Doesn’t fasting turn you into a legalist?

In 2002 I attempted my first 40-day fast. I had been reading about the benefit fasting was to your prayer life for quite some time. I had been reading how the ancients practiced it regularly. I was curious to find out what it was like, and if any difference in your spiritual walk was perceivable. So in the winter of 2002 I jumped in headlong.

When I say I jumped in headlong, I really did go all in. My personality is very much all or nothing, so there was little room for a middle-ground approach. So on the 21st of May 2002, I stopped eating for 40 days. I carved a daily pattern of a few drinks of juice, plenty of water and nothing else. Added to the fasting was a few prayer walks a day, and over the next couple of weeks I experienced an explosion of intimacy with the Holy Spirit.

Three weeks in, I went to a Christian conference and happened to run into my sister. At about the 3 week marker of any fast, you experience a short period of extreme hunger. So I was a little on edge. It was great to catch up, and she asked if I had lost some weight (it’s easy to hide your fasting until you start losing weight).  As I told her about my journey, she told me that she and a close friend were also fasting. That was incredible timing. I was intrigued. She said that she would fast and if the hunger became too intense, she would pause and eat.

When my sister told me that she would fast and pause when overly hungry or weak, she said it with such joy. The type of joy that fasting is supposed to produce.  But my fast wasn’t. Something in me internally retorted “that’s not fasting”, with a bitter and angry tone. I was so hungry and had been so careful to avoid food at all costs. I had been strict in making my flesh submit. I had shown great discipline, but right there in that moment I felt like my fast might have become about the letter of the law. I had become that guy who in his heart believes that unless you have done it to the letter of the law, then you really hadn’t done it at all. I had become a legalist.

It’s not really hard for me to be the legalist. I’m the guy who can’t stand people talking in the “quiet carriage” of the train. I’m the guy who can’t stand pedestrians walking on the red signal. I was the one who had to go to every church event during the week. I like a place for everything and everything in its place. Much of my adult spiritual journey was around moving out of perfectionism and into a place of freedom, but this idea of fasting was a major trigger. I felt OK internally just as long as I was meeting the requirements of the fast.

It was a few days after this chance encounter when I was reading an article about juice fasting. The author asserted that unless you are only drinking the broth created from boiling vegetables and draining them, then it’s not really fasting at all. I was incensed. I questioned who these people were to tell me or anybody what was or wasn’t a valid fast. They must have been legalists… and then it dawned on me. I was doing the exact same thing in my heart towards my sister as they were doing to me.

I had to go in search of answers. How could I fast in such a way that joy was the product, discipline was practiced but it was held lightly enough that it was all about grace?

I found the answer in a book by Jack Hayford. It was a book on spiritual disciplines. He addressed the topic of fasting, and shared about a pastor and mentor of his. This man would call his church to fast and pray for seasons, but was unable to do it himself due to diabetes. So instead of rigorous fasting, he would eat as little as he could without getting sick. He called it entering into the spirit of the fast. In his heart he was all in, even though his body couldn’t be. This was a radical idea both to me but also in Jesus’ day.

Jesus had a lot so say to the spiritual lawyers of the time. They would try to fulfill the letter of the law when it came to fasting, but would miss completely the spirit of the fast. These lawyers and scholars had expanded on the law to such a point that you couldn’t walk with a handkerchief in your jacket on the Sabbath without breaking the law.

In Luke 11 Jesus address spiritual practice that focuses on the external and neglects the internal. It neglects the matters of the heart. It is all about appearing spiritual while not allowing God to interact with the heart.

As I reflect on that interaction all those years ago I’m so grateful that my legalist got exposed. It meant that my first 40-day fast had eternal value as I allowed God to deal with my heart and not just my flesh. It has meant that every food fast since has been in the shadow of heart fasting. It has meant that if I need to pause fasting, I can do so, and easily jump back in without shaming myself. It has been the difference between spirit and letter. It has been the difference between joy and anger. It has been the difference between heart and flesh. It has been the difference.

