“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.
Fasting is a spiritual discipline that has a very long and venerable tradition in Christianity, stretching back not only to the earliest period of Christian monasticism but to the Bible itself. Jesus clearly fasted and expected His disciples to do so as well (Matt 4:1–11; 9:14–15), and the apostolic church, following the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, took fasting very seriously (e.g. Acts 13:1–3).
The magisterial 16th century Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, also saw the importance of fasting, often recommending the practice in their pastoral writings. So did John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, for whom fasting, together with other spiritual disciplines such as Bible study and prayer, can be a “means of grace”.
As a discipline for spiritual formation, however, fasting has fallen out of favour in the modern evangelical Church, partly due to its associations with the excessive asceticism of medieval Christianity which the Reformers criticised. This is regrettable, because contemporary Christians have much to benefit from this ancient practice when it is undergirded by the right theology and guided by godly motives.
But why is fasting such an important spiritual discipline? Before I attempt to answer this question, perhaps it would be good to clarify exactly what we mean by fasting.
I think Richard Foster has given us one of the best definitions of fasting in his 1992 book, Prayer: “Fasting is the voluntary denial of a normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity. It is a sign of our seriousness and intensity. When we fast we are intentionally relinquishing the first right given to the human family in the Garden—the right to eat.”1
It is only when we understand the meaning of fasting as a spiritual discipline that we can gainfully examine its importance for the spiritual life. Let me briefly delineate the spiritual benefits of fasting by drawing from the writings of one of the greatest theologians of the Patristic period, John Chrysostom (349–407), Archbishop of Constantinople.
The first benefit of fasting, according to Chrysostom, is that it is a spiritual discipline which, if practised prayerfully and diligently, will enable us to recover self-control, especially control over our carnal passions.
In his famous homily on the Gospel of Matthew, Chrysostom maintains that “Adam by the incontinence of his belly was cast out of paradise”.2 The great spiritual tradition of the Church makes a direct connection between gluttony and lust, a view that is consistently held by almost all the authors of the collection of spiritual writings called the Philokalia.
One of the great “medicines of salvation”, Chrysostom asserts, is the practice of fasting, because it restores our will, resolve and the power over the temptations and enticements of the devil.3 It is through governing this basic appetite that we regain control of the other appetites.
Furthermore, fasting could heighten our spiritual sensibilities, making us more attuned to God’s Word and Spirit. “He that fasts,” Chrysostom writes arrestingly, “is light, and winged, and prays with wakefulness.”4
This, in turn, would open our eyes to the needs of our fellow human beings and enable us to love them in a way that is truly self-forgetting and self-giving, the love which the New Testament calls agape.
Put differently, by prayerfully abstaining from food, drink and sleep—basic bodily needs—for a specified period, the Christian can enter into what Isaiah calls the true fast. This is the fast that would compel us “loose the bonds of wickedness”, “share [our] bread with the hungry”, “bring the homeless into [our] house” and cover the “naked” (Is 58:6–7).
There is arguably no better time to embrace this ancient practice of fasting than during the period of Lent, which the Eastern Orthodox Church has called “The Great Fast”. The purpose of this solemn period is to prepare Christians to commemorate as well as participate in the passion and resurrection of Christ.
By skipping a meal or two each week during this 40-day period, and by devoting that mealtime to prayer, Bible reading and reflection, the Christian will, by the grace of God, achieve an ever-deepening appreciation of what God has done for him in Christ.
And by the outworking of that same grace, he will have a renewed resolve and greater courage to take up his cross and follow his Lord (Matt 16:24–26).
1 Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992), 240.
2 Philip Schaff, ed., Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 80.
3 Ibid., 81.
4 Ibid., 356.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).
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