It aroused my sinful proclivity to be consumed with food and weight instead of Jesus. Thus, I questioned how the same practice—denying myself food—could possess different meanings. (I’m using the term “diet” negatively throughout the post to refer to an unhealthy withholding of food from one’s self. I acknowledge that “diet” can be used positively to refer to a healthy, balanced eating plan and wholeheartedly affirm the pursuit of this.) So what is the difference between fasting and dieting? This is a legitimate question for Christian women to ask. Historically, our gender has been more prone to distorted body image issues leading to compulsive dieting and disordered eating. These struggles can easily be exacerbated when godly women attempt to fast. But we cannot throw fasting out altogether because there seems to be a biblical assumption that followers of Jesus are fasting (Matt. 6:16-17). This means we need to seek to understand the differences between fasting and dieting so we can be obedient to him in this area.
We fast because we hunger for more of God—more of His presence, His Spirit, His glory.
As I personally wrestled through this issue I learned several things about fasting as a female I want to share with you. This is by no means an exhaustive study on why or how to fast. Nor is it a comprehensive look at the biblical passages on fasting. For an excellent resource on fasting I recommend the book referenced below, A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer by John Piper (Wheaton: Crossway, 1997). May God use these simple distinctions to set you free to feast on all He is for you in Christ!
1. Fasting Glorifies God, Dieting Glorifies Self
Fasting is all about God. We fast because we hunger for more of God—more of His presence, His Spirit, His glory. We long to see and savor Him. By fasting we agree with the Psalmist that our one desire is “to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD” (Ps. 27:4). We proclaim through our fast that we need to see His beauty more than we need our next meal. This is where I was confused in England. Fasting and dieting seemed the same to me. But I realized that the first had God and His glory at the center, while the latter had me and my glory at the center. The difference was in the orientation of my heart. I find that dieting creates an environment in the heart that lends itself to self-absorption and vanity. It becomes all about you—what you will eat, what you will weigh, how you will be perceived, how you will feel about your weight, etc. As long as fasting is a means by which you withhold food for the sake of your own glory it is not a Christian fast. This is because true fasting is radically God-centered.
2. Fasting is Rooted in the Gospel, Dieting is Rooted in Willpower
Fasting is rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The basis of fasting is the “decisive triumph of the Son of God, the Messiah, entering history and dying and rising from the dead and reigning over history for the salvation of His people and the glory of the Father” (Piper, pg. 41). Jesus defeated Satan, sin, and death and now freely offers fellowship with the Father on the basis of His precious blood. The gospel is your only hope to draw near to God in confidence. There is no fast you could perform that would ever make you righteous. Paul declares, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (1 Cor. 8:8).
Fasting is the denial of food for the sake of greater satisfaction in Christ.
This is fundamentally different from dieting. Dieting is based upon performance and fueled by willpower. The Bible warns that there is a type of dieting that can appear religious (Col. 2:21-23), but only serves to promote self-made religion. Thus, beware of restricting food in hopes of earning approval from God. Fasting should always flow from a hunger for God awakened by the sweetness of the gospel.
3. Fasting is About Fullness, Dieting is About Denial
Fasting is the denial of food for the sake of greater satisfaction in Christ. Christian fasting is not a pursuit of emptiness. Though fasting can feel painful in the moment, its ultimate end is always fullness. What makes Christian fasting distinct from dieting or other religious fasts is we know it is actually a type of feasting. Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (Jn. 6:35). He went on to say, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Jn. 6:55). There is a spiritual feasting on Christ that satisfies the believer in a way nothing else can. On the other hand, severe dieting is the denial of food for the sake of emptiness. The chronic dieter hopes this emptiness will lead to some desired outcome. She may pursue it as a means of controlling her life or finding fulfillment in her appearance. But, ultimately, this denial of food only leads to further emptiness. It’s the antithesis to the fullness of joy that comes through fasting. In light of these differences, I pray Christian women everywhere will move beyond the cultural infatuation with dieting into the biblical joy of fasting. I hope we will develop a hunger for God that transcends a fascination with self. May we learn to perform God-ordained fasts in order to experience God-ordained fullness!
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