Fasting

A spiritual and physical discipline

 

Update 2017: I recently came across a Church Fathers Lenten Reading Plan, with the full texts too, which will give you 40 days worth of devotional material to go through that takes about 10-15 minutes. By day 40 (minus Sundays), you will have read 10 different Fathers! This will give you a good overview of some of the earliest Christian leaders, thinkers and theologians who followed on from the Apostles.
You can get the full texts for each day in PDF format here.

 

Advertisement

Lent 2016: Lent is upon us once again! Even though we are already four days into the fast (according to Western tradition) I thought it’d be good to write something on the discipline of fasting.

And, much like any major holiday, there is the usual arguments and accusations about how it's all just pagan festivities with a "Christian mask". Easter is no different, and usually gets hit the hardest over its so-called "pagan roots" or Lent being some "invention of the Catholic Church".

So this year I decided to look into it a little, since I like to try and observe Lent, and it turns out that much of the accusations against Easter and Lent are nonsense and misinformation.

A 40 day fast prior to Easter has been a long established practice within the Church dating back to within the first century. This is well established from ancient letters we still have available, such as from Irenaeus:

For some consider themselves bound to fast one day, others two days, others still more. In fact, others fast forty days ... And this variety among observers [of the fasts] did not have its origin in our time, but long before in that of our predecessors.

Irenaeus (c.180)

See here he notes that this was a practice passed onto them by their "predecessors", a term often used in conjunction with the Apostles themselves, or those which immediately came after them, putting the origins of this Lent fast much earlier than when Irenaeus wrote in 180.

While there is a tentative link to the name "Easter" and a old Saxon goddess, the older root of the word simply means "East" or "dawn" in some other renditions, according to an Etymological Dictionary:

Ester and oster, the early English and German words, both have their root in aus, which means east, shine, and dawn in various forms.

But an even more primitive root is where these words derive: Auferstehung which means resurrection! That seems more fitting for the Easter season, don't you think? Other than English and German, pretty much all other languages have some word with its root meaning coming from pascha - ie. Passover. Which is what the original Christians called this time of year too.

By the time of the Council of Nicea (325 AD), Easter celebrations within the Church was a standard event which was preceded by 40 days of fasting. Athanasius had a custom of writing his "paschal (Easter) letters" to the churches at this time of year to give encouragement for fasting and self-control and moderation, linking the 40 days to the length of Jesus' fast in the desert. His letters are useful as they show quite clearly that the time of Lent and Easter have been established for many centuries in the Church, and are nothing to do with paganism!

The beginning of the fast of forty days is on the fifth of the month Phamenoth [Ash Wednesday]; and when, as I have said, we have first been purified and prepared by those days, we begin the holy week of the great Easter on the tenth of the month Pharmuthi [Palm Sunday], in which, my beloved brethren, we should use more prolonged prayers, and fastings...

Athanasius, Letter III

I won't go into much more detail on the history of Lent and Easter (or pascha), but I hope you can see from this brief intro that the practice has been well established in the historical Church since the beginning, and isn't a "new" or invented thing merged from/with paganism and fertility goddesses.

So with that said, let's take a look at the practice of fasting. It seems to be a spiritual discipline which has been pushed aside in many churches today, with prayer, worship and bible reading taking more precedence in a Christian's life instead (not that those are bad things to do!).

Why fast?

  • Fasting is participation in the Gospel. It is the ‘death’ of the flesh through denial, so that we can enjoy the resurrection of Christ in the spirit (Rom 8:13, Col 3:5).
  • It’s pure discipline and obedience.
  • It’s putting to death the body – killing the flesh in order to live by the Spirit. (Gal 5:17)
  • It’s training you in self-control and disciple, growing the fruit of the Spirit.
  • To receive visions and revelation, and to hear from God.
  • To strengthen willpower.
  • To not be ruled by your desires and cravings – impulse control.
  • To focus on God and not ourselves.
  • To be in control of your body and to make your desires subject to you, not vice versa.
  • For self-denial to overcome temptations and learn discipline.
  • For repentance.
  • For prayers for your enemies/persecutors and forgiveness.

Some Fasting Guidelines

If you want to fast in the same way as the Early Church and keep with historical Christianity, fast every day until sunset (or 3pm) during your fasting period. Historically also, the Church has always had a weekly partial fast on Wednesdays and Fridays alongside other times (such as Lent).

