For many of us, leadership is a by-product of youth and children’s work. But we want to lead well, so each month we unpack an issue we face as leaders, and offer some guidance to traverse it.
A wise leader once said: “Our leadership is the product of our disciplines and our decisions.” I am inclined to agree. Because while our decisions will determine our direction, it’s our disciplines that will determine whether or not we will ever arrive at the desired destination.
Discipline is the difference between aspiration and actualisation. We may aspire to achieve a goal, lead a change or see a personal transformation, but those things we remain aspirations until we employ the necessary disciplines to actually see it become a reality.
Indeed, it’s the daily disciplines no one sees that lead to the fruitful life everyone wants! Or, as the author of Hebrews has it:
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
And that’s why we’re going to dedicate some time in this column to exploring some leadership disciplines; a combination of spiritual practices and leadership rhythms that will have a significant impact on who we are becoming and where we are going as leaders.
First up on the table (no pun intended) is:
An interesting place to start! So why, when considering leadership disciplines, are we kicking off with fasting? Perhaps because it is one of the most overlooked and under-practised spiritual disciplines by leaders today…and yet, one of the most powerful and transformative.
When Youthscape conducted a piece of research as to the spiritual disciplines that we as youth leaders practise personally and help our young people to practise, fasting came out lowest on almost every item they measured.
The ‘We do God’ research found that fasting is the spiritual practice we teach least often to young people, and the practice we least help them to practically engage with. Which is hardly surprising, given that fasting is also the discipline we least practice ourselves. Evidently, fasting is something of a lost art, which is a great loss, given its power.
Basil, the Bishop of Caeserea, attested to the transformative nature of this practice with these words: “Fasting begets prophets and strengthens strong men.
Fasting makes lawgivers wise; it is the soul’s safeguard, the body’s trusted comrade, the armour of the champion, the training of the athlete.” Imagine, then, what could happen in your life and leadership were you to rediscover this valuable discipline today.
What is fasting?
Fasting, according to Richard Foster, is “the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity”. The practice of regular fasting as part of normal Christian behaviour was taught by Jesus, exercised by the early church and has been a spiritual discipline for followers of Jesus throughout church history.
There are five types of fast modelled in Scripture:
- Fast from food (Luke 4:1-2)
- Absolute fast from food and water (Esther 4:16, Acts 9:9)
- Fast from delicacies, sometimes called the ‘Daniel fast’ (Daniel 1:11-16; 10:2-3)
- Fast from sex, where a married couple would refrain from having sex for a period of time to dedicate themselves to prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5)
- Corporate fast, where a group of people (often in Scripture it’s a nation) will fast for a specific reason (2 Chronicles 20:3-4)
“Evidently, fasting is something of a lost art”
Why do we fast?
Why is fasting an important discipline? Because, let’s face it, it’s not an easy one! It’s hard to go for a sustained period of time without food. Undoubtedly it’s a sacrifice. So why incorporate this into the regular rhythm of our life and leadership?
1. Fasting is an act of obedience
Jesus said “when you fast,” not “if you fast” (see Matthew 6:17-18). Ultimately that should be the end of the discussion. We fast because we are disciples who imitate our master and order our lives in surrendered obedience to his instructions.
2. Fasting is an act of worship
Fasting is not a form of spiritual manipulation. We are not seeking to twist God’s arm to get him to do what we really want. As such, while fasting can and should come with specific petitionary prayers, it is first an act of worship before it is an act of intercession.
John Wesley writes: “First, let it [fasting] be done unto the Lord with our eye singly fixed on him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven.”
Fasting is a demonstration of our devotion. It is an act of worship before our King.
3. Fasting is an act of intercession
We fast when we are asking God to move in a specific circumstance, or when we are seeking to hear God; to understand his purpose and will in a specific situation (see Acts 13:2-3).
I have found the practice of fasting has been indispensable to my leadership in this way. By fasting regularly I am in turn praying consistently for specific aspects of our ministry; areas in which we have seen God move in powerful and surprising ways over the years. Coincidence? Perhaps not…
4. Fasting is an act of denial
Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Fasting, then, is a practical outworking of this invitation to follow Jesus.
The psalmist writes: “I humbled myself with fasting” (Psalm 35:13). It’s the choice to forgo something of value in demonstration of who has true lordship of our lives. Why? Because as Jesus goes on to say: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
In following Jesus, and through the discipline of fasting in particular, we discover this truth: that true fulfilment does not come through the satisfying of ourselves, but through the denying of ourselves in order to participate in something greater than ourselves.
5. Fasting is an act of dependence and remembrance
When fasting, we redirect those energies that would usually be focused on consumption towards God and in so doing we remind ourselves of what we truly need: a relationship with him. We remind ourselves of where our strength comes from. We remind ourselves of where our provision comes from.
Jesus reminded himself of this as he fasted and was tempted in the wilderness: “It is written: ‘People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).
Fasting, then, is a declaration of our dependence upon God.
6. Fasting is an act of spiritual formation
When we deny ourselves of something that we can, we are training to deny ourselves of something that we can’t. This is why, when counselling someone with a pornography addiction, one of the first things I always suggest is that they pursue a regular discipline of fasting and prayer.
Richard Foster writes: “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface.”
Fasting creates a vacuum into which God can move. Thus, fasting is an act of spiritual formation
7. Fasting is an act of resistance
Fasting is an act of resistance against the tyranny of the secular age. It flies in direct opposition the cultural narrative which tells us that happiness requires we identify the desires that are most authentic to us and fulfil them. It wages war against the self-centred individualism that we so easily surrender to.
Martin Saunders writes: “This is what 21st-century humans do: we consume. We don’t stop there, though. We don’t just consume; we consume gluttonously.
We buy, horde and eat far more than we need…And all this takes place in the context of the culture of entitlement…Just as consumption and gluttony focus not on what we need but on what we want, entitlement means that we are never satisfied solely with what is good and right for us.
We want more, and if we want it, we should be allowed to have it. The discipline of fasting stands opposed to our culture of consumption, gluttony and entitlement.”
8. Fasting is an act of justice
The prophet Isaiah powerfully reminds us the spiritual practice of fasting comes hand in hand with the practice of mercy and justice: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).
As with all spiritual disciplines, then, fasting is not a type of spiritual individualism, because every discipline that forms me into Christlikeness turns my posture away from myself and toward others – particularly the poor, the broken and the lost. As I become more like Jesus I align with the priorities of Jesus.
Fasting as leadership discipline
Have I convinced you? I hope so! Fasting is a spiritual practice integral to the way of Jesus and a critical discipline for those in any form of spiritual leadership.
So where do you go from here? I want to encourage you, nay, challenge you, to take these three steps:
- Pull out your calendar app and put in a recurring appointment for a regular day of prayer and fasting. Start with once a month, and build towards once a week as you learn to live into this practice.
- Pull out your notes app and make a list of key prayer points that you want to return to every time you fast.
- During the times when you would usually be eating on those days, open up that note and seek God on those things again and again.
Imagine what could happen in you life and leadership if you obediently and consistently employed this leadership discipline.
As Richard Foster writes: “Fasting is a spiritual discipline ordained by God for the good of the Christian fellowship. May God find within us hearts that are open to appropriate this means of his grace.”