“I read your post about intermittent fasting, and I get it—but what about fasting and praying as faithful servants of Christ?”
This is a question that comes up quite a bit for me, especially when I’m working one-on-one with clients who have a strong faith background. As Christians, the combination of prayer + fasting comes up a lot in church circles, and is often encouraged during seasons such as Advent and Lent. For a member of the church who struggles in her relationship with food, the concept of fasting can be confusing. And trust me—I totally get it. We want to honor God and submit our lives to his will, but we also want to care for our mental, physical, and spiritual health by creating safeguards for ourselves around food.
Let’s start with a story.
Rewind to fourteen-year-old Alexandra. I was not a Christian at the time, but I had a friend who was very vocal about her Catholic faith and her religious practices. She was beautiful, tall, thin and smart, and as a young teenager, I idolized her. I wanted to be just like her. I modeled my style after her, always checked my homework in comparison to hers, and even copied meals I saw her eating during lunch at school. (This was in the beginning stages of my eating disorder. I thought that if I ate like her, I’d be as thin as she was.) One day, she shared with me that she was fasting in the name of pro-life/abortion issues. The idea of fasting with a purpose was completely foreign to me, so I went home and looked up fasting on the internet. This was in the early days of Youtube, and my web surfing landed me at the account of a woman who was vlogging about her experience with three consecutive forty-day fasts. Yes, this woman gave up food, drinking only water for 120 days.
Between her first vlog and her last, she lost over 100 lbs and transformed from a regular, curvy woman into a frail looking, emaciated figure. I was both shocked and intrigued, and I found myself wanting to be able to have the self control to avoid food like she did, and to be able to lose weight like she did, so I could be thin like my friend. What was a very personal (albeit extraordinarily extreme) spiritual experience for this woman planted another seed for very harmful behavior in my own life.
A little over a year later I was diagnosed with anorexia.
[As an aside, I do not fault this vlogger woman or my friend for playing a role in my eating disorder. My eating disorder developed in its own right as the perfect storm of maladaptive coping mechanisms for me as a struggling young teenager. There was a LOT more at play than a competitive/comparison friendship and a Youtube video.]
The reason I share this story is to point out that fasting can be dangerous in the Christian life, even if we think our intentions are good.
1. Fasting alone is not a problem. Spiritual fasting is good.
Jesus fasted. The disciples fasted. The early church fasted. The church today engages in fasting. Amid those sacrifices of fasting and prayer, God works.
I won’t pretend to understand the miracle that takes place during prayerful fasting. My limited human mind cannot comprehend it. But I have seen the fruit of corporate prayer and fasting on a church level, and seen God move because of it. I also know that fasting changes the heart of a Christian. Giving up food for a limited period and using that physical hunger as a visceral reminder of a deep and pervasive spiritual need is transformative. This too is a miracle.
However, one of the hallmarks of Christian fasting is that it is followed by feasting. Through fasting, we are reminded of our humanity, our mortality, and our inability to save ourselves. Through feasting we rejoice in the grace and hope of the gospel, and the promise of Christ’s reign.
2. Fasting does not have to be for everybody.
God calls the church to fast. But that does not mean that every member of the church is always required to fast.
Just like God calls different individuals into different vocations and callings (full time ministry or mission work, as two examples), God calls individual Christians differently in other areas of life according to their unique situations. We all can accept that not every Christian is called to be a missionary (who would be left over to be a Christian doctor, teacher, engineer, or construction worker?) and we all should likewise accept that some of the callings on the corporate, collective church may not pertain to us as individuals.
From my own experience, I do not participate in church fasts, including fasting from food during lent, because I recognize that my participation can trigger a relapse into an eating disorder, which would damage my relationship with God rather than deepen it. God gives us the wisdom we need to exercise care and caution with our behaviors and our bodies, and this means setting boundaries for ourselves, personally, with certain behaviors. Just because others may fast freely and the church may benefit from such participation, this does not mean that individuals for whom participation may be harmful must also engage.
