WHAT IS CHRISTIAN FASTING?
Simply put, fasting is choosing (for a set period of time) not to eat food in order to devote yourself more single-mindedly to the pursuit of God through Scripture and prayer.
Christian fasting differs from the ritual/scheduled fasting found in other religions, and is not done in order to earn favor. Like prayer and giving, it is primarily a private practice undertaken for the purposes of spiritual discipline.
Some variations include:
- A partial fast (fasting from certain kinds of foods, but allowing others– say, eating only fruits and veggies)
- An absolute fast (fasting from everything– even from water… this is much more rare and should not be practiced without the input of a physician)
- Fasting from other things (devices, spending money, watching TV, eating dessert)– though, this is not mentioned in Scripture as “fasting,” and is thus a human add-on to this practice.
For the purposes of this article, I am talking about Christian fasting as a spiritual discipline of abstaining from food.
Specifically, I have had such trouble finding anyone who discusses these things from the perspective of a Christian mother.
When I became a mom, I had questions like:
- Can pregnant women fast?
- Can breastfeeding moms fast?
- Is it OK to not fast if we’re limited by these real challenges of motherhood?
- If not at these times, when CAN I fast, as a mom?
In this article, I want to look into the challenges moms face, amidst pregnancies and breastfeeding, and propose some thoughts and solutions I’ve come up with about how to approach this practice of Christian fasting, as a mom.
The #1 reason is because Jesus anticipated (or even expected?) that His followers would fast.
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” ~Matthew 6
Jesus said, “when you fast.” The irony here is that no Bible-believing Christian would say:
“Well, Jesus didn’t really mean we’re to PRAY when He said, ‘when you pray’… and c’mon, He certainly didn’t mean that we should make a practice of GIVING when He said, ‘when you give.’”
But that’s exactly what many Christians do with fasting. We overlook this phrasing and look, instead, to our experiences, to determine how we’ll understand this topic. To many, it seems like a weird, fringe thing. Or a legalistic thing. Or a Jewish/Muslim thing. Or a practice one would only do in an attempt to earn favor (“but we’re under grace!”). Or something mystical that we don’t really understand that was for “the olden days” but not for now.
It was a significant practice in the life of Jesus (Matthew 4:1,2; Mark 1:12,13; Luke 4:1,2). And He is the one we follow. In addition to Jesus,
- Moses fasted (Deut. 9:9,18)
- David fasted (1 Sam. 12:16-22; Ps 35:13; Ps. 69:10; Ps. 109:24)
- Daniel fasted (Dan. 9:3)
- other God-followers fasted (a sampling: Luke 2:37; Ezra 10:6; 1 Kings 19:8)
- the disciples and early church fasted (Acts 9:9, Acts 13:3; Acts 14:23; 1 Cor. 11:27)
This is no fringe practice. It’s not only found in the Old Testament. It’s not legalistic or mystical. It’s not only Jewish.
It’s something that, yes, has fallen away from practice in many places, but as something that our Lord did, and as something He talked about with a seeming an assumption that we *would* practice it, I think we should (collectively) take it more seriously than we do.
While this is not an explicit command, John Piper writes:
“it seems that He expects that His followers will be fasting. But even more clear in this passage is that Jesus insisted that our fasting not be for the sake of impressing other people. In fact, we should go out of our way, He says, as much as possible— washing our face, combing our hair — to keep other people from knowing that we are fasting. And that gives fasting for Christians a radically Godward focus.”
“let me summarize the heart of Christian fasting and why Christians do it. One way to say it is that fasting is the hungry Christian handmaid of faith. Fasting is not a replacement for faith in Jesus. Fasting is a way of saying with our stomach and our whole body how much we need and want and trust Jesus. It is a way of saying that we are not going to be enslaved by food as the source of our satisfaction. We will use the renunciation of food from time to time to express that Jesus is better than food. Jesus is more needful than food.
