Celebration of Discipline: Fasting

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2019. The schedule is online.

book cover - Celebration Of Discipline

I think two insights from this chapter are particularly salient for today:

“Throughout Scripture fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. It stands in distinction to the hunger strike, the purpose of which is to gain political power or attract attention to a good cause. It is also distinct from health dieting which stresses abstinence from food for physical, not spiritual, purposes.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, page 48

Whenever people tell me that they are fasting from social media I always feel puzzled.

I like the concept, I just don’t like calling it fasting. Taking a break from Instagram is just self-control and doesn’t need a special label. Fasting is refraining from something that you need to survive — it shows that God is more precious to you than life. Cutting out Facebook doesn’t rise to that level.

When we expand the word fasting to include any act of self-deprivation, we prime ourselves to ignore actual fasting. “I don’t need to fast food. I fast social media.”

A little later Foster says

“Regular or weekly fasting has had such a profound effect in the lives of some that they have sought to find a Biblical command for it, so that it may be urged upon all Christians. The search is in vain. There simply are no Biblical laws that command regular fasting. Our freedom in the gospel, however, does not mean license; it means opportunity. Since there are no laws to bind us, we are free to fast on any day.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, page 51

Reading these words again over 20 years after I first stumbled upon them I realize how influential they have been to me. If you skimmed over them while racing through the chapter, I encourage you to read over them again slowly. These words apply to far more than fasting.

Some additional thoughts:

The practical details in this chapter are solid gold. If you’ve never fasted for at least three days, I encourage you to follow Foster’s advice on pages 56–60. Start with skipping two meals (a 24 hour fast), then after a few repetitions skip three meals (a 36 hour fast), and then once you feel ready plan to skip meals for three to seven days. Since the first three days are the hardest, if you’re going to fast three days then you might as well do several more unless you have a reason not to (professional obligations, an athletic training schedule, etc). After that, do what makes the most sense to you.

Also, don’t lie about your fasting. Young Christians do this all the time because they believe that if anyone discovers that they are fasting then it doesn’t count. That’s a misunderstanding. What Jesus forbids is drawing attention to your fast so that people admire you. Here are His words in the NIV:

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Matthew 6:16–18

The point is to not draw attention to what you are doing, and the simple truth is that excessive evasions actually wind up drawing more attention to your fasting than a straightforward acknowledgement. So if someone asks you point blank if you are fasting, just say, “Yes.” Or if one of your friends asks, “Do you need me to buy your lunch for you? I’m happy to spot you.” Then tell them, “Oh, that’s all right. I’m not eating lunch today. Thanks.”

Finally, if you struggle with an eating disorder then you probably should not fast until you achieve a healthy relationship with food. As a general rule, spiritualizing your dysfunctions leads to bad outcomes.

Next week we look at the discipline of study!

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