Contrasting Perspectives on Fasting for Spiritual Growth

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What is fasting? How does it contribute to spiritual growth?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, urges Christians to practice fasting for spiritual growth. He argues that the suffering that comes from fasting builds self-discipline. Other religious traditions differ in some ways regarding their views toward fasting, but many still see it as a part of spiritual life.

Read more to learn about fasting for spiritual growth.

Fasting for Spiritual Growth

Bonhoeffer asserts that severe self-discipline is an indispensable part of discipleship. This is because experiences are an internal conflict between the Holy Spirit—who desires to do the will of Christ—and your own sinful nature—which desires pleasure and comfort, even at the expense of others. It takes enormous self-discipline to overpower your selfish human nature so that you can yield to the Spirit and do the will of Christ. According to Bonhoeffer, the only way to develop this level of self-discipline is through voluntary forms of suffering, such as fasting.

Furthermore, Bonhoeffer notes that, when Christ tells his disciples not to draw attention to themselves when they are fasting in Matthew 6:16-18, he implicitly assumes that his disciples will practice fasting. However, based on these verses, Bonhoeffer also cautions that fasting for spiritual growth and asceticism in general should be used only as a tool to cultivate strong self-discipline. If it becomes an end in itself, or a point of pride for you, then it becomes self-defeating, just like taking pride in your humility.

Contrasting Views on Fasting for Spiritual Growth

As we’ve seen, Bonhoeffer defines fasting as voluntary abstinence from food to the point of suffering for the purpose of building self-discipline. Other people and religious groups offer a variety of views on fasting:

The Catholic Church defines fasting as a reduction in food intake by about one-third (at most you’re allowed to eat one full meal per day, plus two half-size meals). For Catholics, the purpose of fasting is simply obedience: Christ and the church fathers practiced and taught fasting, so Christ’s disciples should continue in the practice. This view could be compatible with Bonhoeffer’s, if reducing your daily food intake causes you to suffer.

A common Protestant view is that the purpose of fasting is to increase your desire for God by temporarily abstaining from something you normally desire, such as food, soda, intimacy, or video games. This perspective doesn’t necessarily conflict with Bonhoeffer’s view, since temporarily giving up something you desire might cause you to suffer, in a sense, and might strengthen your self-discipline, but these would be side effects of fasting, not the primary objective.

In Islam, fasting is defined as abstinence from all food and drink during the hours of daylight, for the purpose of building self-control and increasing spiritual awareness. In the Muslim view, you must be able to rein in your natural desires in order to obtain salvation. Fasting is required during the month of Ramadan and on certain other days of the Muslim calendar. The Muslim emphasis on the necessity of self-control for salvation and the use of fasting to build self-control seems remarkably similar to Bonhoeffer’s view. However, as far as we know, Bonhoeffer was never directly influenced by Islamic teachings.

Traditions of fasting in Buddhism vary, but many monks abstain from eating in the afternoon, so that eating will not interrupt their afternoon meditation. Generally, Buddhist practices like this are viewed not as temporary periods of abstinence for a specific purpose, but simply as a way of structuring your daily routine for a healthy lifestyle. However, some sects, such as Tendai are known to practice various forms of asceticism, including total abstinence from food for set periods of time, for the purpose of increasing their spiritual strength. In particular, this type of fasting is an important part of students’ program of study to become religious teachers. Thus, in the literal sense of the word, the Tendai Buddhists employed fasting as part of discipleship much the way Bonhoeffer did. The difference, of course, is that they were disciples of the Tendai masters, not of Jesus Christ.
Contrasting Perspectives on Fasting for Spiritual Growth

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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