Advertisement

Generally, you can drink what you like (except soup, as it’s still a food), though there are different types of fasts the Church has kept throughout the year (the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches still do this) which have different restrictions, like no alcohol. But plenty of water is ideal in any case.

The first five days or so will be the hardest if you observe the strict fast for a longer period of time. Persevere past this as it does get easier! I've always been told to drink a large glass of milk if you experience headaches, I'm not sure why this helps but it does seem to!

It’s not a sin to tell people you are fasting! The warnings of Jesus in Matt 6:16 about not looking dismal and sad, is like the warnings against public prayer – it’s all down to motivation. If you do it for the praise of others, or to look “super spiritual” then you have gained an earthly reward and lost a heavenly one. If people notice and ask, tell them. It may be an opportunity to witness about your faith, as it’s fairly unusual for people to hear of these days; just don’t go around advertising it or boasting, that’s all!

Remember what Jesus says in Matthew 6:16-18 – go about your days as normal!

Advertisement

As with the historical tradition: don’t fast on Sundays – this is because it is a day of celebration in remembrance of the resurrection; a “mini-feast day” as it’s known! Also, this is why and how the forty days “fits” from Ash Wednesday to Easter Saturday, by not counting the Sundays of Lent, otherwise it would be 46 days.

Types of Fasts

There’s a whole variety of different fasts which the Church has observed over the years (see this calendar as an example of Orthodox fasting)!

But here’s a breakdown of some typical fasts which anyone in good health should be able to keep which I’ve taken from the various teachings found in the Church Fathers letters on fasting and Lent:

  • Weekly: A fast observed every Wednesday and Friday until sundown in the Traditional practice (see below) or a bread and water only diet. Wednesdays and Fridays were chosen for two reasons:
  1. Initially, to be on opposite days to the Pharisees (as this practise began during the start of the Church and is recorded as such in the Didache 8:1 and the Apostolic Constitutions, VII:XXIII); and,

  2. Advertisement

    because Wednesday was when Jesus was betrayed, and Friday because of the crucifixion and Passion.

  • Traditional: basically a vegan-like diet; no meat, fish, dairy or oils/dressings. No alcohol either, just water. This is the same type which was done weekly on Wed and Fri too, and was based on Dan 10:3 –
    “I had eaten no rich food, no meat or wine had entered my mouth, and I had not anointed myself at all, for the full three weeks.”

  • “Loose”: No food until sundown/next day, drink anything during fast hours (except soup still). This has typically been the teaching of how to fast in many Protestant/Evangelical/Non-Denom churches I’ve been in.

  • Strict: No food or drink except water all day (except maybe milk for headaches), or until the fast ends. This type was historically observed only on Saturdays, although it varies amongst Christian traditions (as do all these ‘types’).

Observe any as you are able and healthy to do so. As we fast, we should remember the true and better fast which God prefers and spoke of through Isaiah in Isa 58:6-9

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Verse 10 onwards tells us that living holy and right before the LORD as our spiritual fast, He shall guard us and give us good health, and shall answer us.

What to do during your fast?

Advertisement

Replace mealtimes with and hunger pangs with prayer and/or Bible study. Read a chapter or two of a Gospel each meal time and work your way through the whole New Testament.

Pray! “But I don’t have enough things/people to pray for!” you may say – Make a list and routine of people and/or issues you care about and pray for these each day and see where the Holy Spirit leads you. Pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Pray for protection. You will no doubt experience some sort of spiritual attack and strong temptation. Keep your guard up and mind focussed on God. Put on the armour of God (Eph 6:11). Remember, even Jesus didn’t escape this attack from the devil during His long fast (Matthew 4:1-11)!

Learn to pray contemplative prayer. Ps 46:10 – “Be still, and know that I am God!”

Advertisement

This is an ancient type of Christian meditation which is the complete opposite to secular and Eastern religious meditation which aims to empty your mind. Christian meditation is about filling your mind with thoughts and reflections on and about God and Scripture – to really focus on a verse or passage of Scripture and to pray and wait on God in silence until you become aware of His presence and His voice (in whatever form that takes, ie. visions, pictures, words etc.), and are filled with the Spirit who can reveal the deeper things of God and Scripture (1 Corinthians 2:10).

You can read more on this type of prayer, and it’s Scriptural basis, in my other article, here.

