unwillingness to fast, however, is indicative of a Christian culture that is just as self-indulgent as the atheistic culture that surrounds us. As the people of God, we demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Paul and Peter also list self-control as a virtue that is characteristics of followers of Jesus (2 Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:8; 2 Peter 1:6). The fruit of the Spirit includes self-control. This demonstration of the fruit of the Spirit should actually become effortless on our part. As we are transformed by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we simply are more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. These virtues are characteristic of who we are on the outside because these virtues are who we are on the inside. Just as flour, sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, peanut butter, and so on make a great cookie, the virtues of the Spirit of God in our inner lives make us similarly virtuous in our behavior.
Fasting makes us more receptive to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but it also gives us practice in being self-controlled. If we can develop some level of self-control in the food we consume, that self-control has the ability to transfer from food to other areas of our lives. The confidence we gain in completing a 24-hour fast can transfer to other areas of our lives that seem to control us. Perhaps it can transfer to other things we consume and influence our spending habits. Maybe there is a sin that we find ourselves committing regularly even though we hate it. Just as practicing an instrument takes time, effort, continual challenge, to see progress, continuous practice of the spiritual disciplines leads to progress in the development of our relationship with Christ and our character transformation into the likeness of Christ.
I promised some practical tips
So, what does fasting actually look like. If you have decided to fast, what do you need to do? Well, Elmer Towns identified four different types of fasts in Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough. There are, of course, variations of these types of fasts, but these are a good place to start.
A Normal Fast is what most frequently comes to mind when people hear the word fast. They think of abstaining from food for a given amount of time. The length of time varies from a few hours, three days, a week, up to forty days. How long should you fast? Seek God’s guidance. I have known a few people who have completed normal fasts (drinking fruit juices only with no solid foods) for forty days. However, 24-hour to one week fasts are most typical.
An Absolute Fast is abstention from food and water. Obviously, the absolute fast should be of very short duration should be attempted only under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and a medical professional. This fast can be very dangerous and should be attempted only by those in excellent physical condition.
During a Partial Fast only fruits and vegetables are consumed. For those with medical conditions which make total abstention from food a risk, this fast can be an effective and beneficial fast.
During a Rotational Fast, we eat only from certain food groups for a given period of time, then change food groups for another period of time, and so on. So, we might eat only dairy for three days, then switch to vegetables for three days, and so on. (Full disclosure: I have never done this type of fast and have never met anyone who has. If you have, let me know how it went.)
When to fast
Finding a time to fast in our society is extremely difficult. Just think about it. How many breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner meetings do you have in any given week? For some, this isn’t an issue, but there are frequently more days during the week that I have meetings scheduled during meal times than not. And if you have a family, do you really want to skip those few meals that you might have with your family? This challenge is exactly the reason we need to be fasting. Our schedules are frequently out of control and need to be reigned in. John Wesley fasted every week beginning after his meal on Thursday evening until about 3:00 on Friday afternoon. For the past several months, I have found this pattern to be doable, though I am not legalistic about it. I simply don’t schedule meetings around food on Fridays. What’s important is that you find a time, a regular time, to fast. All of this requires self-control, which happens to be the very virtue we are hoping the Holy Spirit works in our lives.
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