Fasting: The Ancient Practices

Fasting: The Ancient Practices

3.8 12
by Scot McKnight

Building a body and mind that hungers for God.

Is the practice of faith centered solely on the spirit? Is the body an enemy, or can it actually play a role in our pursuit of God? In this installation of the Ancient Practices Series, Dr. Scot McKnight reconnects the spiritual and the physical through the discipline of fasting.

The act of fasting, he says,

See more details below


Building a body and mind that hungers for God.

Is the practice of faith centered solely on the spirit? Is the body an enemy, or can it actually play a role in our pursuit of God? In this installation of the Ancient Practices Series, Dr. Scot McKnight reconnects the spiritual and the physical through the discipline of fasting.

The act of fasting, he says, should not be focused on results or used as a manipulative tool. It is a practice to be used in response to sacred moments, just as it has in the lives of God's people throughout history. McKnight gives us scriptural accounts of fasting, along with practical wisdom on benefits and pitfalls, when we should fast, and what happens to our bodies as a result.

For those who have wondered how to grasp the value of this most misunderstood ancient practice, this book is a comprehensive guide.

Product Details

Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt


By Scot McKnight

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2009 Scot McKnight
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4185-7613-4



Christianity has perennially had a problem with the human body.

At times in the history of the church, Christians have viewed desires and the body as the enemy. In the past few years, the question seems to have been, "What's the body got to do with spirituality?" Yet we are finding today a surging interest in what can only be called embodied spirituality. Young Christians express worship with their hands aloft and their eyes closed, more and more find spiritual strength in candles and icons, and some churches are bringing back kneelers. Other churches encourage releasing creative gifts for acting, painting, and art. Fasting, too, is on the rise.

What is this all about? Thomas Howard, an evangelical who first converted to Anglicanism and then to Catholicism, gets it right with these words: "We are all sacramentalists whether our theology admits it or not: we like physical contact with history." Indeed, there is a rise—let's call it what it really is, a revival—of the value of embodied spirituality. We worship God and we love God in our bodies and with our bodies and in concrete, physical, tangible, palpable ways. Deep in the yearning of humans is the need to "do spirituality" with the body.

This raises a problem for fasting. Fasting is whole-body stuff. Many of us are much more comfortable with candles and icons and kneelers than we are with throwing our bodies into this business of worship and prayer. When it comes down to it, this revival of embodied spirituality has one major territory to conquer for Westerners. We've got a body problem. In the next chapter, I aim to reconnect the spirituality of fasting with the body. Body talk, my expression for what fasting is designed to be, flows out of our body image. Until we have a healthier body image, an image of the body united with the spirit, it is not likely that body talk (fasting) will occur as it should.

So, once again, the aim of this book is to reconnect body and soul (or spirit) so that fasting becomes natural and inevitable when you and I encounter a grievous sacred moment that summons us to fast. These kinds of sacred moments confront us annually, but we often don't respond to them with fasting because that practice has become so unnatural. Why? Because many of us don't see a connection between spirituality and body. Even for the increasing number of people who do see the connection—or at least who want to make that connection—acclimating the body to fasting as a natural response to sacred moments takes time. Since fasting flows out of the natural connection of body and soul, we will do well to look briefly at various body images at work in our Western culture. We begin with the Bible's wondrous emphasis on our organic unity.


What strikes a reader today is how significant the body is in the Bible. The ancient Israelites and early Christians "did spirituality" in the body and with the body. What strikes observers of the church is how insignificant the body has become, though there is evidence of a yearning for a more embodied spirituality. Let's take a quick look at what the Bible says and clarify what we need to see is this: in the Bible, humans are organic unities.

The Bible uses a bursting bundle of specific terms for humans, and these terms overlap with one another. The singular contribution of the ancient Israelites to understanding humans is found in Genesis 1:27:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (emphasis added)

Humans, this text tells us, are "images" (I prefer the Greek word, Eikon) of God. As God's Eikons, we represent God on earth and govern this world for God. In addition, we engage in relationships with God, self, others, and the entire world. These roles of governing and relating are what it means to be an Eikon. And we do what God has called us to do in this world in a physical body. Like a diamond, an embodied Eikon is a multifaceted organic unity of heart and mind and soul and spirit and body. As a diamond refracts light only when all the sides are working, so we need every dimension of who we are to be at work. But we have minimized the body so much in our spirituality that fasting has become unnatural.

