Do ordinary, busy Christians fast anymore?
That was the question that popped into the mind of our board-of-elders chairman, Austin Chapman. Pastor Anderson had mentioned fasting in a sermon, and now the lay leader was getting practical: What about it? Should we—a large, modem church in a Minneapolis suburb—take fasting seriously?
John Wesley once said, "Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it." We certainly knew which category we were. So we did what any group of uneasy churchmen would do: we referred the matter to the discipleship board for further study.
In a matter of weeks, board member Jeff Jonswold presented a report that didn't let us off the hook at all. He noted, among other things that:
- Fast and other forms of the word are used 78 times in Scripture.
- Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Jesus, Anna, the disciples of John the Baptist, Paul, Barnabas, and others all fasted.
- Jesus seemed to think of giving, praying, and fasting as a trio of spiritual disciplines. Jeff listed four reasons to fast: (1) to better focus the mind on God; (2) to share, in some small measure God's own grief over sin; (3) to turn attention away from material needs toward the One who supplies all; (4) to intensify our praying.
He concluded with eight practical guidelines for those who fast:
- Reach a personal conviction on the subject through a careful biblical study.
- Make sure you are medically able to fast before attempting it.
- Enter with a positive faith that God will reward those who fast with the right motives.
- Begin with short fasts and gradually move to larger periods of time.
- Be prepared for some dizziness, headache, or nausea in the early going.
- Mix your prayer time with Scripture reading and singing or devotional reading.
- Keep checking your motives during the fast.
- Break a prolonged fast gradually with meals that are light and easy to digest.
These ideas were officially discussed at a special joint meeting of all boards. Within two weeks, George Penland, chairman of the discipleship board, sent a letter to all who were present encouraging a trial period of prayer and fasting. He asked us to report our experiences and conclusions anonymously.
During the next two months, responses trickled in. One wrote: "I used lunch and supper to dwell upon (God's greatness) and (the same God reached down to us). A very valuable time. It required much discipline and concentration. Nothing magical happened—it's a learning process. Conclusion: I plan to set aside one day a month to fast and pray and meditate."
Another wrote: "It's changed me. I first fasted for a specific prayer request—trying to change God and make something happen. Now, I reflect on God himself. I go to him to have my perspective and attitude changed instead of God's. It has humbled me. My goal is to do it once a week."
One who ate only breakfast for two days wrote: "I was aware of physical discomfort, but I felt that was good. It heightened my awareness and appreciation of God. It's improved my prayer life. I plan to do this again often."
Of those who reported, none were negative or even neutral. All saw fasting as a "helpful," "positive," "uplifting," or "life-changing."
So the discipleship board voted to take the next step: encourage the church to participate.