The topic of fasting often comes up in online discussion groups that I'm a part of, more often in Protestant circles where the practice is more often sidelined in low churches. So let's take a look at the practice of fasting from a practical and historical view, as 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?

There are many reasons to fast, and recent studies have shown a lot of health benefits that can be derived from fasting. But on the spiritual side of life, there are also many benefits, one of the main ones being self-control.

  • 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 (Jesus did say when not if – Matthew 6:16-18; Mark 2:20).
  • 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, discipline and willpower; growing and nurturing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23; 2 Timothy 1:7; 1 Peter 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8).
  • For healing and deliverance of others (Mark 9:29; Matthew 17:21).
  • To prepare to hear from God via visions and revelation (Acts 10:30).
  • For preparation for Church leadership (Acts 13:2-3; Acts 14:23)
  • To not be ruled by your desires and cravings – impulse control (1 Corinthians 7:5).
  • To focus on God and not ourselves, in prayer and worship (Luke 2:36-38).
  • To be in control of your body and to make your desires subject to you, not vice versa (1 Corinthians 7:5).
  • For self-denial to overcome temptations and learn discipline (1 Peter 5:8).
  • For repentance.
  • For prayers for your enemies/persecutors and forgiveness.
    (For a more in-depth examination of early Christian thought on fasting and the reasons for doing so, see 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).

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 and oils etc., 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 during Lent 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 Greek 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/Pentecostal/Evangelical/Non-Denom churches that 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 the prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 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 onward tells us that by 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 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, just as an example suggestion.

Pray! “But I don’t have enough things/people to pray for!” you may saymake 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/oppression and strong temptation. Keep your guard up and mind focused 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 to help keep your mind stilled and focused purely on God. 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: What is Contemplative Prayer?.

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

May our lives be a spiritual fast of Isaiah 58 and our bodies be a spiritual sacrifice in worship to God, as of Romans 12:1 and 1 Peter 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:

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 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 150 times   Liked 0 times

Subscribe to Updates

If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe to free email updates and join over 103 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

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 !...

Should Christians get tattoos, and is it Biblical?

| 31st August 2019 | Tattoos

I was in a discussion not so long ago about tattoos, and I was asked about the historical view on this practice. It wasn’t something I had looked into before from a Church Fathers point of view, so it was an interesting topic of study. In my searching, I found this article from a Catholic site which seems to give a pretty interesting overview of some of the views about tattoos in the earlier centuries. The following is a quote about a Church Council in the context of native Britons, who still practiced tattooing at that time for pagan ritual, something which Tertullian also gives a fleeting reference to around 213 AD in his On the Veiling of Virgins, ch. 10. In the 787 Council of Northumberland — a meeting of lay and ecclesial leaders and citizens in England — Christian commentators distinguished between religious and profane tattoos. In the council documents, they wrote:“When an individual undergoes the ordeal of tattooing for the sake of God, he is greatly praised. But one who submits himself to be tattooed for superstitious reasons in the manner of the heathens will derive no benefit there from.” But, contrasted with Basil the Great of the fourth century, who supposedly (I say “supposedly” because I can’t find an original source for this quote, nor the quote above, though many other books and websites cite both; see end note) said: “No man shall let his hair grow long or tattoo himself as do the heathen” — it highlights that the views of this practice have been wide and varied over the centuries; as over in Egypt, the Coptic Church has been marking themselves with tattoos since the sixth or seventh century, even up to present times. All of this debate stems from one seemingly clear verse in Leviticus: Leviticus 19:28 (WEB)You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you. I am Yahweh. In the manner of how Hebrew works, the clause “for the dead” is applying to both phrases. The cuttings and the marks are not to be “for the dead”. Those Hebrew phrases which seem to repeat a similar thought are generally connected and are saying the same thing in two different ways to emphasise the point (just look at the Psalms for many examples of this). Not to mention that the word “tattoo” didn’t exist until the 17th century, prior to that it was translated as “marks on the skin” or something similar, which has much different connotations than the word “tattoo” has in our contemporary society. An ancient, obscure word is translated as “tattoo” in one place, and we impose our modern thinking of what that word implies onto Scripture making it anything but clear and moving us a little farther away from the original intent. This verse is more than likely admonishing against copying the surrounding pagan practices of the time than being a blanket rule against any form of “tattoo”. Arguably there are passages that say that Jesus’ body was “marked” in some way, as in the book of Revelation which some see as a reference to a tattoo of sorts: Revelation 19:16 (WEB)He has on his garment and on his thigh a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” Or in the Old Testament, Isaiah speaks of God in a similar manner as having “engraved” the names of his people on the palm of his hand — a word with a much stronger and more violent visual than simply tattooing ink into the skin. Possibly even a nod towards what Jesus would eventually do for us when he would literally have his hands “engraved” (or “hacked” as this root word can also mean) for us on the cross! Isaiah 49:16a (WEB)Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. Similarly, a couple of chapters previously to this one in Isa. 44:5, it speaks of the people writing the name of the LORD of their hands in celebration, and a similar, but less violent, word for “engraving” is used here too. Going back to the passage in Leviticus, the word ...

