Uniform 02.01.2015: To Fast or Not to Fast


Daniel 1:5, 8-17; Matthew 6:16-18

I confess: I’ve never gone without a meal. In fact, I’ve never gone without a snack when I felt like I needed one. Fasting from food is something I’ve never seriously considered. My excuse is that I feel shaky and lightheaded when I wait too long to eat. Thus, skipping meals must be unhealthy. Right?

Wrong. At least, scientists think so. Several studies show surprising results from “minifasts,” or not eating for a large part of a day. Writing for NPR’s The Salt, Allison Aubrey and Eliza Barclay say that they have tried the “5:2 diet.” They explain, “The diet calls for two days per week of minifasting where the aim is to go a long stretch, say 14 to 18 hours, without eating. During these two fasting days, you also eat only about 600 calories, give or take.”

And what are the benefits? According to studies, they include better control of blood sugar, improved memory, and even immunity boosts. When the body gets a break from a regular supply of glucose energy (as it does in a fast), it begins to burn fat instead. During fasting, fat turns into ketones that can help protect a person from injury or disease. Of course, as with any development, more studies are needed, and there are certainly people who should never fast due to medical or emotional conditions.

Still, there is clearly an argument for the physical benefit of not eating every time we feel like it. The Bible teaches that there are spiritual benefits too. Our lesson text tells the story of Daniel and his three friends (the same three who spent time in the fiery furnace, Dan 3) deciding not to eat the rich food of the king’s palace. Doing so would show their acceptance of the foreign culture, including belief in other gods. Instead, the four young men choose to eat the kinds of foods they ate in Israel, and God rewards their faithfulness.

These guys aren’t fasting from food completely, but they are fasting from certain types of food. They benefit physically by looking healthier than the men who are on the king’s diet, and they also benefit spiritually by honoring the Lord and receiving the blessing of God’s presence in their lives, even as they live in exile away from their homeland. They don’t refuse the rich food because they are ungrateful, disgusted, or proud. They refuse it because they know that eating it will “defile” them; it will go against God.

When it comes to spiritual practices, our motivation is everything. If we choose to fast, pray, read our Bibles, give our money, or anything else in the name of the Lord, may we do it not so that others will see us and praise us, but so that we can honor God (Mt 6:18).

Source: Allison Aubrey and Eliza Barclay, “Minifasting: How Occasionally Skipping Meals May Boost Health,” The Salt, NPR, 12 January 2015 http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2015/01/12/376712920/minifasting-how-occasionally-skipping-meals-may-boost-health (accessed 23 January 2015).


1. Have you ever fasted from food? If so, what was it like? What did you learn from the experience? If not, would you ever consider fasting? Why or why not?
2. Have you ever fasted from something else—TV, the Internet, a particular food like chocolate, etc.? If so, what was it like, and what did you learn from the experience?
3. Why might fasting be helpful to our spiritual lives?
4. Do you have any other spiritual practices that draw you closer to God? If so, what are they, and how often do you do them?
5. Why do you think Jesus told the people to fast in a way that they “may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret” (Mt 6:18)? What other spiritual practices do you think are best done in secret? What might be our “reward” for these practices (v. 18)?

Reference Shelf

Once again the real complaint here is about acts of piety that are done to get attention or provide a public attestation and public praise of one’s piety. Jesus says of such a person that they already have their full reward from the attention they got by these acts. What we are dealing with here is voluntary fasting, not a required fast (see Luke 18:1; Did. 8.1). Notice there is no mention of a prescribed fast connected with a specific Jewish festival or a ritual like a Nazaritic vow. It is interesting that this is the only place in the New Testament where fasting is actually taught or encouraged, which is something of a surprise when one considers the later stress on this in Christian ascetical contexts. Notice that Jesus stresses that his disciples are to look perfectly normal when they fast, head anointed, face washed. This exhortation makes perfectly good sense when it is read in the light of earlier wisdom literature. For example, Sirach 9:8 and 2 Samuel 12:20 suggest that this sort of grooming and pleasant appearance were forbidden on fasting days. Those who pray are not to appear in distress or in extremis. But Jesus believes he and his followers are in an eschatological situation that calls for joy. He will continue to use wisdom speech, but he will modify it and its customs to suit the eschatological situation. If his disciples must think in terms of rewards, then they are to look only to the praise they will get from God for voluntary fasting. Isaiah 58:3-12 seems to lie in the background here.


Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 148-149.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters (ages 10 and 8), and watching television shows on Netflix. Her goal for 2015 is to tackle the bass clef on the piano.


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