Fasting and Spiritual Direction
April/May 2013,Volume 19, Issue 2
The list of spiritual disciplines that has been adopted within the Spiritual Formation Movement is almost endless. We could analyze the divine office, Benedict’s Rule, use of the Rosary and prayer ropes, monasticism, journaling, the Eucharist, and pilgrimage, among many others. But we will conclude our study of the disciplines with fasting and spiritual direction.
Of course fasting is not a practice unique to spiritual formation. Christians of all theological stripes have fasted since the inception of the church, and the Old Testament saints, not to mention those of pagan religions, made fasting part of their religious life. In order to get a handle on fasting it would be good to break our study into three parts: what spiritual formation leaders teach about fasting, how fasting is understood within more evangelical circles, and what the Bible says on the subject.
Spiritual Formation and Fasting
Dallas Willard tells us that “fasting is one of the more important ways of practicing that self-denial required of everyone who would follow Christ (Matt 16:24). In fasting, we learn how to suffer happily as we feast on God.”  Willard offers a quote from Thomas á Kempis to support his views: “Whosoever knows best how to suffer will keep the greatest peace. That man is conqueror of himself, and lord of the world, the friend of Christ, and heir of Heaven.”  Willard makes clear what he is trying to say in this summary statement:
Persons well used to fasting as a systematic practice will have a clear and constant sense of their resources in God. And that will help them endure deprivation of all kinds, even to the point of coping with them easily and cheerfully. Kempis again says: “Refrain from gluttony and thou shalt the more easily restrain all the inclination of the flesh.” Fasting teaches temperance or self-control and therefore teaches moderation and restraint with regard to all our fundamental drives. 
The idea Willard is promoting is that fasting is a means of sanctification. Through practicing this discipline we suffer deprivations that train us to curb our appetites, control our flesh and conform us to Christlikeness. Through the discipline of fasting we can expect spiritual growth and formation. We will examine the idea that fasting is a means of sanctification later, but for now it is significant to note at this point that Willard draws his conclusions without reference to Scripture and what God says is the purpose of fasting. Rather his primary resource appears to be the Roman Catholic mystic, Thomas á Kempis. When we turn to Richard Foster he rightly remarks that “there simply are no biblical laws that command regular fasting.”  He points to the ancient Christian devotional book the Didache instead, which prescribed fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, and John Wesley’s revival of these teachings among early Methodists.
Scot McKnight writes a whole book for “The Ancient Practices Series” simply entitled Fasting. McKnight contends that fasting is merely the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous or sacred moment (such as sorrow or spiritual desire) which may or may not lead to a desired result or benefit. He states that “fasting is not an instrument that can be utilized to get what we want,”  yet when he fleshes out reasons for fasting he lists: to help us become more compassionate, to gain clarity, to be a blessing, to grow spiritually, to draw closer to God, to develop love for God and others, to overcome temptation, or to get answers to prayer.  While McKnight admits that the Bible gives very limited instruction on fasting  he believes fasting is vital for today based on Old Testament Jewish practices and the witness of church history. “Who are we,” he questions, “to neglect what God’s people have always done?”  He does admit, however, that ancient Jews in response to grievances or sacred moments also wore sackcloth, pulled out their hair, tossed dust on their head and tore their clothing, in addition to fasting.  Who are we, we might ask in turn, to pick and choose which of these ancient practices to incorporate into our Christian life while rejecting these other examples? McKnight, just as Willard and Foster, is crafting a doctrine of fasting by cherry-picking from examples found in Scripture, Jewish and church history, rather than developing an understanding from the Scriptures themselves.
Other spiritual formation leaders could be referenced but it would result in mere redundancy since they all follow a similar line of reasoning. Therefore, we want to move on to the teachings of those who represent more mainstream views of evangelicalism.
Evangelicalism and Fasting
A well-respected evangelical church in Chicago often calls for days of prayer and fasting. In a published brochure the following is offered to the church members to encourage them to join in a fast:
Fasting is a full-body response to God. However, it is not a substitute for obedience nor is it a way to manipulate God. It is a sign of our desperation and a deep desire for complete repentance with an accompanying hunger for God. Richard Foster says, “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed to the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside of us with food and other things.” Let us obey this Scripture, “Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord” (Joel 1:18).
This shows clearly how many understand the role of fasting today as well as the in-roads that spiritual formation leaders have made into mainline evangelical churches. While we could consult reams of books and articles on fasting throughout the ages, I want to turn to the well-respected evangelical theologian and pastor John Piper for his views, which I think epitomize those of many evangelicals. I will be drawing from his book A Hunger for God, Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer to document Piper’s understanding of the role of fasting in the life of the Christian.
He states early that “the birthplace of Christian fasting is homesickness for God” (p. 13). Additionally Piper makes numerous and powerful claims for fasting. He believes: it awakens our appetite for God (p. 23); it will help keep us from turning gifts into gods (pp. 17-20); fasting is a test to see what desires control us (pp. 19, 58); it is an intensifier of spiritual desire (p. 22); we cannot face the hazards of life and ministry without fasting (pp. 51, 62-63); Jesus triumphed over the devil by fasting and, thus, we owe our salvation, in some measure, to fasting (p. 55); fasting is a physical expression of heart-hunger for the coming of Jesus (p. 83); it awakens us to latent spiritual appetites by pushing the domination of physical forces from the center of our lives (p. 90); the reason we do not fast is because we are content with the absence of Christ (p. 93); it was fasting in Acts 13 that changed the course of history (p. 107); and fasting is meant to starve sin (p. 136).
Piper quotes Martin Luther favorably as stating, “It is right to fast frequently in order to subdue and control the body. For when the stomach is full, the body does not serve for preaching, for praying, for studying, or for doing anything else that is good. Under such circumstances God’s Word cannot remain.”  And he adds a more concerning quote from John Wesley in which he says, “The man who never fasts is no more in the way to heaven than the man who never prays” 
As is obvious, Piper is a strong supporter of fasting, but he recognizes that Old Testament fasting is not the same as Christian fasting. The Old Testament people fasted primarily for two reasons: longing for the Messiah and mourning (over loss, danger or sin).  They also fasted on Mondays and Thursdays Piper states,  although he does not mention that this practice is found not in the Old Testament but in the Gospels and was part of the tradition of the Pharisees, not a scriptural mandate. Piper readily admits that there is no New Testament command to fast but he assures us that we must embrace fasting although not as was found under the Old Covenant. “We’ll take it, but we’ll change it,” he writes. 
Piper’s position on fasting faces a number of problems. First, despite the strong statements and claims for fasting mentioned above, none of them is supported directly by Scripture. For example, nowhere in either Testament are we told that fasting awakens our appetite for God, or helps us control our appetites, or intensifies our desire for God, or pushes the dominion of physical forces from our lives. The purpose for fasting was to grieve over sin and loss.
Secondly, in the absence of any command in the New Testament to fast, coupled with virtually no mention of fasting in the epistles and only two examples in Acts, Piper has to scramble to make a case for fasting during the church age. In addition there are strong arguments questioning the role of fasting for the Christian that must be handled. Piper hits these head-on and early. He opens his book by listing Scriptures that warn against asceticism (1 Tim 4:13; Col 2:20-21; 1 Cor 8:8; Luke 18:12-14).  He then points to four objections that some have to Christian fasting: fasting is not uniquely Christian; the arrival of the kingdom negated the need for fasting; the danger of fasting in that it could lead to pride; fasting seems to be a denial of the joy of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. 
Piper’s reply to these concerns comes in three forms: examination of Scripture, testimonies of others, and personal conviction. The primary argument, of course, must be what the New Testament teaches and in this regard he sees Matthew 9:14-17 as the most important New Testament passage on fasting. Jesus’ and His disciples did not fast, according to this text, because they were in the presence of the Bridegroom but when the Bridegroom is taken away Jesus declares “they will fast.”  Piper rejects, as I would, that this future fasting by His disciples should be confined to the three days between the Cross and the Resurrection, so he concludes that Jesus must be referencing the church age in which His disciples will fast in His absence. Therefore, according to Piper, fasting should be a normal part of the Christian life (I will examine this line of reasoning in the next section).
The author uses a few other New Testament references to prove his case but none convincingly. He claims that 2 Corinthians 6:5 and 11:27 speak of Paul fasting  when clearly these verses are in the context of either forced hunger as one of the persecutions he suffered for the sake of the gospel, or voluntary absence from food because of the intensity of the immediate opportunities for ministry. Piper correctly points to Acts 13:1-3 and 14:23 to show that fasting was still practiced on occasion by the New Testament church but never addresses that at least a few of the Christians at the time, such as Paul, still participated in some Jewish feasts and rituals. If we are patterning our lives after examples, rather than direct instruction, why do we not as Christians keep the Jewish traditions as some of the apostles did for a time? What is lacking in Piper’s exegesis is clear teaching or command in the New Testament scriptures for church-age fasting. Examples might give us freedom to fast but they are not a mandate. Romans chapter 14 is an important text in regard to this subject but is not adequately addressed in this volume. Quite frankly Piper does not prove his case for Christian fasting from the New Testament.
Piper’s next line of argument is examples and quotes drawn from throughout church history. He devotes chapter five to such experiences and he ends A Hunger for God with an appendix of quotes favoring fasting. Of course, quotes and examples, while interesting, carry no authority if not backed by Scripture. But of even greater concern is that Piper draws from a number of disturbing sources. There are references to spiritual formation leaders such as Richard Foster and Dallas Willard,  Roman Catholic priests and monks, and the Desert Fathers and early church mystics from which much of modern fasting practices originate. 
Piper’s final line of argumentation is his own conviction and authority. The claims Piper makes for fasting, earlier, simply cannot be proven by Scripture. They are the opinion of Piper and those who back his views. For example, when using Acts 13 as proof for Christian fasting he does not mention that the passage lacks specific reasons as to why this early church was fasting, and that nothing is said about their hunger for God that led them to fast.  This is typical of the book. Piper makes powerful claims for Christian fasting but he does not prove these claims from the New Testament.
One Old Testament text that the author spends much time on is Isaiah 58 which condemns Israel for keeping fasts while its heart was far from God. This is an excellent reminder, but Piper uses the passage to springboard into his belief in the Cultural Mandate (although not mentioned by name) that the church has been called to social action as part of the Great Commission (pp. 22, 127-153). Piper can make this link only by equating Old Testament Israel with the New Testament church. By doing so he does not distinguish life under the Old Covenant from New Testament teaching concerning life during the church age. This is foundational to Piper’s position on fasting. The logic is that if fasting was an important part of Old Testament Israel’s spiritual life then it must also be an important part of the Christian’s life today. Piper believes that now during the church age we must make some changes and adjustments to Old Testament life, but we must not break the link to these things. It is on the basis of this theological premise that Piper can promote fasting so heavily in spite of the absence of New Testament teaching to back his views.
With some massaging and minor revision I believe Piper’s views on fasting are representative of many, if not most, evangelicals who are promoters of fasting. A careful comparison between this view and that of the spiritual formation leaders will reveal only minor differences, if any. As can be seen in Piper’s book, he even draws on some of the same authors, examples and quotes used by the Spiritual Formation Movement. What we must do now is turn our attention to Scripture and see what it has to say about fasting during the church age.
The orthodox Jews of Jesus’ day seemed to believe that self-induced discomfort enhanced their religious experience. It was for this reason that the Pharisees fasted twice a week – Monday and Thursday from sunrise to sunset, even though the only mandated fast in the Jewish calendar was on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:26-32). It is also true that in the Old Testament many of the Jewish leaders called for fasts for various reasons (e.g. 1 Sam 7:6; 2 Chron 30:3; Joel 1:14 Ezra 8:21), however none of these fasts was ordered by the Lord or was part of Jewish Law. The Pharisees also prayed three times a day at noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. To such people their spiritual lives are often duty-laden drudges, filled with one unpleasant “have-to” after another and often motivated by fear.
When Jesus and His followers came on the scene they did not fit into the Pharisee’s mold. Rather than fasting they feasted. Rather than have the appearance of mourning they exhibited joy, and these things irritated the Jewish spiritual leaders. These differences came to a head in Matthew 9:9-17 (Mark 2:14-22; Luke 5:27-38) when Jesus and His disciples were feasting at Matthew’s house with “tax collectors and sinners.” If this were not bad enough they were apparently feasting on one of the self-prescribed fast days of the Pharisees. The account in Mark reveals that the disciples of John the Baptist joined the Pharisees in their criticism of Jesus. Apparently John’s disciples, while not embracing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, had nevertheless accepted their view of piety and they too fasted twice a week. The joyful feasting of Jesus and His men, right in the face of those fasting, did not sit well. How could Jesus claim to be a spiritual man (at the very least) and not observe the twice weekly fasts?
Jesus knew that, in the case of the Pharisees, their religion was a show and a sham (Matt 6:1-8). But on this occasion He does not address this, instead He tells them why He and his disciples are different. He uses a common illustration that they could all understand, an illustration about a wedding (Matt 9:15). Weddings in the days of Jesus, as today, were times for feasting and joy, not times for fasting and mourning. According to William Barclay, during the first century, when two young people married in Palestine they did not go away for a honeymoon; they stayed at home and for a week they kept open house. They dressed in their best, sometimes they even wore crowns; for the week they were king and queen and their word was law. They would never have a week in their hard-wrought lives like that again. And the favored guests who shared this festive week were called the children (or sons, or attendants) of the bride chamber. During the week, when the bride and the groom were holding court, it was a time for joy and feasting. But the day would come soon enough when the wedding was over and they returned to the routine of life (Matt 9:15b).
Jesus is obviously applying this illustration to Himself. He is the Bridegroom in the story and His disciples are feasting, not fasting, because Jesus was still with them and no one fasts when the bridegroom is still present. But the day was coming, at the crucifixion, when Jesus would be taken away. At that time the disciples’ laughter would be turned into mourning, their joy to sorrow and their feasting to fasting. The question we must ask is what Jesus meant by the words, “those days?”
There is no doubt that “those days” include the days immediately following the crucifixion, and almost certainly they would include the time from the crucifixion to the coming of the Holy Spirit. But does it include the church age? I don’t think so. Consider that Jesus had promised His disciples that when He went away He would send the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 17; 16:7) who would be another helper (Gk: Paraclete) – just like Him. As a matter of fact Jesus said that it would be to their advantage for Him to leave and send the Holy Spirit to them (John 16:7). It seems to me that the period of time between the crucifixion and the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell the believers best fits Jesus’ description of a time of mourning that would require fasting.
The issue is this: since the Holy Spirit has come and since we are again in the presence of the Bridegroom (in the form of the Holy Spirit) should not Christians rather rejoice than fast today? If Jesus’ disciples avoided fasting and feasted instead in the presence of the Bridegroom why should not the Christian do the same now that the Holy Spirit indwells him, especially in light of Jesus’ promise that it was to our advantage that He go away and send the Spirit?
There are strong opinions on both sides of this issue. Some believe (as I have documented above) that fasting is the missing ingredient in the spiritual life of Christians today. If we would but fast as the Old Testament saints fasted we would know God’s power in ways that we do not now. But as we examine Scripture pertaining to the church age we discover some interesting things. While fasting is never prohibited in the epistles, neither is it ever promoted. There is no instruction to fast and there are no prescribed fasts for the church. There are two examples of fasts in the book of Acts by the early church, but no mention that this was either the norm or expected of the churches. There are two, possibly three, mentions of fasting in the epistles. Second Corinthians 5:5 and 11:27 are covered above leaving only 1 Corinthians 7:5 where we find the word “fasting” added to “prayer” in the Textus Receptus manuscripts and inserted in translations that are based on that manuscript family (such as the KJV). Earlier manuscripts, upon which translations (such as the NASB and ESV) are based, do not include fasting, but even if it is the best rendering this does not change the New Testament understanding of fasting. First Corinthians 7 is in the context of the believers at Corinth adding unhealthy ascetic practices, in this case abstinence from marital intercourse, in the misguided understanding that doing so enhanced their spiritual life. Paul refuted this idea and called for normal, regular physical relationships within marriage, with the exception of mutually agreed upon short periods of time in order to devote themselves to prayer (and “fasting” if the Textus Receptus is followed). I personally have never known anyone to make specific application of this text, but it demonstrates the freedom we have in Christ to do so.
We must conclude, in the absence of either command or instruction in the New Testament concerning this subject, that fasting is not prohibited and therefore a believer is free to fast if he chooses. But since it is never commanded or even recommended for the church age we must assume that it is not a necessary ingredient for the Christian walk. As a matter of fact, fasting seems to be one of the areas specifically addressed by Paul to be a matter of personal conviction (Rom 14:5-9; Col 2:16-23). If you want to fast do so. But don’t require it of others, or make it a test of spirituality, or expect it to aid in your sanctification. Jesus’ emphasis was not on fasting, but on the joy of His presence. In the presence of Jesus, through the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who could not be joyful?
Fasting is neither commanded nor rejected in the New Testament, but left to the circumstances and convictions of individual Christians. It entered into the life of the ancient church through early uninspired Christian teachings (such as the Didache) and the church’s slow but steady drift toward ritualism and mysticism. The only prescribed fast in the Old Testament was for the Day of Atonement and that has been fulfilled in Christ. And given that there are no commands or instruction in the New Testament for fasting it seems safe to say that fasting is not a requirement for Christians today. As a matter of fact, 1 Timothy 4:3 implies that advocating abstaining from foods which God has created is a sign of false teaching rather than a mark of spirituality. If Jesus and His disciples saw no need to fast, and if it is rarely mentioned following the Ascension and never promoted in the epistles, then surely it is not necessary today for spiritual growth. A quote from J. Oswald Sanders gives the proper balance: “Fasting is not a legalistic requirement but a spontaneous reaction under special circumstances…There are…godly and prayerful people who have found fasting a hindrance rather than a help…There is no need for such to be in bondage. Let them do what most helps them to pray.”  With this I agree.
Spiritual direction and “trained” spiritual directors are all the rage these days. Richard Foster claims, “In our day, the desperate need is for the emergence of a massive spiritual army of trained spiritual directors.” 
A general description of spiritual direction is:
The practice of being with people as they attempt to deepen their relationship with the divine, or to learn and grow in their own personal spirituality. The person seeking direction shares stories of his or her encounters of the divine, or how he or she is experiencing spiritual issues. The director listens and asks questions to assist the directee in his or her process of reflection and spiritual growth. 
This definition seems benign enough until one realizes that spiritual direction flows out of Roman Catholic mystical spirituality. When Richard Foster wrote his Celebration of Disciplines in 1978, he lamented that spiritual directors and direction was “hardly understood, let alone practiced, except in the Roman Catholic monastic system.”  Foster believed this was a tragedy given that he calls its exemplary history: “Many of the first spiritual directors were the desert Fathers and were held in high regard for their ability to discern spirits.”  Of course through the efforts of Foster, Dallas Willard, and a host of other spiritual formation authors and leaders, all of this has changed and spiritual direction is found throughout all branches of Protestantism and evangelicalism.
Today spiritual direction is a primary means of training people in the doctrines and disciplines of the Spiritual Formation Movement, but its main focus is in training people to hear and interpret the voice of God independently from the Scriptures. The Jesuit Press has a website entitled IgnatianSpirituality.com in which spiritual direction is clearly explained:
Spiritual direction is “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.” (William A. Barry and William J. Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction )
- Spiritual direction focuses on religious experience. It is concerned with a person’s actual experience of a relationship with God.
