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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Why We Fast

April 4th, 2024 | 14 min read

By Ross Byrd

Should modern Christians fast? There’s a danger in talking about fasting, because the power of fasting and prayer is almost entirely in the doing, not in explanation, but in bodily participation. We do it, and then we tend to see what it’s for. But since so many Christians in our disembodied cultural moment have perhaps never fasted or never even considered why it might be a good thing for Christians to do, it might be worth saying a few things about it as a way of re-introducing a notion that, perhaps for many of our ancestors, would have needed no explanation at all.

My own view is that fasting should remain a central part of the Christian faith, especially in our particular moment. It also happens to be a central symbolic element in Jesus’s teaching, as we’ll see. There is a reason Christians have been fasting for two thousand years, and the people of God have been doing it for much longer than that. Most of the ancient and medieval world tended to live by collective rhythms of feasting and fasting. We, on the other hand, neither fast nor feast. We gorge.

Imagine giving your children a 24/7 all-access pass to a candy shop and telling them they can eat whatever they want whenever they want. They would be constantly sick. And yet, this is precisely the environment in which almost every American adult now lives with regard to their use of the internet, Amazon, fast food, streaming services, and social media. As a result, we’re all constantly sick, at least at the level of our souls, if not also our bodies.

Fasting interrupts the candy shop mentality. It reintroduces human-shaped rhythms, priorities, and agency. It opens our eyes to see the unseen. Don’t get me wrong. Fasting is no magic fix. In fact, it’s almost the exact opposite of a magic fix. It takes time, patience, and discipline—dare I say, suffering—to see its fruit. But the fruit is no less than the ability to see more of God. Here are three ways to understand Christian fasting:

  1. Fasting makes space for God.
  2. Fasting interrupts and reorients our unconscious patterns.
  3. Fasting gives us eyes to see the unseen.

Fasting makes space for God.

When the rich young ruler approaches Jesus and asks him how to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell all he owns, give it to the poor, then come and follow him. In response, the man goes away disappointed. It’s a strange and unexpected ending to the story. The very one who came to Jesus seeking eternal life, as it turns out, apparently does not want the answer Jesus gives. But why? Directly after this event, Jesus gives his disciples a partial explanation: “How difficult it is,” he says, “for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25). Now, at first glance, this seems to be a kind of moral condemnation of hyper-rich people. But we know that it’s not exactly this, because his disciples—who are not themselves hyper-rich—respond with the question, “Who then can enter?” So it seems they intuit that Jesus is talking about a deeper and more common obstacle, which may also apply to them and to us, whether or not we consider ourselves “rich.” And, I believe, they were right.

If there is one constant theme in Jesus’s teaching, it is that the kingdom of God is at hand. That is, he is not withholding it to those deemed unworthy. The blessings of the Father, the salvation of the Son…it’s all there for the taking. The doors of the kingdom are open. The problem is…we don’t want to go in. In fact, most of the time we don’t even see it, because we aren’t looking for it. “This is the judgment,” Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The light has come into the world, but the people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). In other words, even once the light has come, the people do not want it. Why not? Because they love other things. Why do they love other things? Because their deeds are improperly oriented, and their loves have followed suit. The rich man in Luke 18 cannot receive the gift he is asking for, because his hands are already full, because he is unwilling to let go of what he already has.

“You do not have, because you do not ask…” says James. But why is it that we do not ask? I submit that we do not ask, not because we do not believe in principle that God can give good things, but because we have already found a more convenient solution elsewhere. If we’re feeling tired, we drink another cup of coffee. If we’re feeling lonely, we scroll on social media and fish for “likes.” If we’re haunted by anxiety before bed, we indulge in Netflix until we forget about our anxieties or grow too tired to think about them anymore. We do not have, because we already have.

This is why Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell everything. This is also why he says in Luke 6 (and similarly in Matthew 5):

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.

Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. (Luke 6, selections)

What is the common thread here? It is that the empty, according to Jesus, will be filled, and the full will be emptied. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel continues with a similar theme throughout:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6 selections)

Why all of this self emptying and secret righteousness, not allowing yourself to be praised by others, not even allowing yourself to be proud of yourself, even for doing good? Because, Jesus says, there is another unseen reality. There is another economy, which he calls “heaven,” the rewards of which cannot be seen or experienced until we trade the rewards of this world for that one.

So…we must suffer now, to get good things when we die? Not exactly. Jesus has inaugurated the secret economy of heaven here, now. You can be rich now…in the unseen bank. You can be rewarded here…by your Father who is in heaven, because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. But there is, of course, a catch. The Father does not give as the world gives. And you cannot see how he gives if you’re still trying to serve two masters.

This is why Jesus says, “Woe to the rich.” Not because it is somehow immoral to have a lot of money. But because, if your hands are already full of the things of this earth, which moth and rust will destroy, then you cannot receive heavenly gifts which last forever. If you ask when your hands are full, you won’t even want what he has to give. On the other hand, “Blessed are the poor.” If you make space, if you empty yourself of your usual comforts and coverings—however uncomfortable that may be—you will see how your Father provides.

But, you may say, “I am not poor. In fact, I am very rich, very full of non-God solutions to my needs. What then do I do? Do I just have to give up everything?” Perhaps. But let’s begin at a slightly more accessible place: fasting.

Fasting is a ritualized, communal, baby-step way of becoming poor again so that we can receive, so that we can see, so that we can be rewarded by our Father who sees in secret. When we fast, we empty ourselves of something so that, in that place of emptiness, in that void, God can be our provider, our fulfillment. This, of course, can be painful and disappointing, because God does not provide like Netflix and coffee provide. He is a Person, not a mechanism or a chemical. And so he gives as a Person would give to another person, as a Father to a child, as a husband to a wife, as a friend to a friend. He gives within a relationship, which takes time and patience to see its consummation. Again, we do not have because we do not ask God, and we do not ask God because we have already demanded a solution from elsewhere. We hardly know how to ask, because we always already have. So, when we make space—when we delete one or two of our on-demand coping mechanisms for a time, when we expose ourselves in some small way to a true desire or need—to hunger or loneliness or boredom, even anxiety, anger, and grief—we find, in that place of need, that we have something to ask for. And if we ask, he will not fail to give.

Notice: the entire point of fasting is prayer. Self-emptying for its own sake is no virtue. But more on that later. Suffice it to say, we fast in order to ask. We fast in order to pray. And we can pray in a new way, because fasting makes new room for God.

Fasting interrupts and reorients our patterns.

Humans are creatures of habit. We modern Christians often wonder why the Old Testament seems always to be prescribing highly ritualized processes for worshiping God and maintaining a holy community. Why is God so obsessed with rituals and sacrifices, clean and unclean, etc? Part of the answer is that it’s not merely God who prescribes ritual patterns, but we human beings who inevitably fall into them, with or without God leading the way. We are orbiting beings. We are going to revolve around something. It is the gravitational pull of our very souls. You cannot stop us from orbiting any more than you can stop a planet or a moon from its revolution. You can only hope to set it on the right path. If the earth is hit by a meteor and breaks off its normal path around the sun, gravity will not quit its work. The earth will not stand still. It may simply find some other lesser mass in the solar system to orbit around. And then we will all perish. The earth has no choice but to orbit. The key is that it maintains its orbit around the one true Light. Otherwise, there is only darkness and death in the end. It is the same with you and me. Right now, we are orbiting around certain things. We may not even know what. But we are. And if those things prove not to be the greatest thing, not to be the Sun of our souls, we will perish. We may already be dying.