Pray the ancient “Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

When words fail you and your mind is busy and cluttered, I have found this to be most helpful in stilling and focusing the mind completely on God. This practise dates back to around the 4th century when monks endeavoured to do as Paul instructed when he wrote to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Advertisement

The prayer is simple and easy to remember, with the point that you can pray it anywhere, anytime when you want to focus; or during contemplative prayer when you have time to really focus on each word and phrase and its meaning. It is said that this prayer contains the essence of the Gospel, and so praying it continually will help you to remember and realise the great truth that the Son of God came down from glory to be a man and die for us while we were still sinners.

Some Encouragement on Fasting

Fasting can be hard! It’s not easy – there’s no denying that, and it’s probably why it’s fell out of fashion and practise in the modern church as it goes so much against our comfortable lifestyles, it’s almost painful! But that’s also precisely why we should fast! It is so totally counter-cultural that we cannot help but be refocused away from this world and all its distractions, and back onto God and to spiritual things.

Read through the Gospels and we’ll see Jesus stating that “When you fast…” (Matthew 6:17) – not if; and even throughout the book of Acts we can see that the early church fasted regular and often, especially when they sought direction from God.

If it were not for the church fasting and praying in Acts 13:1-4, they may not have heard from the Holy Spirit about sending Paul out on his first missionary journey, and if he had not done that, the faith may never have spread as far and fast as it did, nor would we have the majority of our New Testament! Fasting is a vital church discipline, I believe.

Advertisement

Similar, history changing events, also happened from prayer and fasting in 2 Chronicles 20, and the post-Acts early church. Here’s a quick quote from Tertullian (c.198) and Irenaeus (c.180), respectively, on the power of prayer and fasting:

“When, indeed, have droughts not been put away by our kneeling and our fastings?”

“When the entire church in that particular locality entreated God with much fasting and prayer, the spirit of the dead man has returned, and he has been bestowed in answer to the prayers of the saints.

The general belief about fasting, which we can see in the early writings, also shows that the Church taught not only abstaining from food, but any evil deed, word or thought (Clement of Alexandria, c.195), and that during a fast, our prayers “ascend with more acceptability” (Tertullian c.198).

Advertisement

Also, even here in Britain in 1756! John Wesley recounts a time when the King of England called for a time of fasting and prayer when France threatened to invade. He wrote in his journal:

“The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God heareth prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquillity.”

He later noted that following this, the invasion was averted! More accounts of national prayer and fasting in crisis times can be read here.

In one of the earliest post-New Testament books we have still in existence, called The Shepherd, the writer, Hermas, is fasting and praying and gives advice to other Christians on the practice. As well as mentioning the 'lifestyle fast' of Isa. 58, he says:

“Be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect.”

 

Our fasting is as much about living right and conforming ourselves to the mind of Christ, as it is about avoiding certain foods for a time. As Augustine wrote, there are three main things we ought to do in order to live a righteous life, which he deduced from Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels: fasting, alms and prayers.

“Now in the fasting [Jesus] indicates the entire subjugation of the body; in the alms, all kindness of will and deed, either by giving or forgiving; and in prayers He implies all the rules of a holy desire.” –Augustine, Treatise on Man’s Perfection in Righteousness, ch.18.

Closing prayer

Advertisement

May our lives be a spiritual fast of Isa 58 and our bodies be a spiritual sacrifice in worship to God, as of Rom 12:1 and 1 Pet 2:5-6, as we humble ourselves and learn humility and self-control through physical fasting; putting to death the flesh so that we may be made alive in the Spirit!

Amen.

 


 

Advertisement

Further Reading:

Lent Reading/Devotional Plan:

 

 

Contribute on Patreon

Enjoying this? Consider contributing regular gifts for this content on Patreon.
* Patreon is a way to join your favorite creator's community and pay them for making the stuff you love. You can simply pay a few pounds per month or per post that a creator makes, and in return receive some perks!

Subscribe to Updates
Order my new book today from Amazon or fortydays.co.uk

Subscribe to:

Have something to say? Leave a comment below.

Leave a comment   Like   Back to Top   Seen 503 times   Liked 0 times

Subscribe to Updates

If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe to free email updates ?

Order my new book today from Amazon or fortydays.co.uk

Subscribe to Blog updates

Enter your email address to be notified of new posts:

Subscribe to:

Alternatively, you can subscribe via RSS

‹ Return to Blog

We never share or sell your email address to anyone.

