Fasting in Christendom: A Brief Look into Christian Tradition and the Art of the Fast

By Jon DiNovo, participant at Goud op Zondag

Last month, participants of Goud op Zondag gathered at the Bergsingelkerk on a rainy evening to celebrate Ash Wednesday. This service marked the beginning of the Lent season, a time in which many Christians abstain from something important to them until Easter Sunday. It’s a season about denying yourself in order to draw near to Christ, similar to a command given by Him in Luke 9v23. 

There are many ways to put this command into practice but one has consistently remained throughout all church history- Fasting.

What is Fasting?

Fasting is the act of abstaining from food as a sign of devotion. In fact, fasting isn’t explicitly Christian but common in many religions. For example, just recently, on Wednesday, March 22nd the season of Ramadan began on the Muslim calendar, and Muslim faithful all across the world have taken to fasting during the day. Fasting also appears in the religions of Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism to name a few.

But why do Christians fast? And what makes a Christian fast… well, Christian?  

The Reasons for Fasting

There is no biblical command for Christians to fast, so it’s not a mandatory aspect of the faith. It is, however, highly recommended for a few reasons.

For some, the hunger felt works as a built-in reminder to pray and seek God. For others, the physical weakness undergone puts them in touch with the reality of God’s strength despite human limitations. 

A third reason relates to self-control. Every human body needs food and in prosperous countries such as the Netherlands, food is fairly easy to come by for most people. Many are compelled not just by a desire to eat but to also enjoyeating. Why do we eat hamburgers or sweets even though we know they aren’t healthy? Because they taste good. 

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a meal. God created good-tasting food and it’s one of the best gifts He’s given us. However, it can be all too easy to lose self-control in this and allow our bodies to tell us what to do, not vice-versa. 

This is where fasting comes in handy. In 1 Corinthians 9v27, the Apostle Paul talks about disciplining his body and making it his slave as a means of living a godly life. Fasting is just that. By fasting we temporarily delay the pleasures of eating and, in doing so, gain strength over our bodies. The body is made to listen to us and, by extension, the God we’re listening to. 

Fasting increases self-control and makes one more prone to resist what biblical writers call “desires of the flesh” better understood as imbalanced, unhealthy desires that hinder positive living. 

Fasting in Scripture

It should be noted that while Scripture gives no command to fast, it’s filled with many examples of faithful people who practiced and benefitted from it. The list includes but is not limited to: Moses (Deuteronomy 9v9), King David (2 Samuel 12v15-17), Queen Esther (Esther 4v15-17), Paul (Acts 9v8-9), and, of course, Jesus Christ Himself (Matthew 4v1-2).

Furthermore, it should be noted, that during Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount, when He reaches the topic of fasting He says the following: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do…” (Matthew 6v16a, emphasis added). By using the word “When” we see that Jesus expected that His followers would naturally fast. 

These examples tell us that fasting, while not a requirement, can be a helpful spiritual practice. 

How Christians Fast

As stated above, there are many different reasons why Christians fast. However, the bottom line remains the same and that’s to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ. We see this diversity of practice throughout church history and will briefly address how the three main branches of the Church: Catholicism, the Orthodox Church, and Protestantism, engage with fasting.


The most prominent time of fasting in the Catholic calendar is Lent. For Catholics, fasting is a requirement only for two days of the year, at the start of Lent with Ash Wednesday and the end with Good Friday.1 Members of the church between the ages of 18 and 59 are required to fast while fasts are optional for those younger, older, or with health issues.2 

For Catholics, Fasting is closely related to prayer as a means of bolstering their connection to God.3 And while fasting is emphasized during Lent, it can still be practiced outside the season as the individual Catholic feels led.

Orthodox Church

There are more branches within the Orthodox Church as opposed to the Catholic Church. As a result, these different branches each engage with fasting in their own ways. There is overlap, however, and that’s what we’ll focus on in this broad overview of Orthodox fasting.

There are four notable fasting periods in most Orthodox churches: the Nativity Fast, Great Lent, the Dormition Fast, and the Apostolic Fast. Each fast commemorates an important moment on the church calendar. For the Nativity Fast, it’s the birth of Christ. For Great Lent, the death and resurrection of Jesus. For the Dormition Fast, the death and ascension of Mary, the mother of Jesus, to Heaven. For the Apostolic Fast, the early acts of the apostles following Jesus’s return to Heaven. Each of these fasting periods concludes with a congregational feast.

Much like the Catholic Church, Orthodox believers may fast outside of these times and exceptions are made for the young, old, and sick.4


It’s a bit more difficult to discuss fasting trends in Protestantism as the term “Protestant” doesn’t cover an overarching church body as the previously discussed churches do. Protestant churches are less structured and interconnected than their Catholic/Orthodox cousins and hold a greater degree of diversity from congregation to congregation. So, consider this a broad overview.

Baptist pastor John Piper says of fasting in his book, Hunger for God, “Christian fasting is not only the spontaneous effect of superior satisfaction in God, it is also a chosen weapon against every force in the world that would take that satisfaction away.”

Fasting was a common practice of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, and continues to have some emphasis in Methodism today. Fasting also appears to be a regular part of certain practices in the Anglican and Quaker traditions as well. 

When it comes to most other Protestant denominations, the attitude towards fasting is really determined at the level of the local congregation. This is not to say that fasting doesn’t exist within Protestantism, the above examples show otherwise.

Encouragements to Fast

Fasting is a personal decision between an individual and God. As a result, fasting varies from person to person. With that in mind, here are a few helpful reminders for anyone interested in fasting during this Lenten season:

1. Start where you’re at. If you’ve never fasted before then start small by skipping lunch or dinner instead of all meals. See how that goes and slowly build from there.

2. Know your health. Do you need to take food with a certain medication? Do you have a health condition that requires a certain amount of calories each day? If so, don’t worry about doing a “full-on” fast. The body is a temple to God (1 Corinthians 6v19-20). While it’s true that fasting brings discomfort it shouldn’t be to the point of irreversible damage to the body. Take care of yourself, God wants you to.

3. Have the right motive. Don’t fast to gain attention. Don’t fast to lose weight. Don’t fast thinking the physical act of abstinence increases godliness. Fasting is intended to direct the soul’s attention to God. It’s God who improves the soul through fasting, not the fast itself. We, then, should seek fasting for the sake of increasing our awareness and devotion to God. We should fast for love.

4. Pray. Fasting has been described as praying with the body. Fasting increases awareness of God and strengthens the soul. It’s at times like these that our prayers are their strongest.

Concluding Thoughts

So there’s fasting for you! At the end of the day, it’s a time-tested spiritual discipline that looks different depending on the person. While not required, fasting is shown to be helpful when practiced in a balanced and intentional way. In fasting, the power the body has over the individual is diminished and their awareness and connection to the ways of God are increased. 

If you are considering fasting, pray and consult with your local pastor about the best way to approach it. And be encouraged knowing that all who seek will find. 

May you be blessed in all peace and love this season of Lent.

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