Fasting draws our attention to what these mini-orbits are doing to us by interrupting them and showing us what kinds of things we depend upon. When we fast, we do not normally give up bad things. That’s not fasting. That’s repentance. You should do that anyway. And do it permanently! No, when we fast, we give up a good thing for a time, so that we can reorient ourselves to the ultimate Good, which is God. Food is necessary, but man does not live by bread alone. Everyone, of course, must have multiple orbits. The moon, for instance, revolves around the earth, and the earth around the sun. So the moon has a lesser orbit which is always governed by a greater orbit. The same is true of us. But these lesser orbits have to be kept in check, lest they lead us away from the Source. Fasting can help with this, by reminding us to “seek first the Sun” and then the lesser things will fall into their proper places.

Many cultures in the ancient world—and many still today—have been governed by consecrated rhythms of feasting and fasting, where good and normal practices such as eating, drinking, sex, and even celebration are interrupted for a time so that they can be submitted to a higher good. Interrupting these patterns grants more awareness of and agency over our lesser orbits which, otherwise, might tend to have an unhealthy grip on us. In the modern world, we know all too well what it’s like for lesser orbits to lead us astray. We’ve even given names to these pathologies: addiction, depression, anxiety. Scholars have noted that the ancient world seems to show far less evidence of “addiction” than our modern world. In part, this is no doubt due to the far greater wealth and decadence of our time. But beyond that, I believe patterns of fasting in the ancient world have something to do with it. For them, the practice of fasting provided a plausibility structure that we often lack.

Consider: if a community has never ritualized the interruption of a simple cycle or pattern, then how could quitting a chemical or psychological addiction even be imaginable? Why is it that we find ourselves with almost zero willpower to break even the simplest online habits? We will say we “hate” X, and yet we will keep doing it. Why? Because we have no plausibility structure for stopping. We’ve never experienced ourselves or our family members or our community doing it when they weren’t under duress. How then could we possibly do it when the pressure’s on? It’s like expecting to perform perfectly in the championship game when you’ve never been to a single practice.

If your father plays and writes music, if your sister plays and writes music, if you’ve been around music-makers your whole life, then it’s not only imaginable but probable that you too could become a musician. But if the closest you’ve come to a musical instrument is simply listening to the latest Taylor Swift album on Spotify, then songwriting may as well be wizardry to you. If someone asked you to perform or compose a simple song, even though you would know exactly what they meant, you wouldn’t have the slightest notion of where to begin. And it wouldn’t even be a matter of willpower. Try as you might, it wouldn’t happen. The rule is something like this: if you haven’t done it, you can’t do it. And the only way to start doing it is to join in with others who are already doing it, and do as they do.

This is one purpose of rituals like fasting: to make things that might seem like wizardry from the outside—this is how prayer seemed to me for a long time—not only doable but natural, second nature. An elite basketball player doesn’t have to think once he steps on the court. If he did, he would likely lose. But no, he has already gone through the motions. Seven hundred shots from this spot. Seven hundred shots from that spot. Now he can just play. And it works. Fasting functions similarly. It is a practice that slowly, perhaps painfully, reshapes the plausibility structures of your soul until you have new abilities which were previously unavailable to you.

Fasting exposes our coping mechanisms. To paraphrase Richard Foster, “It shows you what owns you.” It helps us to go deeper, closer to the root of the problem, which is that nothing can be god to us but God. Even food cannot sustain us, because, as Jesus tells Satan in the wilderness, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Which leads me to the final point…

Fasting gives us eyes to see the unseen.

(And I don’t just mean God.) At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he fasts for forty days and forty nights. During this time, what does he experience? Does fasting become his magical spiritual tool for immediate intimacy with the Father? Definitely not. At least not right away. I mentioned before that we should be careful not merely to fast for fasting’s sake. Why? Because fasting exposes us. In particular, it opens us up to the spiritual realm. When Jesus fasts in the wilderness, he ends up talking to Satan and undergoing serious temptation. Thankfully, Jesus knows what he’s doing, so the spiritual exposure that fasting gives him only leads to further and deeper devotion to the Father. Likewise, we are called to follow in his footsteps, but as we do, we should not be naive about this exposure of our souls. Put simply, we fast because we want to hear from God. But when we fast, the demons usually speak first. To paraphrase Eastern Orthodox thinker Jonathan Pageau, demons wait on the threshold of the kingdom of God like gargoyles on the outer walls of cathedrals. You must pass by them in order to enter the inner sanctuary. You don’t have to be afraid, of course. The demons have no power if the Spirit of Christ is the one leading you in. But they will speak nonetheless.

