Fasting

A spiritual and physical discipline

 

Update 2018: I recently published a book called 40 Days with the Fathers, which is a daily reading plan and an introduction to the Early Church Fathers that is spread across forty days, originally written as a Lenten reading plan. You can get a copy by clicking here.

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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

Advertisement

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.
    (See a more in-depth examination of early Christian thought on fasting and the reasons for doing so here: Fasting through patristic era.)

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).

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.

Advertisement

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!

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

Advertisement

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. 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’).
Advertisement

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?

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.

Advertisement

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!”

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).

Advertisement

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).

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

Advertisement

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.

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).

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.”

Advertisement

 

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

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!

Advertisement

Amen.


 Further Reading:

Lent Reading/Devotional Plan:

 

Advertisement

 

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 659 times   Liked 0 times

Subscribe to Updates

If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe to free email updates and join over 107 subscribers today!

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

Francis Chan turns towards a more historical and ancient view of Communion

| 14th January 2020 | General Interest

If you follow certain Christian blogs, or have Christian friends on Social Media, then you may have seen a short video clip being shared which has been taken from a recent sermon by popular Evangelical pastor/speaker and author, Francis Chan of Crazy Love ministries. Depending on who shared the clip will depend on which reaction you have seen; some are praising his words, others fearing for his future calling it a “red flag”. And all of this over a short statement he made about communion! I recommend you watch this 3 minute clip below before continuing, if you haven’t seen it already. I would also recommend watching the whole 47 minute sermon for some better context, where he talks about his struggles and journey to this point in his faith around the topic of communion — something he was wrestling with even back in his BASIC series teaching on Communion from around 2012, views which have clearly moved on since then towards a more historical view. Chan says he isn’t making any sort of “grand statement” here, and goes on to give a brief, if little distorted, overview of church history: “I didn’t know that for the first 1,500 years of church history, everyone saw it as the literal body and blood of Christ … And it wasn’t until 500 years ago that someone popularised the thought that it’s just a symbol and nothing more. I didn’t know that. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s something to consider.’” This part isn’t too far from reality, really, though a little over-simplified. But I understand his zeal and excitement about this discovery of his, as I went through the exact same mind-blowing realisation around five or so years ago when I first delved into the writings of the Early Church Fathers and was forced to come to the same conclusion that there was something there to seriously consider. If the Church had always understood Jesus’ words and the interpretation of Scripture in a fairly singular and unified way for nearly two millennia, then who was I to come along and say my understanding exceeds the wisdom of everyone before me? It was actually one of the earliest texts, from a second century bishop called Ignatius, that really tipped me over the edge from a “memorialist” view (that the bread and wine are purely symbolic, nothing more), to a sacramental view (that the bread and wine are a means of grace that God uses). Ignatius was writing against a heretical group who were teaching a false doctrine about Jesus not really coming in the flesh, and uses communion as an example to prove the opposite, which also gives us an interesting and early view on the sacraments: “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.”— Ignatius Of Antioch: Letter To The Smyrnaeans (c.108 AD) At first reading I was stuck by the literal nature in which Ignatius spoke of the Eucharist (communion), and as I read more of the Early Church Fathers, that same, common thread kept appearing: they all held to a view of Communion which was definitely more than simply a symbol or memorial (you can read some more quotes on the topic here). Chan later talks about unity in the early church and how he longs to see that type of unity again in the Church globally, explaining that making communion more central to worship would help with that. Chan then laments about the apparent disunity within Protestantism, citing the dramatic statistics of there being “30,000 denominations” in the Protestant world. It’s a common claim, often from Roman Catholic apologists, but it’s not exactly accurate; there’s really only about six general umbrellas if you boil it all down: Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal/Charismatic. Most “non-denominational” churches are still largely Baptist in their theology, despite avoiding an...

