This week in our Spiritual Disciplines study, we talked about Fasting, a discipline which is difficult to do and often ignored. Fasting in its basic and biblical sense is to go without food (and sometimes drink) for a pre-determined amount of time, giving up meals which you would ordinarily consume. So if you regularly skip breakfast because you don’t like to eat early, or don’t have time, that’s probably not practicing fasting in the “spiritual discipline” sense. But giving up lunch or dinner one day, or a whole day’s worth of food, could be. While this is a tough discipline to practice, it can be a great practice to get in the routine of observing. However, it should be noticed that because teenagers are still growing and need a great deal of nutrition for the rigors of school and sports, fasting in its basic sense might not always be doable.
Before we get into the finer details of what fasting may look like for a high schooler, we see a couple reasons that people may have fasted in Scripture. First, we often see people fast (give up food) in order to humbly seek the Lord with extra focus in prayer. Ezra declared a fast for the people to plead with God for protection on their journey from Persia back to Israel (Ezra 8:21–23). Jesus fasted for forty days as he began his ministry and faced the Devil’s temptations (Matt 4:1–2). David fasted while crying out to the Lord to spare his child’s life (2 Sam 12:16). This is probably how most people tend to think about fasting as a spiritual discipline.
Another reason we see is to show repentance before the Lord. This is what the people of Nineveh do when Jonah proclaims impending judgment (Jonah 3:5–9). We also see Nehemiah lead the people of Israel in this type of fast as they repent from their sins and idolatry, committing to follow the Lord again (Nehemiah 9:1–2).
A third reason is to remember God’s blessings and to serve others. This is seen most clearly in Isaiah 58, in which the people of Israel are asking why God has not honored their fasting. The Lord, through Isaiah, tells them that fasting for the sake of fasting is not what he wants. They would fast as a “credit” to allow them to then act poorly again: “Sure, I beat up my neighbor and cheated him out of money, but I fasted so forgive me!” The Lord is furious with this mindset, and reminds them that a genuine fast is an opportunity to help the oppressed, free the enslaved, and feed and clothe those who don’t have the money to do so themselves (Isaiah 58:3–9). This is a sobering passage that we need to reflect deeply upon, but it reminds us that fasting is a way to remember that while we have enough food that we can just choose to skip a meal, maybe we should take that meal and give it to those who have no food.
Next, we turned to a couple characteristics that the Bible says should define our practices of fasting. First, we should fast in a way that doesn’t draw attention to ourselves. Rather than going around looking pitiful and starving so people see our “spirituality,” Jesus says to take care of yourself and walk in the world the way you always do, so that the focus of fasting is on the Lord and not yourself (Matt 6:16–18). Second, drawing on the Isaiah 58 passage again, we should fast in a way that seeks God’s desires and serves others in the process.
We ended with some practical tips for fasting. First, it helps to start small. Your first fast shouldn’t be a 40-day fast like Jesus or Moses, but maybe just choosing to forgo lunch, dinner, or both for a day. Or, since fasting from food can be unhealthy for teenagers, maybe you start with fasting from your cellphone, video games, or television for a day or two. Second, pray when you’re hungry (or want to use whatever you have chosen to fast from). If fasting is intended to draw us closer to the Lord, let the desire for whatever you have chosen to give up to remind you to draw to the Lord in prayer at that moment. Third, share your resources. If you do choose to fast from food, say for lunch, take your lunch to school anyway and share with someone who needs it. Or ask your parents to share some of the food you would normally eat for dinner with the local homeless shelter or food pantry. Lastly, try fasting with a friend or family member. When Jesus says to keep your fasting between you and the Lord, he does not mean that nobody can know, but that we carry ourselves in a way that does not place the attention on ourselves. It can be very helpful to fast with a partner so that you have accountability and someone with whom you can share what the Lord has done in your life.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that this does not have to be done all the time as Christians. But if there is something the Lord has put on your heart to pray about, or you are seeking wisdom in a particular area, perhaps you try fasting to seek the Lord with extra attention in that matter. It’s a way to learn self-control, to remember the Lord’s blessings, and to be a blessing to the needy around us. But most importantly, the goal of this is to grow in our love for God and for others, so let that be at the heart of the discipline!