I've already subscribed / don't show me this again

Recent Posts

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?

| 01st April 2018 | Easter

Today we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ! What a wonderful day to remember and praise, but not just because Jesus was raised to new life, but because in that moment it sealed the promise of our own hope in God. Through Jesus' death and resurrection, we can now be partakers in that new, eternal life! 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” "Where, O death, is your sting?" Paul writes, showing the fulfillment of this prophecy in Christ. This should now be our battle cry as we go forward in Christian life; death has no hold over us who are sealed by the Holy Spirit through baptism, raised to new life in Christ. I won't go into this topic too much now, as I've written on it plenty before here and here. I just wanted to focus our minds on the victory we have because of Jesus and what he did for us this day, centuries ago. I'll close with this worship song which celebrates the resurrection, which I really like. Focus on the words of the song and praise God for Jesus! Happy Easter, everyone. ...

How was Jesus a sacrifice?

| 25th March 2018 | Lent

So often we hear this phrase said about Jesus, that he was “the lamb of God” and that he “takes away the sins of the world” — but what do those things mean and how did he take away sin? John 1:29The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (cf. Jn 1:36) The New Testament writers repeatedly refer to Jesus as a lamb; but not only that — as a ransom too. Jesus even introduces himself that way at one point: Mark 10:45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (cf. Matthew 20:28) To better understand the terminology and analogy we need to go back to the Torah, the Old Testament, and look at this from a Jewish perspective and what the sacrificial lamb initially meant. The main comparison that is drawn between Jesus and the old sacrifices, is that of the Passover lamb. The link between the two is really quite amazing and to be honest, I didn't realise just how much of this Jesus fulfilled in himself until I was writing this. First we need to go back to the very first Passover to see what it meant for Israel. The whole story can be found in Exodus 12, but the relevant parts to the lamb are about how it should look and be prepared, and the reason for the blood covering: Exodus 12:5-7, 13 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. […] The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. The instructions about the Passover meal also go on to say that no bones of the lamb may be broken (v. 46) and that nothing must be left overnight (v. 10). Already I’m sure you can see some of the parallels with Jesus and other prophecies and Scripture concerning him in these ways, primarily in the Psalms, and specifically John 19:33; Numbers 9:12 and Psalm 34:20 concerning his bones not being broken. But it doesn’t end there — even the day that Jesus was crucified aligned with the Passover sacrifice of the 14th of Nisan (by our calendar, April), and later died that evening. The Jews asked Pilate to let them take the bodies down that same day (which was unusual, but done because of the Sabbath), so that meant that Jesus wasn’t left overnight, thus fulfilling the obligations of the Passover ritual! The apostles obviously recognised these parallels, as they refer to them in their epistles — see 1 Peter 1:18-20, 1 Corinthians 5:7 and basically all of Revelation. But how does this help us in our sins? The Passover wasn’t a sin offering, yet somehow the death of Jesus in this way saves us from our sins. To better understand this, and to grasp why in various places Jesus is called our “ransom”, we need to go back to the reason for the original Passover, not the ritual. Passover was what God did when he delivered his people from the slavery of the Egyptians. The blood of the lamb was the symbol that they belonged to God, and so escaped death. Originally the paschal lamb was about Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and slavery, now Jesus is the greater lamb who rescues us from slavery and bondage to sin by his blood. The blood on the doorposts covered the Israelites from the angel of death, and now by Christ's blood that covers us, we are saved from eternal death (Hebrews 9:11- 14)! Paul covers this topic of sin as our master which we are slaves to quite often (Romans 6:16-18), and how through Jesus we have been set free by being baptised into his death, so that we are dead to sin and alive in Christ (Romans 6:4-6). Romans 6:11 So you also mus...

What did Jesus actually sacrifice?