Does Christmas have pagan origins?

| 19th December 2019 | Christmas

For most people, the question of the origins of Christmas is probably far from their minds. Some may recognise and give a cursory glance towards the Biblical narrative on the birth of Jesus as something to do with it (although a 2017 study showed that almost 1 in 20 Brits thought Easter was the birth of Jesus!);—but in some Christian circles the question (accusation?) that “Christmas is pagan” is at the forefront of their minds. Table of Contents When was December 25th celebrated? The Christian Calendar Further Reading & Sources: As time goes on and we move further and further into the future, away from the initial events of the first Nativity, the festival of Christmas has morphed into something altogether different than how the first Christians recognised and celebrated it (if they even did). We know from historical records and study now that a lot of what has been incorporated into the festivities surrounding Christmas does have pagan origins, but does that make the holiday itself still pagan today? Are you inadvertently worshipping “the birthday of the Unconquered Sun” (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti) when you celebrate on the 25th of December? Let’s trace a little bit of history and see how the early church viewed these festivals, as they were still happening in full force whilst the Church was still young and were a contemporary concern, and what date they pinned the birth of Christ on to. Much of the earliest references to the Nativity occur in a passing way as a commentary on the event rather than anything celebratory about it. Justin Martyr in his First Apology (~160 AD) mentions that Jesus was born 150 years before him, in the time of Quirinius (or Cyrenius as some translations have it – cf. Luke 2:2), where his readers could “ascertain also from the registers” the accuracy of his statement. Tertullian (197 AD) also references this census as a place where “Mary is described”, in which New Testament scholar W. M. Ramsey saw as proof that Tertullian at least, had access to documents which we no longer do. Origen (~248 AD) even mentions that in his own day, “there is displayed at Bethlehem the cave where Jesus was born”, and that “this sight is greatly talked of in the surrounding places—even among the enemies of the faith” (now known as The Church of the Nativity)! The first person we see write about a specific date of the birth is Clement of Alexandria around 195 AD in book one of The Stromata, and he speaks about others who have tried to pinpoint the exact day and month of Jesus’ birth, which brings up a variety of dates: From the birth of Christ, therefore, to the death of Commodus [December 192 AD] are, in all, a hundred and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days [18th November]. And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon [20th May]. And the followers of Basilides hold the day of his baptism as a festival, spending the night before in readings. […] Further, others say that He was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi [19/20th April]. — Clement of Alexandria, 195 AD So from this quote, we have Clement calculating the birth of Christ to around the 18th of November, 2 BC by our calendar today, and others still who he mentions have worked it out to be around April or May time. He also mentions other people who placed the date of birth on January 6th in 2 or 3 BC, which for any liturgical people reading this, will recognise as another important date in the Christian calendar (we'll come back to this date later). Keeping and celebrating birthdays was a very Roman thing to do, so it’s no surprise that earlier Christians from a more Jewish heritage didn’t see any importance on marking the exact day and month that Jesus was born, as it was his death and resurrection which...