Think about it this way: some churches serve wine during communion, and others serve grape juice. Someone who abstains from alcohol due to personal experience with or a family history of alcoholism may wisely abstain from participation in this aspect of communion as a means for self-protection—physical, emotional, and spiritual. While alcohol addiction is not the same as an eating disorder or disordered eating, there are many similarities. This is especially true in that a small exposure to the behavior may trigger devastating consequences.
3. It can be really hard to identify our own motives when it comes to fasting.
Fasting is beneficial to the life of a Christian when, and only when, the full purpose of said fasting is to deepen one’s relationship with God. When we are fasting with any other motive (or partial motive) the spiritual benefit is completely negated.
“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.”Matthew 6:16
This verse is specifically refers to the tendency of certain individuals to boast about their fasting practices in hopes of receiving affirmation from others. In this case, the hidden motive of the individuals fasting was prideful, to receive recognition for their efforts. Jesus’s response is that they will receive the recognition they desire, but none of the spiritual benefit that was supposed to be the reward for fasting. This means that if part of our motivation for fasting is the hope to receive recognition—or to gain a false sense of security/control by avoiding food, or to lose weight—or to have any other result aside from the spiritual, we are not fasting in the name of Christ. Instead, we are fasting in the name of pride, of idolatry, or of diet culture.
For those of us who struggle in our relationship with food, the concept of fasting is an extremely slippery slope. We may have good intentions when starting on a spiritual fast, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t subconsciously develop the hope of another result from our efforts. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t fast, but rather to point out that if we suspect that our motives may be wayward, it is better to abstain.
“It is better not to make a promise than to make one and not keep it.”Ecclesiastes 5:5
4. Diet culture is everywhere, even within the church walls.
One of the reasons I am so passionate about the relationship between food and faith is because I have seen the damaging effects of diet culture in my own life, both outside and inside of the church. For every diet book on the market, there’s a “Christian” counterpart, blaspheming the word of God by taking it out of context and using it to support an argument for a certain diet plan. The same is true for exercise plans, as well as pretty much every experience of life. Sadly, many authors prey on the faith of their future readers, using it to sell a book with an alternative agenda.
I realize that sounds a little conspiracy-theory-ish, but it’s true. There are specific diet books shrouded as God’s original design for the human diet, advertising everything from vegan/vegetarianism, to Paleo, to some strange amalgamation of lentils and vegetables (i.e. The Daniel Plan). I’ve also seen church-endorsed 40-day fasts, marketed as “God’s natural solution” for postpartum weight loss, getting in shape for summer, to use as a New Year’s Resolution, and more. The most common lately (in the last few years) have been sugar fasts, with whole books trying to distort scripture to support the argument that sugar is bad. In the very next sentence, there’s a reference to weight loss, or fitness, or successfully avoiding dessert. But the truth is, God doesn’t care if we eat dessert or if we avoid it. He designed food as a blessing to us, and if he didn’t want us to eat, he wouldn’t have created us with the need to do so.
Abstaining from fasting because of a history of disordered eating/dieting/eating disorders is no different than abstaining due to another medical condition. Someone with diabetes who is taking medications to lower their blood sugar likely would suffer a dangerous medical complication from a day of fasting (or even a single meal.) Although the dangers of eating disorders are not as outwardly obvious, they still create physical risks, as well as profound dangers to our mental and spiritual well-being.
My purpose in writing this is not to try to convince you not to fast if you feel called to participate. In fact, I would encourage you, if that were the case. But if you are worried about your spiritual well-being as a consequence of your choice to avoid fasting, I want to encourage you with the truth that you are making a God-honoring choice. As the church, we lift each other up and carry the weight of each others’ burdens. Sometimes this means fasting and praying as a church body even when all individual members are not participating. Other times, it means sharing the truth that guarding our hearts and minds against temptation is honorable, right, and good. Whether you fast or not, you are dearly loved.