The spiritual discipline of fasting was ushered into the spotlight recently by one of the most unlikely places – Hollywood.
Actor Chris Pratt, a Christian, posted on Instagram that he was on a 21-day Daniel Fast. The Guardians of the Galaxy star, who recently got engaged to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daughter Katherine, created a lot of interest in “taking his health regimen to biblical proportions.” No doubt this had some curious folks turning to the infomercial channels looking for details on this latest fad in dieting. While I won’t rule out that some creative marketer will capitalize upon the attention created over Pratt’s post, the Daniel Fast is not new, and it’s so much more than a diet.
The Daniel Fast, named for the Old Testament prophet Daniel and his meal plan described in the first chapter of Daniel, is a deliberate and disciplined effort to place a higher priority on our spiritual well-being and growth rather than our physical wants and needs. The goal is to set aside the momentary pleasures of rich food to simplify life, allowing time and mental energy to focus on what’s really important. While fasting does have tangible benefits, the focus of fasting is spiritual; it’s about setting ourselves apart for spiritual focus and nourishment.
About Daniel and his three friends who joined him in this pursuit, we read: “To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.”
Disciplining the body led to a disciplined mind and soul.
This idea of our spiritual needs preempting our physical needs is illustrated in the words of Jesus in Matthew 4:4 after He had been fasting for 40 days. Satan himself tempted Jesus by suggesting He use His power to turn the stones into bread.
Jesus responded, “…Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” The Daniel Fast, like other forms of fasting, is not about exercising self-denial for its own sake, it is about yielding ourselves to God for something greater than what we can experience here.
While fasting is mentioned throughout scripture, it has not always been a spiritual discipline that is prominently discussed or taught. If you’ve fasted, you probably know why no one really likes not to eat.
I first embarked upon fasting while in college after having read’s Paul’s description of fasting in Acts 9 where he went without food and water. With only that to go on, I followed Paul’s example, going 24 hours without food or water. I later found out that Paul’s fast is what is called a total fast and is to be used with caution. I also found out – the hard way – that a Domino’s pizza is not the best way to break your fast.
Like anything worthwhile, fasting is a discipline that you work on and build up like an exercise routine. You don’t run a marathon the first time you take up jogging, and you should ease into fasting, following guidelines that can help you be successful in denying yourself some short term pleasure in food for the long term gain of a closer walk with God himself.
Consider the life-long impact of fasting and self-discipline on Daniel. He was carried away as a child captive to Babylon where he was groomed for royal service as a youth and ended up serving at the very top of the administrations of several kings who kept Daniel around even when they overthrew the previous monarchs.
But in those early days of slavery, he embraced fasting as a tool to establish a pattern that he would put God first. His reputation for excellence and integrity was so far-reaching, that the virtual Babylonian private investigators “could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent” (Daniel 6:4).
As a result, his enemies had to pass a law designed to attack Daniel’s faithful practice of his religion to get him thrown into the lions’ den … but he walked away from that encounter vindicated and safe.
Daniel’s spiritual devotion as developed through fasting became a hallmark of his life, enabling him to learn lessons, face lions, and defeat liars who didn’t understand how his character, forged in connection to God, allowed him to succeed.
Though not as well known as Chris Pratt today, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis for opposing their evil regime, has inspired many people I know to consider the discipline of fasting.
In The Cost of Discipleship, he wrote: “Jesus takes it for granted that His disciples will observe the pious custom of fasting. Strict exercise of self-control is an essential feature of the Christian’s life. Such customs have only one purpose—to make the disciples more ready and cheerful to accomplish those things which God would have done.”
The point of fasting is not giving up food, but rather setting aside the stuff of earth to reach for God himself in our daily life.