Power Cuts and the Fear of God

| 11th November 2019 | Devotional

The other week we had a series of power cuts in our town. It doesn’t happen very often here where I am, but there was particularly bad weather recently which damaged some cables; but sitting in the dark winter evening, my phone low on battery power, it made me realise just how much we rely on electricity for nearly everything these days. We don’t even have a gas supply so we were completely cut off from doing anything! Now it might sound obvious, but it’s easy to forget how dependent we are on modern conveniences until it’s suddenly taken away and you’re sat in the cold surrounded by tiny little tea-light candles. The following Sunday, the sermon at church touched on the fear of God, which got me thinking about how that concept is still kind of strange to me—God is love, He’s our Father, we’re His children… but then we are to also fear Him?  What does this have to do with electricity and power cuts, I hear you say—I’ll come to that in a moment. I’ve often been taught that the word “fear” used in this context actually means “respect”, so I decided to look up the Greek and Hebrew words that are used when we see the words “fear God” in the Bible. It wasn’t exactly what I expected to find. 2 Corinthians 5:11 is where I began, as that was the verse quoted in the sermon. Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are revealed to God, and I hope that we are revealed also in your consciences. I thought I may see a Greek word with a semantic range which includes “respect” or “honour” maybe, but what I found was the word φόβος (phobos) which literally means “alarm or fright; be afraid, fear, terror”. It’s also where we get our English word “phobia” from! So I went forward a couple of chapters to this verse: 2 Corinthians 7:1Having therefore these promises, beloved, let’s cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. But again, the word “phobos” was used, so now I decided to search across the New Testament for this phrase, and the next passage that came up was in Romans. Romans 3:18“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” This is part of a larger passage which ends on this verse about the fear of God (still using the same Greek word), where I saw a footnote to say it had been a quote from Psalm 36:1. Ah, I thought, maybe the Hebrew word used for “fear” will show something different! I thought wrong. This particular verse in Psalm 36 used the word פַּחַד (p̱aḥaḏ), which has a wide meaning such as: a (sudden) alarm (properly, the object feared, by implication, the feeling): — dread(-ful), fear, (thing) great (fear, greatly feared), terror. So again, the type of fear is an actual fear!  A little searching through the Old Testament revealed that the word “fear” has a couple of other Hebrew words which lie underneath the English translations, one of which does also mean “reverence” as well (יָרֵא [yârê], found in Gen 22:12 and 1 Sam 12:14). So maybe there is an element of that understanding in the Greek by the time the New Testament writers came along who meant that ‘fear’ as awe and reverence as well. So this all leads me back to where I was a week or so ago, sat in church listening to a sermon, wondering when my power would be back on. As I thought about all of this, the combination of electricity and the fear of God combined into something that helped me put some perspective on it: the fear of God is like a live, sparking electric cable.  I’ll clarify my thinking—if we saw an electric cable on the ground, flailing around and sparking  everywhere, we should be fearful of that because touching it could kill us! But when electricity is used right, it is good for and to us; it provides power and comfort etc. Without it we lose access to pretty much everything these days and go into darkness—Much like if we lose sight of,...

Patristics.info has launched!

| 13th September 2019 | Early Church

Hey everyone, so I’ve launched a new website called Patristics.info to be a new resource for all things early church related. I’ve added a few texts which I already had formatted from my book manuscript, plus other resources like timelines, maps, recommended books etc. I’ll be adding more soon in the coming days. I’ve also created a “topical index” page too which is auto-generated from the tags on the pages to aid with searching, plus I created a word highlighter on each page so you can search keywords in a text and have them highlighted if you’re looking for particular things. If anyone would like to be involved to contribute resources or blogs, or have any book you’ve written which you’d like linked/advertised on the site then just get in touch! I want this to be as useful a tool for people who are interested in this area as much as for people who are new to Patristics (the early church fathers). Features and functionality Much of the site is ready to go in terms of functionality and resources etc for the time being. I’m still working on adding more Early Church texts to the site, but this takes a lot of time as I need to transcribe them from unformatted text into a nicer format for reading, plus inserting all of the footnotes as well (I’m currently half way through 1 Clement now). While I mention the footnotes, I’ve created a feature similar to Wikipedia where if you hover on a footnote number, it will display a popup with the footnote text in it hopefully making it simpler to read the Patristic text and quickly see any additional information from the original translators as you go. This should also work well on mobiles too. Inline footnote hover popups Another new feature I’ve created is the Quote Search page: https://patristics.info/quote-search.html This is an experimental tool at the moment while I still perfect it, but please give it a go and submit any feedback if you can. The page will allow you to search a keyword and bring up a list of contextual quotes from within the Church Father texts where that word is mentioned. As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing else like this available online in this format so I hope it will prove useful for study! Example quote search for the word “baptism” I hope that you enjoy the site and find it a useful tool. Please share it online etc. and if you want to get involved with creating blogs or resources just get in touch, or if you feel so inclined, you can support this project financially via Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/LukeJWilson Go and explore the site today: Patristics.info !...