"The main purpose of fasting involves the question: What I am desiring to be filled with?”
What is Fasting?
To 'fast' is to abstain from something – usually food and/or drink – for a period of time. For centuries, people of all religions have fasted for spiritual reasons. Christians have developed particular ways of fasting, and there are certain days and seasons when it is appropriate to fast. In addition, there are particular Christian purposes for fasting.
Why Fast? Emptying and Dependence
Throughout my life I have engaged in fasting as a spiritual practice. Over the years, I have fasted for as short as one meal, and as long as one week.
I first learned about fasting in 1976 in Tanzania, from a faith healer named Edmund John. This healer had a three day process, and day two was always a full day fast. In other words, before you have hands laid on you for healing, you fast for a day. There was a profound message here: you empty yourself of food, before you are filled with the Holy Spirit and with healing.
This idea of emptying has become, for me, a central part of fasting. We might recall Philippians 2:7, Jesus "emptied himself" (NRSV, ESV) in his incarnation. So it is with fasting: I empty myself of something, in order to be receptive of something else. When I fast I find myself receptive to a closer relationship with God; open to being filled with the Holy Spirit.
Related to this, fasting involves an attitude of trust and dependence. One depends on God to fill that which is being left empty. This is perhaps a succinct definition of faith: dependence on the creator to fill and supply what is needed.
How to Fast
Identify a Purpose:
The first step for any fast is discerning your reason/purpose for fasting. Are you fasting to empty yourself? To strengthen your relationship with God? Are you fasting to be in solidarity with the poor? Or for a holy day such as Ash Wednesday or Good Friday? Clarifying the purpose of your fast is critical. It creates a frame for your experience.
Commit to a Time period:
If you are just beginning, fasting for one meal is a good pace to start. You might, for example, eat a light breakfast and dinner, but fast for lunch. Another option is to fast from Saturday evening to Sunday morning, breaking your fast with Sunday Holy Communion. Many Christians practice this type of fast year round.
In Holy Week, some fast from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. But as a starting point, I suggest you begin a fast on Maundy Thursday evening, and continue through Good Friday. You might break your fast with light food at 3 p.m. on Good Friday – the time Jesus breathed his last on the cross.
For most fasts, it is advisable to consume some liquids. Water, of course. For a longer fast, some juice (no added sugar, and heavily diluted with water). Vegetable broth or herbal tea are other options, again without sugar and diluted with water. One should not drink caffeine or alcohol while fasting. However, if you anticipate a caffeine headache, you may wish to drink a very small amount of coffee or tea. Remember that a fast is not meant to be debilitating or self abuse.
Tips for Fasting
We can be surprised at how prominently food is featured on TV, especially commercials. If you do decide to watch TV, be aware of this. On the other hand, you might use your fast as a chance to also fast from media, electronics, or noise.
I recommend continuing whatever normal exercise routine you already do. I once had a student who taught aerobics classes, and she wondered if she should cancel classes during her fast. I suggested that she keep her schedule, and it turned out that she was able to complete all her classes. Again, fasting involves dependence on God; God will provide the energy and strength you need.
Pray During Hunger or Weakness:
At some point you are likely to feel hungry and/or weak. This may be the time to tap into solidarity with those who are without food. Also, this is a time to come back to trust and dependence on God. You might pray: "Dear God, give me the energy beyond my own physical state, at this time." In essence, this this is a definition of grace. As creatures, we have limits. But with grace, we appeal to power that comes from without as opposed to within. In other words: Grace is something good I need, that I cannot give myself.
Fill Time with Other Activity:
People are often surprised by how much time they spend preparing food, eating, and cleaning up. During a fast, all that time becomes open. Before your fast, decide how you will fill some of that open time. You may engage in prayer, meditation, or spiritual reading. For example, pray for the hungry. You may plan an act of service, such as serving at a pantry or shelter. Again, we return to the theme of filling that which has been made empty – in this case, time.
The Blessings of Fasting
I highly recommend determining a purpose for your fast. Be intentional about this, and do it beforehand. That way, your activity during your fast can be in alignment with the purpose. In other words, the more intention you have before the fast, the more fruitful your fast will be.
Without intention, one can fall into the temptation of sitting around feeling bad for oneself. One might think, “If I am fasting, I am supposed to feel bad.” But no – feeling bad is not the purpose of fasting; that’s just a side effect that happens as your body gets used to it. The main purpose of fasting involves the question: “What I am desiring to be filled with?”
In my experience, fasting has led to some wonderful surprises. I am often surprised that, when fasting, I am filled with energy. Or at the very least, filled with enough energy to maintain my usual activities. In addition, I have been surprised by a feeling of serenity while fasting. I invite you to try fasting for yourself, and find surprises of your own.
Jacques Hadler is an emeritus faculty member from Virginia Theological Seminary. Now an itinerant priest living in Washington DC, one of his passions is offering spiritual direction. Jacques has been married for 48 years, and has two grown children and three grandchildren.
This article was based on Matthew Kozlowski's interview with Jacques Hadler in 2016.