Food is good. Let there be no mistake about this. We are not ascetics in that we deny the goodness of God’s creation. Food is good. It is a gift of God and we glorify God with it in two ways, not just one way.
1. We feast on it with gratitude for God’s goodness, and
2. We forfeit food out of hunger for God himself.
When we feast, we gladly taste the emblem of our heavenly food, the bread of life, Jesus Himself.
And when we fast, we say: I love the reality more than I love the emblem.
Both feasting and fasting are worship for the Christian. Both magnify Christ.”
Other verses that discuss fasting: (along with prayer: Psalm 69:10-16; for sickness/healing: Psalm 35:13-14; alongside prayer as an expression of desire for the advancement of the Gospel: Acts 13:1-3)
Other reasons/benefits include:
- There is power in prayer, in general, and when I fast, I find that I have much more time for prayer, because there are roughly 90 minutes a day when I would otherwise be eating, when I can devote myself entirely to Scripture and to prayer. Fasting enriches my prayer life, makes me more aware of my dependence on the Lord, and gives me more time to cultivate that relationship of prayer (see also 1 Peter 5:6-7)
- Fasting is a self-chosen posture of physical humility. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt. 23:12) Fasting is a way for us to physically humble ourselves as dependent creatures before our All-Powerful Creator. It is a practical way we can turn to the Lord as we remind ourselves that we are dust. Weak. Frail. Dependent on Him for all things (see also Isaiah 58:10, James 4:8-10)
- Reduce the power of “self.” When we choose to exercise self-control over our physical bodies by fasting, we are choosing to deny ourselves a very physical, natural longing of our human body, in order to (for a time) turn to the Lord alone for sustaining strength. This is why it is called a “spiritual discipline.” As we fight the pull of “self” we grow in our ability to master, rather than be mastered by, the desires of our bodies.
- Deeper intimacy with the Lord Jesus. I find that I more readily identify with Him– His sufferings, His longings, the sweetness of His Word– when I am physically reminded of my dependence on Him. It reminds me that Christ took on the weakness of flesh, even fasting for 40 days, in order to make a way for me.
- Greater sensitivity to the Spirit. I have found that fasting increases my sensitivity to the voice of the Spirit at work in my heart. Every hunger pang gives me the opportunity to inwardly express, “I want you more than food, Lord. Make your words more precious to me than food. Teach me to love you and trust you more. Let me hear your voice more than I hear my own longings for food. Teach me to depend on you even more than food.”
- Helps sustain a vibrant, passionate relationship with the Lord. As Christians, we don’t fast to earn favor, or to heap suffering upon ourselves, or to merit grace or mercy. Rather, we fast in order to temporarily turn away from food, in order to see the Lord as what we really need. When I fast, I am reminded that He is the One I truly depend on. HE is what I need. HE is what is most dear. HE fills me up and gives me all things richly to enjoy. It actually increases my right understanding of the place of food, to enjoy times of fasting, and times of feasting, in between times of everyday life.
- Broadened spiritual understanding and illumination. When I fast, I find that I am more sensitive in general to things of God. Truth from Scripture stands out more clearly. I become more aware of the fragility and neediness of people around me. Patterns in Scripture jump off the page. I find that I am better able to see connections in Scripture. I don’t know how to say it except that fasting helps me have greater biblical clarity and insight.
John Wesley, Andrew Murray, Bill Bright, and many, many other Christian leaders have had regular fasting as part of their lives. A great many “awakenings” and missionary endeavors have been hemmed in on all sides by godly people committed to the practice of Christian fasting.
Other kinds of fasting:
- 1 Corinthians 7:5 talks about fasting from sexual relationship in marriage in order for the couple to devote themselves (unhindered) to prayer.
- Many people view the “Daniel Fast” as a fast, because he and his friends abstained from meat and rich foods, in order to devote themselves more singlemindedly to the Lord.