Spiritual Disciplines of the Early Church: Ancient Practices for the 21st Century

| 17th June 2019 | Early Church

I was asked not so long ago what kinds of things Christians did in the Early Church (first to fourth century) as a form of spiritual discipline, on a personal level as well as a corporate one. Though the concept of an individual “personal spiritual life” would have been quite foreign to first century believers as faith and Church was very much a corporate venture that had personal implications, rather than the other way around as it can often appear to be thought of today. Much of what made Christianity structured, disciplined and set apart from society, has largely been lost in practice, or forgotten and relegated to the annals of history by many practicing Christians today. With that said, let’s take a look at what the most common practices were of the ancient Church.   Reading/Memorising Scripture Memorising Scripture – specifically the Psalms and Gospels Singing/praying the Psalms as worship to God Both of these principles are based on Psalm 1:1–3 and Colossians 3:16. “Every Psalm brings peace, soothes the internal conflicts, calms the rough waves of evil thoughts, dissolves anger, corrects and moderates profligacy.” Commentary on Psalm 1, Basil the Great (4th century)   Prayer and Fasting Another common practice that was expected of believers was regular fasting, since Jesus had said “when you fast”, not “if”. Typically, fasting was done every week on Wednesday and Friday, based on Matthew 6:16–18, and also to honour the days of the Passion and crucifixion in later tradition. “But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; … but fast on the fourth day (Wednesday) and the Preparation (Friday). … [But pray] as the Lord commanded in His Gospel (the Lord’s Prayer) … Thrice in the day thus pray.” Didache (c. 50 – 70) Alongside fasting, praying the Lord’s Prayer three times a day (morning, noon, evening) was a common discipline. From around the third century, liturgy and prayers in a church service would start to face East as that was seen where God’s glory arose, and in baptism ritual turning East was a sign of turning away from the devil towards Christ (Jews similarly prayed facing Jerusalem). This is also why many old church buildings are cross-shaped and have the alter end pointing Eastward. For it is required that you pray toward the east, as knowing that which is written: ‘Give ye glory to God, who rideth upon the heaven of heavens toward the east’ (Ps 67.34 LXX [Ps. 68:33 – 34]). Didascalia, Ch. XII (c.250) The various spiritual benefits to fasting are marked throughout the Church Fathers' works on the subject, but I find this quote from Augustine sums it up succinctly: “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself.” Augustine; Sermon, On Prayer and Fasting, LXXII (c. 393–430) Fasting was also not just total denial of food all day, but often only until sundown (or evening meal), and would comprise of bread and water with some oils to dip the bread in. Some may be more like a vegetarian diet, but with no oil, fish or alcohol either. Meal times should be replaced with prayer, and in all times during the fast (as well as generally also), to bear in mind the true fast that is pleasing to the Lord as seen in Isaiah 58:6–9. “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh?” Isaiah 58:6 – 7 (WEB)   Signing the Cross Another ancient custom is making the sign of the cross over yours...