In a recent podcast episode, I spoke with Conor Berry on the topic of fasting. You can listen to that episode here: The Purpose and Power of Fasting
In response to that episode, we received a few follow-up questions.
Conor and I sat down to discuss some of these more nuanced points on the topic of fasting. You can hear the recording of our conversation here (or in the embedded player below), but here is one of the questions we received:
Can you fast from things beside food?
Nick: My initial assumption had been that the answer is, Yes – you can probably fast from things other than food. This came from my background growing up with the practice of Lent, where you often hear people say things like, “I’m fasting from chocolate, I’m fasting from Netflix, I’m fasting from, running,” (and then it turns out that they weren’t actually a runner to begin with!).
But now, having looked into it, I’ve actually come to the conclusion that abstaining from things other than food may be a good thing to do, but fasting itself is actually a practice which is specific to abstaining from food for a set period of time.
Conor: Yeah, it’s interesting: We categorize fasting as a spiritual discipline, and when we think of the word discipline, we think of how Paul talks about disciplining my body so that I wouldn’t be under the power or the authority of anything, except the sovereignty of God.
And so we can say, “For the 40 days of Lent, I’m not going to eat chocolate, or I’m going to stay off of social media or Netflix, etc.” Yet, if we say that we only have Scripture as our defining cause for the topic of fasting, Scripture only shows that fasting has to do with not eating food or water for a specific period of time.
Once again, bringing the definition from Scot McKnight, that fasting is the natural response to a grievous or sacred moment, we choose not to eat as a means of inducing hunger. And so, my perspective on this is that to say, “I don’t want to eat chocolate, or I want to put social media aside to focus on God,” while that’s a wonderful thing, I would consider that to be under the category of “abstinence,” but not true, scriptural fasting.
Nick: One verse that comes to mind is in 1 Corinthians 7:5, where it says that a husband and wife should not withhold sex from their spouse, except for a time, for the purpose of prayer and fasting. That’s interesting because it doesn’t say that abstaining from sex is a form of fasting, rather it’s distinct from fasting. It’s not called “fasting from sexual intercourse,” it’s called abstaining from it – so that you can fast and pray.
Conor: I agree with you, it’s distinct from the discipline or act of fasting, but it has great application for our desire for holiness and intimacy with God.
All throughout church history, there have been ascetics, people who have devoted their lives to asceticism in order to find transcendence with God, and the act itself sometimes becomes the identity of the person rather than Christ. People are in awe of their discipline and assume the holiness of the person based upon the act, but that sometimes becomes the person’s identity, and not Christ. So there’s a danger to this as well.
Nick: Do you think there’s something unique about food that makes it the focus of this spiritual discipline?
Conor: Absolutely. Because the experience of food and the enjoyment of feasting is something that we’ve enjoyed even before the fall. When we think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Lord said, “This whole place is for you and for your pleasure,” so it’s not just for nourishment, it’s also for taste. And food plays an essential role, not only in our vitality and nourishment, but in our pleasure with God. Even taking the two elements of Communion, we’re using effectually food given by God as a means of worship and thankfulness to him. So yeah, food holds a particular significance.
Nick: When it comes to the idea of abstinence, someone might say, “I have. Improper relationship with this thing I’m doing, so I need to abstain from it, maybe for the purpose of breaking the control this habit or this practice has over me.” But with food, although overeating can certainly go to that extent, and that’s what we call gluttony, it’s also possible to have a healthy relationship with food, and it’s the regularity of eating and its necessity for our existence which makes it unique.
So, in summary: there are times when it would be right and good and advisable to abstain from something if you feel like maybe it’s gotten its claws into your heart, and you want to dedicate more time to seeking the Lord – but don’t call it fasting. Call it abstinence or abstaining, and let fasting be fasting.
Conor: I completely agree. In our previous episode, we looked at church history and the different motives people have had for fasting, and one was to individually fight against temptation. Augustine said that it’s good to fast as a means of developing a hunger for God that would be sovereign over the hunger for some of the temptations in your life.
Should you abstain from social media if it becomes an addiction? Absolutely, but I would be so bold as to say that you can abstain from it along with a time of fasting to say, “I’m abstaining against the temptation, and I’m fasting for more of a hunger for God at the same time.”
Stay Tuned for the Next Question: Eating Disorders and Fasting
In my next post, I will share our discussion on the question of whether it is advisable for someone with past or present struggles with eating disorders to participate in the practice of fasting. Are they disqualified from participating in this practice? What advice can we give to people struggling with this question?
That post is up next, so stay tuned.
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