There are many "faces," or terms for the Eikon, in the Bible. Each of these terms is important, but it is even more important to understand their organic unity. We begin with the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), where we find the following terms describing the various dimensions of our organic unity:

soul (nepesh)

flesh (basar)

spirit (ruach)

heart (leb)

In the New Testament, we find:

heart (kardia)

soul (psyche)

flesh (sarx)

body (soma)

mind (nous)

spirit (pneuma)

will (thelema)

Let it be said again: in the Bible, all these terms work together to form an organic unity. The Eikon is composed of these things, but the Eikon is a unified person. What has happened is that we have cut the multifaceted diamond into two parts, the good part and the not-so-good part, assigning the various terms for the Eikon to one of two parts. The two parts are "body" and "soul/spirit." The body is the not-so-good part, and the soul is the good, eternal part. Dividing the Eikon, or person, into two parts is what makes fasting so difficult today. Since fasting is a very physical thing, it must be assigned to the body. And since fasting concerns only the body, it can't be that important, we think. Here's what the two parts look like:


Earthly life Will
Eternal life

No fasting

If fasting is the natural response of a unified person to a sacred moment, then the moment we relegate bodies to the unimportant part of our existence we also cease to see the value of fasting. If we want to discover the deepest dimensions of the Christian tradition of fasting, we will have to reconnect the "body" column with the "soul/spirit" column. When that happens, we will encounter a sacred moment, and we will fast naturally.

Unfortunately, we have some work to do, and much of it has to do with recapturing a healthy body image. We have to do this work because dualism has worked like yeast into everything we do.


You and I have inherited the church's problem with the body whether we like it or not—whether we are Christians or not. It's part of our Western DNA. Those of us with a Western mind-set have consistently struggled to embrace the indissoluble unity of humans—body and soul/spirit—at the forefront of spirituality. To repeat what was said a moment ago, we cut ourselves up into soul and body. The soul is immortal and the body mortal. Therefore, the body doesn't ultimately (or eternally) matter.

Wired with this Western mind-set, our bodies and our spirits don't work together very well. As I think of how we look at our body image today, four common images come to mind. We see the body

• as a monster to be conquered;

• as a celebrity to be glorified;

• as a cornucopia to be filled;

• as a wallflower to be ignored.

Each of these body images shapes whether or not we fast and, if we do, how and why we fast.

Which of these—and we could easily add more—is your body image? I'll tell you where I fit when I finish this caricature.


Some see the body as a monster of desires that needs to be tamed by imposing spirit over the body to conquer these unwanted desires. These folks are ascetics. For those who have a body-as-monster body image, fasting attempts to control the desires of the body. Some with this view become radical ascetics intent on keeping desires suppressed. People with this body image are often dedicated to purity or holiness or service, and they focus their spirituality on the kingdom to come, on heaven. Some with this view of the body have become saints; some starved themselves to death. (I'll avoid mentioning names.)


Others see the body as a celebrity that needs to be glorified. Such a body image makes a person a modern narcissist. Such persons are dedicated to happiness, individualism, and personal freedom. They are also dedicated to a slender body, tight buns, fashionable clothing, trendy haircuts, and sleek glasses, and are always in need of a mirror. Fasting for these folks is secularized—that is, it morphs into dieting for the sake of self-preservation and attractiveness. Some in this crowd have also become canonized saints; many more have glorified themselves into a life not well spent.


Some see the body as a cornucopia, the twisting horn that is filled with an endless supply of rich and sumptuous fruits and fancy foods. Those who see the body as a cornucopia are modern hedonists and have no use for fasting. They are dedicated to physical pleasure, rich diets, delicate palates, expensive drinks, and special restaurants. They love food, what Frederica Mathewes-Green calls that "intoxicating pleasure" and our little "cute sin." These folks push their hearts into their bellies. Their spirituality derives from health and wealth and pleasures. Hedonists consider those who fast killjoys or radical ascetics. They might even accuse those who fast of trying to earn their way to heaven. Some in this crowd have become saints; some have eaten themselves to death.


Others see the body as a wallflower that can be ignored because it doesn't matter. Fasting is little more than a strange custom practiced by a foreign spirituality. These folks are neo-Gnostics, for whom the body is a shell and for whom only the insides—the spirit or the soul or especially the mind—really matter. Those who see the body as a wallflower are dedicated to spirituality, meditation on the Bible, contemplative experience, and speculative thinking—even out-of-body mystical experiences. They focus on the kingdom above, beyond, and outside the body and real world. Some in this crowd have become saints; most have missed the intensity of a full-bodied commitment to following Jesus.


Ascetics encounter grievous sacred moments, indwell them, and may never get out of them. Celebrities encounter grievous sacred moments and pretend they did not happen. Hedonists encounter grievous sacred moments and turn the other way. Neo-Gnostics encounter grievous sacred moments and say they are "this-worldly" and need not concern them.