- Spiritual direction is about a relationship. The religious experience is not isolated, nor does it consist of extraordinary events. It is what happens in an ongoing relationship between the person and God. Most often this is a relationship that is experienced in prayer.
- Spiritual direction is a relationship that is going somewhere. God is leading the person to deeper faith and more generous service. The spiritual director asks not just “what is happening?” but “what is moving forward?”
- The real spiritual director is God. God touches the human heart directly. The human spiritual director does not “direct” in the sense of giving advice and solving problems. Rather, the director helps a person respond to God’s invitation to a deeper relationship. 
As can be seen a spiritual director is not one who explains Scripture, advises people on their spiritual lives, or provides biblical insight. The task of the spiritual director is to help his directee discern the voice of God in order to determine where the Lord is leading him. This is a purely subjective attempt at unraveling what the directee thinks the Lord is saying to him, but it is a logical step in the spiritual formation system due to the difficulty that people have in discerning the supposed subjective inner voice of God. As Ken Boa, himself an advocate of spiritual directives, states,
It is possible for some personality types to develop a false supernaturalism by becoming immersed in an artificial experience. Thinking they are communing with God, they are really lost in themselves. This problem of self-delusion and misguided zeal can be corrected by a willingness to accept sound advice through spiritual direction. 
Boa is right up to a point. When people enter into the sphere of subjective spirituality in which they view their own thoughts and hunches as the very voice of God, and are attempting to interpret what God is saying and what direction He is leading, they often become confused and even self-deluded. Under this scenario terrible choices can be made. The spiritual formation solution to this serious problem is to follow the ancient Catholic method of spiritual direction. Unfortunately what this amounts to is adding another self-deluded person to the equation who will in turn attempt to help these confused people to discern the voice of God. The spiritual director, however, has no pipeline to God and can no more unravel the supposed direction from the Lord than those who have come to him for help. Rather than providing insight the spiritual director enters into the same subjective realm as his directee and faces the same impossible task of attempting to interpret a word from God that has never been given.
The Scriptures speak a great deal about helping one another in our Christian walk. Ephesians 4:15 calls on us to “speak the truth in love [in order that we] grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.” But the context of this command is equipping the saints through the teaching of the Word of God. Paul tells Timothy to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). As Timothy understands the message of Scripture through this diligent study he is to entrust what he has learned “to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim 2:2). After reminding Timothy of the power of the inspired Scripture to both save and sanctify us (2 Tim 3:15-17), Paul then charges him to preach the word and “reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim 4:2). Such biblical statements are multiplied many times over. We are to be involved in the lives of one another in order to strengthen the body of Christ and aid in its maturity so that we may live as He desires us to live (Eph 4:16). But the biblical pattern and instruction is not merely to listen to what people think God is telling them and subjectively lead them to determine which part of these supposed messages are really from God and which are not, as spiritual directors do. This is an act of futility and has no basis in Scripture whatsoever. Instead we are to minister to one another by helping people to discern and obey the infallible, objective and inspired word from the Lord as found in His Scriptures. We do not grow in Christ by contemplating our own thoughts, which we are attributing to God, but through the careful study and understanding of His inerrant Word.
 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, (New York, HarperCollins, 1988), p. 167.
 Ibid, emphasis his.
 Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 51.
 Scot McKnight, Fasting (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), p. 155.
 Ibid., pp. 32, 48, 70, 87, 110, 139, 152, xvii, 154, 155.
 Ibid., pp. 20, 122.
 Ibid., p. 97.
 Ibid., p. 55.
 John Piper, A Hunger for God, Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1997), pp. 185- 186.
 Ibid., p. 191.
 Ibid., p. 35.
 Ibid., p. 25.
 Ibid., pp. 9-11.
 Ibid., pp. 26-36.
 Ibid., pp. 34-36.
 Ibid., p. 37.
 Ibid., pp. 19, 58, 202-204.
 Ibid., p. 210.
 Ibid., p. 106.
 Ibid., p. 208.
 Richard Foster, Celebration of Disciplines, (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 185.
 Kenneth Boa, The Trinity, a Journal, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), pp. 22-23.