Last weekend, in our study of Nehemiah 1, we learned that Nehemiah did three things in response to the news about God’s people; he mourned, fasted, and prayed. Most of us are familiar with mourning as a response to tragedy or heartache and prayer as a response and appeal to God, but what about fasting? Does fasting have value in our world today?

Self-denial—as opposed to the unrestrained pursuit of personal happiness or self-indulgence—isn’t something our culture values. We’re surrounded by an abundance of food, activities, information, and opportunities, so it’s easy to miss the value of self-sacrifice. Jesus—after calling his disciples to deny themselves and take up their crosses—contradicts this cultural norm by explaining that it’s in losing our lives for him that we actually find it (Matthew 16:24-25). In the same way, as Adele Ahlberg Calhoun writes, fasting is letting go “of an appetite in order to seek God on matters of deep concern” and receiving a renewed spiritual focus.

What Fasting Is and Isn’t

Fasting is not a way of forcing God to do what you want—like a hunger strike. It isn’t a diet or an opportunity to show others how spiritual you are. Jesus himself warned about turning fasting into a spiritual performance (Matthew 6:16). It isn’t an attempt to prove to God you’re serious in an attempt to earn his attention. Instead, fasting is a way of demonstrating that you’re committed to hearing from God and receiving his direction. As Craig noted, “Fasting is a little like setting up camp at the gates of heaven in order to watch for God to move.”

How to Fast

If you’ve received God’s prompting to pursue the spiritual practice of fasting, consider these notes of guidance and reflection questions adapted from Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s “Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us.”

  • If you are new to fasting, begin with one meal and work up to a longer fast. Expect that your body will need some time to adjust to this new practice and consult with your doctor before a prolonged fast.
  • Replace your mealtime with intentional time focused on God. Read scripture, offer prayers of thankfulness and request, or journal. Make sure to take time be still and to listen intently and consider the reflection questions below to guide and direct your fast.
  • Don’t end your fast with a large meal. You may also find that you’re unable to eat as much as you did before your fast.
  • While fasts in the Bible were focused on abstaining from food, your physical condition may prohibit this kind of fast or you might sense God is directing you to abstain from a different activity. A fast from caffeine, sports, technology, or shopping may be a beneficial substitution.

Reflection Questions

1 // What have you experienced from fasting? What have you lost and what have you gained?
2 // Do you feel restless before God? How would you normally try and fill this restlessness?
3 // What is your attitude towards fasting and self-denial? How does this change throughout your fast? Is this the attitude you expected of yourself?
4 // In what other areas of your life do you operate from a mentality of entitlement or self-indulgence? How can you wean yourself from this attitude and practice?

For more information about fasting in the Bible or other spiritual practices, consider reading “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth” by Richard J. Foster.