But this book's emphasis is on fasting as body talk, because a body image of organic unity is what we need most if we seek to develop a fully integrated spiritual life that includes fasting. Pope John Paul II was the twentieth century's most charismatic Christian leader, but he was also a profound theologian. The pinnacle of his theological leadership can be found in his brilliant Man and Woman He Created Them. John Paul II essentially argued that our bodies reflect the giving and receiving life of the Trinity. Our bodies and what we do with our bodies visibly demonstrate the very core of what we are made to do: love God and love others. For those with a healthy body image of an organic unity, fasting is a natural and inevitable response to life's grievous, or serious, sacred moments. I think the former pope's book, though it is not about fasting, is one of the most important books for those who want to understand what a Christian body image is all about.

I foolishly stated at the top of this section that I'd admit my own view, but first let me ask you this question: which are you? Now that you've answered, I'll answer too. I think of my body as a wallflower but tend to act as if it's a cornucopia, which means I'm overweight and don't care enough about it to do something radical, such as making a major lifestyle change. The only time I ever thought of my body as a celebrity was when I was in high school, still dreaming of a professional sports career and therefore caught up in typical teenage vanity about how talented and good-looking I was (or thought I was). Now I don't think about my body all that much and so I pretend it is a wallflower, but like a cornucopia, it rarely runs on empty. So I need this book as much as anyone else, and perhaps more.

What we think of our bodies matters, so maybe you should take a good look in the mirror and in your heart and ask yourself what kind of body image you have. Your body image opens a window into your spirituality.

The thesis of this work is simple: a unified perception of body, soul, spirit, and mind creates a spirituality that includes the body. For this kind of body image, fasting is natural. Fasting is the body talking what the spirit yearns, what the soul longs for, and what the mind knows to be true. It is body talk—not the body simply talking for the spirit, for the mind, or for the soul in some symbolic way, but for the person, the whole person, to express herself or himself completely. Fasting is one way you and I bring our entire selves into complete expression. The Bible, because it advocates clearly that the person—heart, soul, mind, spirit, body—is embodied as a unity, assumes that fasting as body talk is inevitable.

The emphasis of fasting as body talk operates with another theory: until we embrace a more unified sense of the body, it is unlikely that fasting will return as a routine response to grievous sacred moments. Many today complain that Christians no longer fast; the warnings emerge from the voices of Roman Catholics as well as evangelical Protestants. Here are stereotypical words one can read or hear: "The Bible teaches fasting, and church tradition teaches fasting; therefore, Christians should return to the practice of fasting. It's the original and ancient way of spirituality." So says the voice of complaint.

I don't believe the problem is the willpower of God's people. The problem is body image. Urging folks today to fast is like urging them to milk their own cows—just as there are no cows in their backyards, so there is no body in their perception of spirituality. Western DNA and fasting are connected by the slenderest of threads. The urge to fast will not return among Christians until we understand the connection of body and soul. When that happens, we will once again discover the A -> B -> C pattern: sacred moment, response in fasting, and results. As Kathleen Dugan stated, "Fasting in Christianity is only truly itself when it realizes the sacredness of the body."

A reader informed me recently that he and his wife gave up drinking anything but water during Lent. When I told some of my students at North Park University about this family's practice during Lent, the typical response was this: "What for?" The befuddlement in the students' question is why urging Christians to fast today requires a new kind of patience. Fasting, frankly, doesn't make sense to most of us until we have grasped the importance of the body for our spirituality.



In the early days of researching and writing this book, I daily interrupted my work for lunch. One time I turned off the computer for a plenteous luncheon with some church leaders from Indianapolis at Trattoria Pomigliano, my favorite local Italian restaurant. Normally, however, I simply stopped for a lunch by myself at home. When chomping into my daily turkey sandwich, I sensed the oddity of thinking about fasting while eating. I know this: all people think about eating while they are fasting because hunger pains are present. But, I pondered to myself, fewer think about fasting while eating. So I decided that my routine "hypocrisy" of eating while writing about fasting had to end. About a third of the way through this book, I began to skip my lunches—which made me think about food more than I normally do—but it gave me the tactile experience of what I was writing. Writing a book, I believe, is a serious—if not also grievous at times—endeavor, and focusing on that seriousness enabled me to convert the process of writing this book into a sacred moment worthy of fasting.

The oddity of my experience illustrates the point of this chapter: what I thought and believed to be important was not what my body was doing. This is not a simple case of hypocrisy, for I wasn't fooling myself or anyone else. I was being a dualist at some level. I was telling myself, in my mind, that fasting was important and that my book was a serious endeavor, but my body was not engaged. It was good enough for me at that time to think about fasting and even to believe in it—it was good enough to have my spirit say that fasting was good. But a mental agreement wasn't enough. I sensed a need to make my writing enough of a sacred moment that it prompted a whole-body act. So I started fasting on days I wrote this book. It brought my body and spirit back together.


Excerpted from Fasting by Scot McKnight. Copyright © 2009 Scot McKnight. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >