The Disciplines and Discoveries of a Daniel Fast

By Jim Jewell

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

Man studying and empty plate.

Fasting: "Where'd my food go?!" (cc image courtesy Kalense Kid via flickr)

During the month of June, my wife Debbie and I went through our first Daniel Fast. We’d both fasted many times over the years, separately and as a couple, but although we had heard of a Daniel Fast, neither of us had read anything in detail about it or used this structure for a fast. I’d been looking forward to the fast as a new adventure, but also as a time to refocus and cleanse.  Debbie used the word “reset” when we were talking about our goals for the fast.

It might be good to provide a little background and context to this activity. First, it feels awkward to be reporting on a fast because there is a clear scriptural admonition not to trumpet one’s fast as evidence of holiness, or to look worn and forlorn during a fast so that others will admire your great sacrifice. Jesus said that the Pharisees would get no heavenly reward for their fasting because they sought earthly adulation for their actions (Matthew 6:16-18). I hope my motivations are pure in sharing thoughts from this fasting experience. (Hoping not to lose any gem from my crown!)

Second, we found that this was a fast only in the sense of deprivation of particular foods and drinks and not in the sense of great hunger. We ate well. And so I’m more comfortable understanding this as a time of discipline and self-control rather than fasting, but the title Daniel Fast is a familiar one, so we use it.

Third, if you’re not familiar with Daniel, he was among the aristocrats from Jerusalem who were taken in the Babylonian captivity in 605 B.C. (600 years before Christ’s birth), and he spent most of his life in the royal court of Babylonian and Persian kings in Babylon. He maintained his devotion to the God of his fathers and the disciplines of the faith, yet he was a trusted advisor to kings (except during a few hiccups, like his night in the lion’s den).

The idea of the Daniel Fast itself comes from two passages in the book of Daniel (in chapters 1 and 10). When I read these accounts, I jotted down five goals for my Daniel Fast:

  1. To avoid food and drink during the fast that may “defile” the body.
  2. To test this healthy-eating rigor and compare the results to our regular eating, which isn’t terrible, but includes a fair amount of fat through meat and creams and sauces. Also, for me, coffee is a major part of my diet and life. Dropping this will be difficult.
  3. To explore rejecting meats and eating lower on the food chain to not only improve our health but also to support animal welfare and reduce methane emissions.
  4. To sharpen character by willingly sacrificing the pleasurable.
  5. To use hunger/longing/desire as a cue to turn to God in prayer and to listen for his will.
  6. To hear from God during this time, as Daniel heard from him in Daniel 10.

In preparation for the fast, I consulted Matthew Henry’s commentary on the Bible and found these thoughts:

  • People will not believe the benefit of a spare diet nor how much it contributes to the health of the body unless they try it.
  • Those who would excel in wisdom and piety must learn to keep the body under control.
  • The principles of a fast: not indulging appetites; not partaking in the sins of a pagan society; a principle of conscience; not being in love with the pleasures of the culture.

There are variations of the Daniel Fast and plenty of help online, including free resources and detailed instructions, books, and cookbooks that you can purchase. The fast that we followed included the following guidelines:

Food included

  • Fruits and vegetables, preferably fresh or frozen vegetables. Ingredients such as potatoes, beans, and soybeans will help provide substance.
  • Pure fruit juices or fruit (no sweetened drinks or sweetened fruit): apple juice, orange juice, grapefruit juice, cranberry juice
  • Whole grains
  • It is advisable to take vitamin, mineral, and possibly protein supplements during the fast. You may also include various nuts to serve as a protein supplement.

Food excluded

  • Meats, fish, poultry, dairy products, eggs
  • Sugar and sugar products (desserts, soft drinks, etc.)
  • Caffeinated beverages
  • Yeast (so no bread)
  • Additives (which pretty much knocks out all packaged and processed foods)

We also made it a discipline to do a related devotional reading and study each day.

Looking back through my Fast journal, I read a lot of whining and fascination and obsession with what I’m eating and not eating. I won’t bore you with much of that, but here are some selected thoughts from the three weeks.

Day 1
I woke up early to start this journal. I’m hungry and will begin this morning with some potatoes and fruit. As I walked downstairs, what my mind automatically went to was making a pot of coffee. As I think about the food, I don’t dread the types of foods available on the fast, but I anticipate being regularly hungry because of the huge reduction in fat and carbs. I’m also anticipating a couple days of headaches as I am weaned from caffeine. That won’t be fun. 

I relish the discipline of thinking about diet and more broadly about spiritual discipline and strengthening my spiritual life—which for both of us has suffered because babies and toddlers are a constant demand, mentally consuming, and a physical drain. I hope we can find the time to refocus because we are not, of course, taking a fast from the children.

Reading Daniel 1. Daniel didn’t see this as a fast but as a time to prove to the king’s official that this restricted diet was healthier than the court’s rich food.

Day 3
Yesterday wasn’t pleasant because the headache didn’t go away and both Debbie and I were sullen and on edge. If you could do this kind of exercise cloistered away from the real challenges of life, it would be a different experience. Yesterday was a rainy day with whiny kids. Debbie worked so hard peeling and chopping vegetables for dinner, and she was getting frustrated with the interruptions and demands of the children. Dinner was great, with a stew of veggies—potatoes, rutabagas, carrots, onions—and sides of green beans and roasted squash. Frozen banana pop for dessert. Earlier I had fried potatoes with green pepper and onion for breakfast and a salad for lunch. Not missing meat or dairy as much as I am the coffee and sweet desserts. Seems like the headache is gone this morning, praise God.

Reading Daniel 3.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. God is able, but even if he chooses not to deliver us, we will still remain faithful and we will not worship other gods. This is ultimate faith and courage in your convictions.

Day 7
We’re finding the Daniel Fast to be a discovery of a new way to eat and a new selection of foods, rather then deprivation, although we are both missing sweets. And food preparation and clean-up is quite time consuming if you don’t just

A carrot and leek forming an "x."

Controlling our appetites is a good discpline and beneficial for creation. (cc image courtesy Renato Pequito via flickr)

eat a piece of fruit and open a bag of frozen vegetables. Debbie is doing a great job. We talked yesterday about the decisions we’ll be making at the end of the fast about how to change our eating habits and what foods to continue avoiding and what to add to our regular diets from the fast menu. As we settle into the food part of this, we need to listen more to what God is saying to us in the midst of this spiritual discipline.

Day 13
Started our Saturday at the gym, as usual; good workout. I was down 6 pounds in 2 weeks. That’s a nice by-product of the fast. The menu yesterday: fried sweet potato and vegetable dish for breakfast; banana and apple for lunch; lentil soup for dinner. Peanut/raisin snack; banana pop dessert. Also listening hard for direction on a number of matters.

Day 15
We’re experiencing the grinding disappointment of dull food choices in the midst of chocolate. Debbie baked an unbelievable chocolate cake, with Kit Kat bars and strawberries, for a friend’s birthday. We took it to her and sat around talking while her family ate the chocolate cake and we ate the strawberries.

We took the girls to McDonald’s play place Sunday and bought Payton a hot fudge sundae. The fast is working in that we experience frequent awareness of the discomfort and deprivation. We depend on food to lubricate our social events. Tough, and again, this discipline is beginning to present noticeable temptations and displeasures. I’ve noticed them and realized that those complaints are what are expected, and I’ve tried to focus at those times on what God is saying to me. Restraint is good. Building the ability to not yield to desire is good.

Day 17
This fast is nearing its end; I need to spend time the next three days thinking about its lessons, listening for God’s voice; figuring out what to carry into our lives.

Day 18
I had a total fast Wednesday p.m. to Thursday p.m., drinking only apple juice. A veggie feast for dinner: roasted sweet potato, asparagus, and corn on the cob. As we come close to the end of the fast, one question I have is whether I feel healthier and stronger than my counterparts who have continued to “eat from the king’s table,” with meats and wine etc. I’d say that mostly I do feel better than usual with the combination of the food regimen and exercise. I’ve been having back ache, but it’s probably related more to carrying the baby around and working out than diet. I wonder if I’m getting enough protein, but haven’t noticed anything physically except less strength lifting weights. I worry about returning to the usual diet; I don’t intend to eat as much of anything except fruits and veggies as we end the Fast.

Day 21
As we end the fast today, all four of my kids are gathering for Sunday dinner to celebrate Father’s Day, and we’re going to have a chicken dinner.  Also, we are beginning a trip to New York this afternoon; glad the fast is over because it would be tough to maintain this discipline on the road. A tough day yesterday, mainly because the younger kids were out of sorts while we were trying to finish tasks before hitting the road. I’ve lost 11 pounds on the fast, which I feel good about. Hoping to apply some of the discipline to a more varied diet so I can lose a few more and maintain. I’m glad the fast is over; I guess that’s good. If it was too pleasant, it probably wouldn’t teach me anything about discipline.

End of Fast Observations
Here are my observations from our 21 days on the Daniel Fast:

  1. It is valuable to discover how to eat in healthier and more redemptive ways.
  2. While we will remain omnivores, we want to eat less meat than usual, which will be better for our arteries and put less pressure on earth’s resources through the meat industry.
  3. Fewer additives is a good thing. Chemical and preservatives—anything on the package that you can’t pronounce, and more—aren’t good for us. So we will try to avoid them.
  4. Less sugar and fat is obviously good, but life without sweetness is bitter indeed.
  5. More fruits and veggies are healthy and tasty, but a diet heavy in fresh fruits and vegetables can be more expensive. To deal with this we need to explore expanding our backyard garden or becoming involved in a community garden or a food cooperative. Eating less meat will also help us lower our grocery bill.
  6. It’s a whole lot easier to lose weight without meat and dairy products (and sweets, of course)!
  7. It takes a lot more time to prepare and cook fresh foods in different and tasty ways.
  8. The displeasure of discipline provides good times to seek the pleasure of God’s guidance.

The Daniel Fast, more than anything, provides lessons on being in control of our appetites, not allowing appetites to control us. Gaining this control can profoundly change our motivations and our decisions. Learning to live with less than what is possible, whether it be food, energy, technology, or other consumer goods, frees us to live healthier lives, to help others, and to focus more fully on the true wellspring of our joys.

Jim Jewell is co-founder and CEO of Flourish.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Scot Martin September 27, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Good for you. The Eastern church practices fasting all year long–every Wednesday and Friday (except for a few feast weeks) and ramps it up during Great Lent. We would do well to seek their counsel.

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