Monday, June 3, 2013
Fasting and Spiritual Direction
An excellent article by Gary Gilley arrived in my mail this week, in regards to claims about Christian need for fasting, as well as the whole unbiblical concept of “spiritual formation.”
The list of spiritual disciplines that has been adopted within the Spiritual Formation Movement is almost endless. We could analyze the divine office, Benedict’s Rule, use of the Rosary and prayer ropes, monasticism, journaling, the Eucharist, and pilgrimage, among many others. But we will conclude our study of the disciplines with fasting and spiritual direction.
Of course fasting is not a practice unique to spiritual formation. Christians of all theological stripes have fasted since the inception of the church, and the Old Testament saints, not to mention those of pagan religions, made fasting part of their religious life. In order to get a handle on fasting it would be good to break our study into three parts: what spiritual formation leaders teach about fasting, how fasting is understood within more evangelical circles, and what the Bible says on the subject.
Spiritual Formation and Fasting
Dallas Willard tells us that “fasting is one of the more important ways of practicing that self-denial required of everyone who would follow Christ (Matt 16:24). In fasting, we learn how to suffer happily as we feast on God.”  Willard offers a quote from Thomas á Kempis to support his views: “Whosoever knows best how to suffer will keep the greatest peace. That man is conqueror of himself, and lord of the world, the friend of Christ, and heir of Heaven.”  Willard makes clear what he is trying to say in this summary statement:
Persons well used to fasting as a systematic practice will have a clear and constant sense of their resources in God. And that will help them endure deprivation of all kinds, even to the point of coping with them easily and cheerfully. Kempis again says: “Refrain from gluttony and thou shalt the more easily restrain all the inclination of the flesh.” Fasting teaches temperance or self-control and therefore teaches moderation and restraint with regard to all our fundamental drives. 
The idea Willard is promoting is that fasting is a means of sanctification. Through practicing this discipline we suffer deprivations that train us to curb our appetites, control our flesh and conform us to Christlikeness. Through the discipline of fasting we can expect spiritual growth and formation. We will examine the idea that fasting is a means of sanctification later, but for now it is significant to note at this point that Willard draws his conclusions without reference to Scripture and what God says is the purpose of fasting. Rather his primary resource appears to be the Roman Catholic mystic, Thomas á Kempis. When we turn to Richard Foster he rightly remarks that “there simply are no biblical laws that command regular fasting.”  He points to the ancient Christian devotional book the Didache instead, which prescribed fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, and John Wesley’s revival of these teachings among early Methodists.
Scot McKnight writes a whole book for “The Ancient Practices Series” simply entitled Fasting. McKnight contends that fasting is merely the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous or sacred moment (such as sorrow or spiritual desire) which may or may not lead to a desired result or benefit. He states that “fasting is not an instrument that can be utilized to get what we want,”  yet when he fleshes out reasons for fasting he lists: to help us become more compassionate, to gain clarity, to be a blessing, to grow spiritually, to draw closer to God, to develop love for God and others, to overcome temptation, or to get answers to prayer.  While McKnight admits that the Bible gives very limited instruction on fasting  he believes fasting is vital for today based on Old Testament Jewish practices and the witness of church history. “Who are we,” he questions, “to neglect what God’s people have always done?”  He does admit, however, that ancient Jews in response to grievances or sacred moments also wore sackcloth, pulled out their hair, tossed dust on their head and tore their clothing, in addition to fasting.  Who are we, we might ask in turn, to pick and choose which of these ancient practices to incorporate into our Christian life while rejecting these other examples? McKnight, just as Willard and Foster, is crafting a doctrine of fasting by cherry-picking from examples found in Scripture, Jewish and church history, rather than developing an understanding from the Scriptures themselves.
Other spiritual formation leaders could be referenced but it would result in mere redundancy since they all follow a similar line of reasoning. Therefore, we want to move on to the teachings of those who represent more mainstream views of evangelicalism.
Continue reading the full article