On a Sunday morning, one of our elders challenged the entire church to take a day to fast. After the servce, I stopped to talk to a group of women. Several of them said, "Sure, I'll fast. Why not? I might lose some weight." I had to admit that the same thought crossed my mind. I knew we were fasting as a church to examine our lives before God, but why not slip the pounds off too—two birds with one stone?
But something about the idea bothered me, so when I got home, I mentioned that conversation to my husband. He wondered what the apostles would think of that attitude toward fasting. We got to joking about it: Paul says to Silas, "Let's fast. I got kind of paunchy in Troas." Silas agrees and adds, "Good idea. And you know what? We could get thrown in prison in Philippi. That will make it easier to stick to it."
And that can be the trouble with fasting in America—at least for women. We're so obsessed with losing weight that we have trouble doing it with the right motives—at least I do. Those of us who are overweight want to fast primarily to jump kick our efforts to lose a few pounds. And the fewer number of us who struggle with eating disorders use fasting as a way to validate our dysfunctional relationship with food. In fact, anorexia nervosa was first given its name in 19th-century England, but according to Joan Jacobs Brumberg in Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, it was documented in Europe as early as the 13th century—usually related to women who practiced extreme fasting for religious reasons.
The scriptural reasons for fasting include repentance that leads to change (Jonah 3:5-9), asking God to change his course—although this is a request, not a guarantee (2 Samuel 12:13-23), and preparation for ministry (Acts 13:2-3). There may be other reasons in Scripture, but I couldn't find weight loss among them. So we can safely eliminate that as a reason for biblical fasting.
In fact, Isaiah warned the Israelites against fasting for the wrong reasons. He addressed their lack of justice, but the principle applies if we're fasting mainly in hopes of losing weight. Isaiah 58:3-4 says, "'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?' … You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high."
The Right Motives
I thought again about the conversation with the women at church, and I felt ashamed that our immediate thoughts and motivation had been more about losing weight than gaining strength of soul and character. Never again.
I've learned to fast with the right motive. I take time to determine my reason, and then search the Scriptures to make sure it's biblical. I enter the fast prayerfully and devoutly, letting Christ work in and through me as a result of the fast. And when I'm tempted with the reward of potential weight loss, I face that squarely. Because fasting in order to connect with an almighty, glorious God is far more thrilling (and eternal) than losing a few pounds.