Fasting and Desire

I was reading Rob Moll’s piece on fasting in the recent online edition of CT and it occurred to me again that the early church captured fasting as a way of curbing desire.

Fasting and all other spiritual disciplines are not simply reminders of other more important things. We may use hunger like a string tied to our fingers, prompting us to pray or consider the plight of the poor. But more importantly, spiritual disciplines shape us in deep ways. Because our brains—at the very least—mediate, process, and experience our spiritual lives, the disciplines can train us to become more attuned to God himself. Fasting then teaches and enables us to live by deeper truths and in accord with a deeper reality than the basic cravings of our bodies….

This subconscious self is not wholly uncontrollable. It can be trained and shaped. Fasting and other spiritual disciplines train these processes, shape them, and thereby shape us into spiritual people. Fasting schools our subconscious. We exert our will over the cravings of our body so that we have a mental process in place that is strong enough to overrule other temptations we face. We slowly become people who are less driven by temporary cravings, whether for food or sex or personal fulfillment. While spiritual disciplines shape who we will be, they also reveal who we are. As we struggle and often fail—week after week—we discover our true selves. We learn about our weaknesses and can seek forgiveness.

If fasting for the poor raises awareness of their plight and spurs us to action alleviating their need, it is certainly a beneficial endeavor. But there is tremendous value in self-denial for its own sake. Or rather, a habit of denial strengthens our ability to take up the cross as even our very bodies are molded into the likeness of Christ.

Desire, or epithumia, in the early Christian world was a problem — desire for sex, desire for food — in other words, lust and gluttony. One method of dealing with desire was to whip it, that is, to beat it down by suppressing it, even it meant heroic acts of suppression. Like fasting as long as one could or making oneself a eunuch.

Beyond desire comes purity. If getting to purity was to block or purge or purify or suppress or eliminate desire,  then by all means do what you have to do.

In comes fasting: fasting was depicted by some early Christian theologians as the way to discipline the body, the way to check desire, the way to block desires from finding a foothold in one’s life. So fasting was seen as a means of improvement, an instrument for spiritual formation.

Surely fasting can accomplish this. But…

Jewish fasting and Jesus fasting and early Christian fasting, at least the instances about fasting in the Bible, focus on something else: fasting in the Bible is rarely, if ever, a means of personal sanctification and far more — if not exclusively — a response to a grievous condition one’s experiences. That is, people fast because they realize their sin, because they see death, because they realize God is about to judge the nation, because they fear the foreigners will invade … in other words, the Biblical emphasis is that fasting is a response by which we identify or side with God rather than a means or instrument to make us better.

Those who focus on the instrumental value of fasting are eclipsing the focus of the Bible, though I’m not saying the instrumental theory of fasting is wrong. Obviously, this is a well-tried means of improvement in the history of the church. It is not, however, the focus of the Bible. That emphasis is on fasting as a response, natural whole body response to a grievious condition.

I’ve written about this in book called Fasting, and in that book I develop a simple schematic, which I have slightly revised here:

A <– B –> C

A: Grievous condition (death, sin, war)

B: Response of fasting (to A, hence A <– B)

C: Benefit (which sometimes happens, sometimes does not; but is not the direction of fasting in the Bible; hence sometimes B yields C).

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  • Georges Boujakly

    Scot, thanks for emphasizing this again. The “in order to get something from God” or “get more holy” ideas of fasting are entrenched in contemporary Christian literature. Fasting as a response to tragedy, sin, war, often gets me “deer in headlight” looks from people.

    Praying with our bodies is my favorite glimpses from your excellent book on fasting as found in Scripture.

    I often fast as a way of entering into the sorrow of others in solidarity with them and in personal response to their tragedies (every man’s death, diminishes me kind of idea). In this sense there’s always a reason to fast. Not just in lenten season.

  • Dawne Piotrowski

    Scot, this is an interesting perspective; I’ll have to read your book. I’m wondering how you would respond to the idea of fasting as preparation for ministry, such as Jesus fasting in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry, and the disciples fasting and praying before sending Barnabas and Saul out for mission?

  • scotmcknight


    Good one. I see Jesus’ fast to be a response to the utter gravity of his calling, following the baptism, in which he perceives himself as the New Moses. So it was a response to that kind of grievousness. There is no indication he was fasting instrumentally to get something.

  • Kyle


    It seems fair to connect identifying with God through fasting in the face of a grievous condition with taking on God’s perspective. Bodily denial and discomfort then become a parallel to God’s groaning for the continued instantiation of his kingdom. Regardless of the specifics of how the grievous situation settles itself (or doesn’t), wouldn’t the fast transform the participant through a deepened consciousness of God’s desires and purposes? Was there any room for Jesus to experience this deepening, or was his fasting merely gestural for our understanding and mimicry?

  • It is hard for me to differentiate between the two, fasting in response to a particular external condition and the internal effect that the fasting will bring. Certainly many, and even most, times in the Bible a person or community fasts in response to an external threat or incident. That is the motivation for it, but the engagement I would suggest did not remain on the surface; it had an interior impact on the orientation and outlook of the person or community. While I realize the historicity isn’t certain, I think that Ninevah is instructive. Jonah prophesies their destruction, they fast (along with the cows), and disaster is averted. But my guess is that something was different about that community afterwards as individuals within it were challenged by the fast to rethink that on which they rely and then reorient themselves to a new way of being.

    On the other hand, I think Saul’s fasting in Acts 9 is more motivated by an inner desire for change, more in line with what Rob Moll writes above. One could make the argument that he is fasting because he is mourning over the kind of person that he is, and I’m sure that was part of the motivation, but it makes more sense to me that Saul become Paul is fasting because he needs to clear out some space to listen to God.

    I guess the main point is that this is a both/and, whether the motivation to fast is for external or internal purposes there is going to be both an external and internal effect. This is really the case for all of the classical spiritual disciplines since they all involve the life, for now, of an enfleshed spirit. And they all have the potential to take us through a process of internal orientation –> disorientation –> reorientation that will have external evidences.

    This is an interesting (and long) article on the practice of fasting in the patristic period –