MY EXPERIENCES WITH FASTING, IN GENERAL
When I was in college, I began the habit of regular (and irregular) fasting. I had no real-life examples for it, and didn’t really understand it all, and sometimes (now) I look back and realize I didn’t do everything “right,” or for the right reasons.
(Truly, though, isn’t this the way it is with all spiritual disciplines? I didn’t always/don’t always do everything– praying, giving, serving in church, singing a song, teaching a class– with the perfectly right motives and approach. And yet, we press on in striving to serve God with ever-purer hearts as we grow in the Lord.)
But I looked to those words of Jesus, where he said, “When you pray…” “When you give…” and “When you fast.” It just made sense to me that we don’t question whether or not to pray, we don’t question whether or not we should give… but because many of us had no examples and no teaching on the matter, we think fasting is an old thing we no longer have to practice.
My view is that Christians are supposed to be doing all three of those things– praying, giving, fasting. They’re all to be part of the typically-unseen-but-spiritually-vibrant practices of a God-follower.
So then, since college, I’ve been on a journey of learning how to fast, what it’s for, and what the proper place for it is, in the life of a believer.
The type of fasting I most experienced in college was lengthy fasting. At that time in my life, without anyone else (husband/children) depending on me, I found it easier to commit myself to a full fast of multiple days, rather than doing more regular/intermittent fasting in life.
What I learned most about fasting, during those years, was this:
- Fasting made me more sensitive to God’s voice
- Fasting gave me more time in and sensitivity to God’s Word
- Fasting clarified what my longings were, and helped me center them on Christ
MY EXPERIENCE WITH FASTING, AS A PREGNANT & NURSING MOM
But once I became a mom, fasting became a challenge for me. I had questions about it and wasn’t sure if it was even safe. Could fasting be an option for me ever, now that I was a mom? Whether pregnant or nursing, I didn’t want to risk harming the baby, or limit calorie provision.
I searched over the years, on the internet, for both biblical and medical input about it, and came up mostly empty-handed. There just aren’t many places that talk about this. I researched what other religion’s norms were (not to determine, spiritually, what I should be doing, but rather to try and understand, medically, what a pregnant or nursing mom’s limitations were, by learning from other people/nationalities who still regularly practice fasting).
What I found, in general, was this:
- Most religions (even the most devout/rigid) give a “pass” to pregnant and nursing moms, allowing them to drink and eat for sustenance (i.e., not participate in fasting) during declared/public days of fasting.
- Medical sites urge caution for pregnant and nursing moms, not only because of the lack of nutrients/support going to the baby if mom fasts, but also because toxins are released from fat cells into the blood and breastmilk when a pregnant or nursing mom fasts.
- There are conditions under which a pregnant/nursing mom might be asked to fast for a limited number of hours before a bloodtest or procedure, so this limited form (of missing the equivalent of a meal or so) is not absolutely forbidden.
SO then, my general approach for fasting, since becoming a mom, has been to:
- never fast when I am pregnant
- only, rarely, and for hours (not even a full day) fast in the later stages of breastfeeding, once the baby is already taking a regular amount of solids and water apart from breastmilk
- take full advantage of the times when I am neither pregnant nor breastfeeding, and choose to fast regularly, and occasionally exercise lengthy fasts, during those (short) intermittent seasons of motherhood.
Some ways to practice fasting as a mom:
- Fast for one meal– This is a way virtually ANY of us can fast. This is the least stringent, and the most accessible, even for most pregnant or nursing moms. Certainly you should talk with your doctor, especially in case of pre-existing medical conditions. I’ll be honest, I don’t do this very often, but I think, if practiced with purpose, this could be a great way to set aside small portions of time for intensive intake of Scripture, without risk to the little ones who depend on us.
- Weekly fasting– this is a way we fasted together as a couple, and occasionally with other believers, for many years of our lives. We would choose one day a week to devote ourselves to prayer and Scripture reading through the breakfast and lunch hours, and then break our fast together in the evening at dinner time. I freely participate in these during the last few months of breastfeeding (when my baby is 9-12+ months old), and when I am neither pregnant nor breastfeeding.
- Multi-day fasting– When I am in between-baby seasons where I can fast, this is one I am most likely to choose. For me, I find it easier to “go big or go home” 🙂 (I like committing all the way to fasting while I can, since I never really know if I’ll be pregnant or not at some later date). I choose a particular length of days (most often, 2-5 days) that I anticipate fasting (this is not rigid/legalistic, but an idea so I won’t overdo it but also won’t give in too quickly. I try to choose days when we have few/no commitments as a family, and I plan in advance to make meals simple for the rest of the family so that I can make the most of these days. Fasting for anything beyond a meal or two makes me more physical tired, so I also will typically take naps with my toddler/preschooler on these days, and often go to bed early. These facts also mean that (even though, generally, fasting is to be a private practice) I tell Doug my plans for fasting so that he understands why I am more tired, and why I withdraw during meals to read and pray, on those days.
For more specific details about the practice of fasting, you may find it helpful to read:
- Fasting For Beginners – from Desiring God
- 7 Basic Steps to Successful Fasting and Prayer -by Bill Bright
TALK TO A DOCTOR
Certainly if you have any medical challenges or concerns, you will want to speak with your physician, and many people do so in advance of a lengthy fast, even if they are in generally good health.
TALK TO YOUR PASTOR & OTHER STRONG BELIEVERS
If you have more questions, talk to your pastor.
Just as you might talk to generous Christians you know if you wanted to develop a right attitude about giving, if you want to learn more about fasting, talk to godly people who you know have fasted.
HOW LONG CAN MOMS FAST?
If you are not pregnant/nursing, and if you have no medical concerns, longer fasts may be a possibility for you.
(Updated by Jess, in 2023: Now that my youngest is 4 & 1/2 the last few years have given me freedom to engage in longer times of fasting. Some of the most meaningful spiritual insights, personal growth and healing, and answers to prayer, that I’ve ever experienced have come in recent years during lengthy fasts. So, if you are not pregnant or breastfeeding, and desire it, I will confirm: longer fasts can be a real blessing!)
For those who do 20-, 30-, or up to 40-day fasts, some do this as a juice and water fast, with a glass of fruit juice permitted once, or perhaps twice, during the day. Some permit an occasional glass of warm bone broth. There are varying approaches to this, but one recommendation I’ll make for those doing fasts longer than 2-5 days, is: get some “fasting salts” or “electrolyte salts.” These come in capsule form and can keep your body minerals in balance so you’re less likely to have physical problems from longer times of fasting.
While I was a pregnant/breastfeeding mom, (that season of one or the other, or both, lasted about 17 years for me) I found it more realistic to do 2-5 days fasts, because of the physical demands of motherhood and the way these little people need for me to be physically able to lift them, help them, run to their assistance quickly, etc. While fasting is not generally harmful, it does limit your physical stamina and energy. During these years of motherhood, I am not my own. I am not able to make decisions independent of the real responsibilities God has put on my plate.
This is why I no longer set an absolute goal for number of days to fast… because I’ve found that I need to be sensitive to the genuine demands of life. If a need comes up, and my husband isn’t available to be around in the evenings as he might normally be, I might need to break my fast in order to have enough energy and strength to carry out the normal events of the evening alone.
But in general, in my life as a mom, I’ve found that I can accomplish 2-5 day fasts (and occasionally significantly longer ones) in those seasons when I am not pregnant or nursing. Those fasts serve to strengthen my spiritual walk, remind me who I depend on, illuminate Scripture in my heart and life, and intensify my prayers.
If you’re a Christian mom wondering about whether or not you can fast, I hope these meandering thoughts and experiences from the past 20+ years of my life can help you discern what God would have you do in regard to fasting.
IN THE COMMENTS, PLEASE SHARE: Have you wondered about fasting? Have you ever tried it? Any thoughts/experiences you’d like to add for the benefit of other moms?