A few years ago, a patient came to me with a very interesting request. She came asking how to safely participate in a three day fast for a religious ceremony. This woman was elderly, frail, and diabetic. She came to me about this because she knew a three day fast could potentially be dangerous to her health, so she wanted to know how to do it safely.
She let me know at the beginning of the appointment she was not seeking permission from me. The religious event was so important to her, that she was resolved to participate in the fast, even if I advised against it. She also let me know that she respected me, and for that reason wanted to seek my advice as a clinician.
This request frankly caught me off guard. In my experience growing up in the American Christian church, fasting was often presented as optional. When the topic of fasting was brought up for discussion in the church, inevitably people would state they cannot fast for “medical reasons”. Pastors were always sensitive to this while promoting a corporate fast, and sure to include the disclaimer, “I know that some of you will not be able to participate for medical reasons…”
Yet here in front of me was a woman who had plenty of medical reasons to not participate in a three day fast, yet she was resolved to do so. On top of this, she was not a Christian.
After the appointment, I reflected on the fact that thus far in my career, I never had a Christian come to me with the same request as my patient that day.
A few years later I took a position working in gastroenterology, and there I made a surprising discovery: there are essentially no medical contraindications to fasting. Part of my job in that clinical setting was to guide patients through how to fast prior to endoscopic procedures. It is genuinely challenging for some people to fast twelve hours prior to a procedure. After all, we live in a culture that revolves around food. But even those who are chronically ill and frail can safely fast; it is not medically contraindicated even for those folks, and certainly not impossible.
The whole idea that fasting has medical contraindications is essentially a fabrication. So why is it repeated so often in the church? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section as to why this may be the case.
I would propose that for too long in the Christian church in the USA we have tried to make the spiritual disciplines, such as fasting, easier and marketable. We make fasting easier out of fear that we will push people away if it is hard.
So instead of Biblical fasting being a routine part of the Christian’s daily life with corporate fasting occurring regularly as we see in the scripture, every once in a while a church will promote a “Daniel fast” to help people lose weight. Or maybe only the youth will fast, since so many adults in the church cannot fast for “medical reasons.” Still other churches have told people that fasting can be abstaining from essentially anything, so people will fast their morning trip to McDonald’s, social media, or their favorite TV shows.
Whatever the scenario, in all of these cases we end up watering down fasting so much it ends up looking nothing at all like fasting in the scriptures. Even worse, when we do this, we miss the entire point of fasting.
Throughout scripture, we see fasting as a regular occurrence in the life of a follower of Jesus. There are also numerous examples of individuals and groups fasting to seek God’s direction, or the movement of God in a unique way. Fasting is a powerful tool Christians have been given to experience the movement, power, and direction of Almighty God in their lives.
When was the last time you fasted? Was it challenging? Did it stretch your faith and grow your relationship with God, or was it convenient and uneventful?
I’m not sharing all of this to shame anyone. The truth is, as I write these words I have to look at myself first, recognizing I have a lot of maturing to do in the spiritual discipline of fasting.
When Christians fast, we are not worshiping an idol that is powerless or a false god that cannot respond to our worship. On the contrary, we worship the one true God and creator of the universe who desires to be glorified in our lives. When we truly seek God with all of our heart through prayer, fasting, and scripture reading, we will see God move powerfully in our lives for His glory.
Imagine if Christians in the United States actually started to set the standard for what spiritual discipline and fasting looks like.
Imagine if doctor’s offices were flooded with patients seeking medical advice from their PCP regarding how to fast and seek the one true God.
Imagine if seeking God was something we started to build our lives upon, instead of something we try to fit in when it is convenient.
Imagine if Christians began to seek God so fervently that the power and movement of God in our midst would be undeniable to those looking from the outside.