My husband and I decided it was time to have children, but my body seemed to be saying otherwise: I was diagnosed with health issues that affected my ability to get pregnant, and I was anxious it would never happen.
I prayed. Tearfully searched for answers in Scripture. And began fasting one or two days a week.
As time passed, my prayers evolved into desperate cries and bargaining with God—promising to fast more, read more Scripture, whatever it would take for me to get pregnant. Intellectually, I knew this wasn’t the point of fasting, but a part of me hoped there was something I could do to expedite an intervention, or at least an answer. Looking back now, as I lie down most evenings to sing my young son to sleep, I see a pattern. This experience of wanting (and waiting) to conceive was one of many times I attempted to turn spiritual practices meant for my growth into demands that God act according to my plans.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the first time Jesus speaks of fasting in the New Testament, He doesn’t give His followers timelines or a list of foods to avoid; He deals with their motivation (Matt. 6:16-18). When we fast, it isn’t because God doesn’t want us to eat or because He wants us to suffer. Instead, it’s meant to be part of our pursuit of righteousness and help us develop a singular focus on the kingdom of God—and reorient our life around the One who matters more than anything else. Just as it was for the prophetess Anna, fasting is to be part of our worship (Luke 2:37).
The very first time God called for abstaining, He instructed Adam and Eve not to eat of a specific tree (Gen. 2:16-17). It wasn’t because the tree was bad—nothing in the Garden of Eden was (Gen. 1:31)—but because its fruit was meant to be eaten only at the right time and in the right way. Similarly, in our own lives, purposefully “going without” helps us derive the greatest benefit by enjoying created goods when and how God intended.
Fasting is meant to help us develop a singular focus on the kingdom of God—and reorient our life around the One who matters more than anything else.
The Savior came to reverse the effects of the first human disobedience—to be the “resurrection and the life” for all who believe in Him (John 11:25). When He fasted in the wilderness at the beginning of His ministry, Christ chose to empty Himself for the sake of the world’s fullness. In that story, we note the striking parallels to the story of Genesis: Eve was tempted by and overcome by the serpent, but Jesus—tempted by the devil—was faithful and victorious. (See Gen. 3 and Luke 4.)
Fasting is best practiced when done in prayerful pursuit of God (and ideally with the input and accountability of a wise mentor). As registered dietitian nutritionist Julie Brake puts it, “Fasting in the Bible is done for the purpose of intense prayer, like Esther before she petitioned the king or [Jesus] before the devil tempted Him. Our current culture uses fasting for cleansing and other reasons, but this is not what the Bible teaches.”
And while fasting is a spiritual practice, it is done both with and to our bodies. Brake emphasizes that good stewardship of our health includes avoiding behaviors that intentionally harm us. “Nutritionally, it is not safe to fast if you need consistent nutrition,” she says. Throughout history, the church has made clear exemptions from fasting for those who cannot do so harmlessly—such as young children, the elderly, pregnant or nursing mothers, and those with diabetes or other situations of medical necessity. What’s more, some studies suggest that socio-religious factors can play a part in exacerbating or triggering eating disorders, but it varies from person to person. If you have concerns or questions, it’s important to speak with your physician.
When He fasted in the wilderness, Christ chose to empty Himself for the sake of the world’s fullness.
For those who are able to fast safely, Brake encourages two things. First, clarify the reason for fasting. And second, define a plan for how long the fast will be, what foods will be included, and how it will be broken. Ideally, the discipline will end with a feast of some sort, but one that’s measured and appropriate to the spiritual journey that was just completed.
While this might seem obvious, it’s important to remind ourselves for the duration of our fast that the purpose is not to demonstrate strength of will, improve our health, or change our physique. We fast in order to draw nearer to God.
Keep in mind that refraining from food is not a requirement for spiritual fasting—you can give up other practices to make more room for the Lord. But if you want to abstain from food, start small—perhaps by avoiding a certain category like meat or dairy, or by eating just one or two meals over the course of a 24-hour period. The Christian tradition’s wisdom on the subject can be summed up this way: Fast as you can, not as you can’t.
When I was struggling to get pregnant, I fasted because I wanted God to do things on my terms. I needlessly punished myself for having a broken body—for not being able to depend on my own self in the way our culture says I should. But I was missing the point: Fasting is meant to remind us of our utter dependence on God—to help us embrace our weakness, so that we boast only in the strength of the One who loves us more than we know how to love.
Photo-illustration by Ryan Hayslip