| 18th March 2018 | Lent

Sometimes the question, or accusation/criticism maybe, is posed by atheists and critics of Christianity that Jesus didn’t really sacrifice anything because he is God and also because he got his life back three days later. So where’s the sacrifice if you know that what you give up will be given back, and given back even better than you previously had it? It’s an interesting question, and one that should cause us to stop and think about what we, as Christians, say to non-believers in case the question is ever given to us. Most people will say Jesus  gave up his life for us – but is that such a big deal if he knew he’d have it back in three days; and then to be taken up to heaven and resume his Godly-divine status he had before the incarnation? Well, yes. Obviously all the pain and suffering that Jesus had to endure before his death was a big deal, and it showed, as we can see from the Gospels when Jesus says to his disciples that he is “deeply grieved, even to death” (Matt 26:38). Luke 22:42-44‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. We can see from the quote above that Jesus really wasn’t looking forward to this, despite knowing its purpose. He even needed an angel to come to physically come to him to give him the strength to go on with this plan! Suggesting that this was a walk in the park for Jesus and making light of what he was about to go through is just ignorance of the reality of the situation. There’s also a significant detail in the Luke passage above which gives us a medical insight into what Jesus was going through in these moments: the sweat of blood. This is actually a rare condition known as Hematidrosis, and in certain conditions of extreme physical or emotional stress and/or mental anxiety, the blood vessels that feed the sweat glands break and result in actual blood seeping through. This in itself shows just how much stress Jesus was under in the lead up to his execution to cause such a thing to happen. Modern day research also shows that this condition still manifests in people awaiting execution today. So even if you knew that you would be resurrected in a few days time, I am sure that you wouldn’t really want to go through a Roman flogging and crucifixion –  some of the most brutal ways to be tortured and executed in human history! There’s lots of atheist memes on the internet making digs at this idea of what it means that Jesus sacrificed himself. “Jesus came back to life, so he basically sacrificed his weekend for you”, or similar types of jabs, totally missing the point. Typical atheist meme So what did Jesus sacrifice if he only lost his life temporarily? Everything about his pre-incarnate self. Where once a spirit, now a glorified body. Where once only divine, now fully God and fully man. The incarnation had eternal consequences for the Godhead. Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t just about dying, it was about taking on our humanity eternally. The eternal God now united forever with humanity. Jesus wasn’t only the “visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) whilst on earth, no; he is forever that now. Like John says in his opening chapter about the coming of the Word into our world: he became flesh (John 1:14) and has stayed that way. This is the “mystery of godliness” (as some translations have it) that Paul talks about in 1 Tim 3:16, where he states that Jesus was “revealed” or “manifested in flesh” and later taken up in glory. Look at when Jesus was taken up into heaven in Acts 1:11, the angels say to the disciples watching that they will see Jesus “come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” – ie., bodily. But we know from the accounts in the Gospels that Jesus’ body was no lon...

The Temptations of Jesus: Complacency

| 11th March 2018 | Lent

So now we are at the end of the temptations that Jesus endured in the desert, and I wanted to look at what happens at the end. So often I think this aspect is overlooked when we read of this time in Scripture. Let’s take a look at the text: Matthew 4:11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Luke 4:13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. The two Gospel accounts both give us a varying perspective with different details. Afterwards, the devil leaves and angels “suddenly” come. This is almost a temptation in itself; one to think we are all good and safe now we've won the battles. But look: the devil left him “until an opportune time”. We are never beyond being tempted, or far from that tempter who ‘prowls around like a roaring lion’ (1 Peter 5:8). Christ withstood his temptations, and as a model for us, so can we. But it's a constant battle. 1 Corinthians 10:12So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. As Paul writes in the quote above, we must watch ourselves and not get too confident that we think we're strong enough not to get tripped up. Temptation can strike at any time, and if we're not prepared it could lead us into sin (James 1:14-15). James 1:12A man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. This is why we mustn't get complacent in our situations just when it seems, or feels, like we have it all together. We must always “put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11) and make as little “opportune” times as possible for the enemy to strike at us. Remember, Jesus lived as a human to know what it was like to be a human; he went through these temptations, and others no doubt, as he lived out his life. That is why the writer of Hebrews says that he is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” and has “in every respect has been tested as we are” — yet Jesus didn't sin (Heb 4:15). When we do get get tempted, or if we do fall into sin, we can always turn to Jesus in our moments of weakness knowing that he understands what it's like. 1 Corinthians 10:13No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. Everything we experience as humans, Jesus knows also. Although we don’t angels physically coming and waiting on us after we go through hard times, we have the Holy Spirit in us – the comforter! God’s very own Spirit is here with us through it all, helping us and convicting us to lead us back out of our complacency to the narrow path, focusing our minds back on Christ and his example. And while the devil may come and go, and wait on those “opportune times” to get at us, we shouldn’t fret or worry because God has said he will never leave nor abandon us – no matter what, God loves us and is daily conforming us into the image and mind of Christ (Rom 8:29; 12:2; Deut 31:6; Heb 13:5). Keep running the race, working out your salvation with fear and trembling and go with the love of God. Amen....