Every year, in January, I lead the Virginia Beach Fellows through a 21-day fast where they are asked to give up something valuable to them: caffeine, certain foods, social media and streaming services, use of their phone at night, music in the car, etc. One of the most common themes, especially in the first week (especially with caffeine!), is just how miserable they often feel. And I don’t just mean physically. They spend mornings and evenings angry, even bitter, saying things to themselves like: “Why is Ross making me do this? Why am I doing this? Just so I can feel extra spiritual? Far from feeling closer to God or others, I actually just feel more frustrated with God and others. I’m meaner than usual. Moodier than usual. More full of doubts than usual. Ross, why are we doing this?”

And I say, “Exactly.” You are stripping down so you can pass through that invisible eye of the needle that the rich man could not pass through. And when you’re on the threshold of the kingdom of God, the demons talk first. Let them. They have no power over you. If anything, they will strip you down further, despite themselves, and make you even more ready to enter through that narrow gate. The demons are not a sign you’re going the wrong way. They’re a sign you’re going the right way. But only if you keep going, keep praying, keep asking and seeking and knocking in that place of haunted-ness.

Again, fasting for the sake of fasting is not something anyone should undergo. As Jesus warns, be careful when you sweep the house clean of one unclean spirit, that seven others may then come and take its place. When we fast, we empty ourselves not in order to be empty, as the Buddhists might suggest, but in order to be filled with Him, who is the source of every good thing. When you feel the hunger pangs, when you feel that familiar spirit of anxiety overshadow you, use it to spur you on to further prayer. Personally, without the hunger pangs, I don’t know that I would have ever learned to pray or hear from God at all. But like anything that is worth doing, the pain comes first. And the pain is part of the process. Only stay, abide, remain. And you will see God.

As Lewis’s character Orual discovers in his novel Til We Have Faces, the reason we cannot see God face to face is not because he does not have a face, but because we do not. Prayer—persistent asking despite the seeming silence of the Father in our moment of need—is what allows us to show our face to him, and therefore to have a face at all, and therefore hopefully, to see Him as He sees us.

A Final Warning: Beware of self-righteous fasting.

This can happen in two ways. First, Jesus tells us that when we fast we should go out of our way not to be seen by others. Otherwise we have filled our empty space with the praise of men, and we have received our reward in full. Our hands will have no room for the reward of the Father, who sees in secret. It is best to fast together (not as your own personal pious project), and yet we do not seek congratulation from one another, nor do we judge those who do not join us in the fast. Fasting is not a good in itself. It is nothing to be proud of. It is only an empty space which God can fill. If we fill the void in some other way, we might as well not have done it at all.

Second, Jesus warns us not to let our left hand see what our right hand is doing. The main way this temptation seems to play out in fasting is when people get really extreme about it. Perhaps they’re not doing it to impress others. Rather, they’re trying to prove something to themselves. This is not a great idea. It generally leads to pride and/or failure. We want humility and sustainability. Fasting should be simple, communal baby steps. It should be costly enough that you really feel the hunger, but not so extreme that the fast becomes an end in itself rather than a means. The end of fasting is God alone. So…be secret, be simple, and be in submissive unity with a community. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.

Ross Byrd

Ross Byrd is the teaching director at Virginia Beach Fellows and the owner and director of Surf Hatteras, a surfing camp for teens in the Outer Banks, NC. He was raised in the Episcopal Church and served as a lay minister and musician there for years before a stint as associate pastor of a non-denominational church. He and his wife Hannah are raising four surfing children. Ross has degrees from the University of Virginia (2005) and Reformed Theological Seminary (2013). You can follow his work on Substack at