By |2019-06-12T20:57:09+10:00June 13th, 2019|Australia, Authors, Faith, Prayer|19 Comments

About the Author:

Matt is married to Kate and together with their 4 teenage children they have spent 8 years of their lives planting and pastoring The Hope Project in Bondi, Australia. They met while serving in Youth with a Mission in Sydney. They have spent nearly all of their 22 years married in serving and building the local Church or in global missions.

Matt studied a Bachelor of Arts (Welfare Studies) soon after school leading to various roles with young people. During his time as a youth worker with the Anglican Church he completed his Post-Graduate Diploma in Christian Studies with Tabor College Australia. After finishing with the Anglican Church and before church planting, he completed his Master of Divinity from the Australian College of Theology.

As a young person he read David Yonggi Cho’s Prayer: Key to Revival and it forever changed his life. It ignited a passion for prayer for revival that has never abated. During the early 2000’s he joined up with The Call Australia and spearheaded the 40 days of prayer and fasting for The Call. In 2005 he wrote his first book about prayer and fasting after discovering the grace for extended fasting on his life. During his M.Div. he wrote his Master’s thesis on Biblical fasting, which formed the basis for his second book.

Matt is the author of This Chosen Fast and Invitation to a Fast. He blogs at 7-14.


  1. Teresa June 15, 2019 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    Thanks Matt. I really enjoyed your article.

    • Matt Madigan June 16, 2019 at 5:52 pm - Reply


  2. Karen June 15, 2019 at 9:06 pm - Reply

    Thank you for your encouragement and insight

    • Matt Madigan June 16, 2019 at 5:51 pm - Reply

      Glad it was helpful.

  3. David June 15, 2019 at 11:52 pm - Reply

    Thanks, the timing of this article is just right for my personal situation

    • Matt Madigan June 16, 2019 at 5:51 pm - Reply

      Great to hear.

  4. Alan June 16, 2019 at 2:21 am - Reply

    I am not into fasting but the Holy Spirit encounter means to me that the journey is well worth it

  5. John Mathai June 16, 2019 at 4:51 am - Reply

    I practice intermittent fasting and it works well for me. It is a good discipline and I find it is a key to break any addictive behaviours. Try fasting in any area where you feel you are in bondage whether it is food, sex, internet, tv etc.

    • Matt Madigan June 16, 2019 at 5:51 pm - Reply

      Good word there John, I often look back after a fast and see God has set me free from something.

  6. Harold Hopper June 16, 2019 at 6:37 am - Reply

    Thank you for this envouragement. My wife and I are intermittent fasters. I have resisted it for years. We are just on the edge, the cusp. Fasting around the edges so to speak. I long for more of the Holy Spirit. I think fasting is a way of going deeper into the river of life. So thank you.

  7. Harold Hopper June 16, 2019 at 6:43 am - Reply

    Thanks John, Yes breaking the habit of addictive behaviours. I could not believe how hard it was for me to fast alcohol for a month. Coffee is easier as I don’t really like it, more of a social thing. But a hit of rum! Why that is another thing! So now that the fast is over I recognise what a hold it still has over me and its time to fast again to break that hold.
    I want more of the Holy Spirit.

  8. Maynessa June 16, 2019 at 8:16 am - Reply

    Like anything else, we need wisdom for fasting.

  9. John du Prie June 16, 2019 at 5:16 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this message. It is a great message and helpes me to try it with a different attitude.

  10. Marion Dingwall June 16, 2019 at 7:42 pm - Reply

    Thank you. You have helped differentiate between fasting for more of Him, and a legalistic view.

    • Matt Madigan June 17, 2019 at 3:46 pm - Reply

      Thanks. It’s so important to search our motives even when doing good.

  11. Miriam Wentworth June 17, 2019 at 8:13 am - Reply

    Matt, I really like the way you have shown me the deeper spiritual aspect to fasting. I love the way God shows us the hidden parts of ourselves through the things we do. There seems to be always more than one facet to what ever we do in Christ and I love the way Our Lord shows us that, bringing us from glory to glory. It was reading about the change he made in you that I enjoyed the most.

  12. Mark Elvery June 18, 2019 at 10:23 am - Reply

    As one of those legalists, thank you for the freedom and joy that you highlight. I must admit, I went through a rough stage in life where dinner would often be an apple and a glass of water. I made the comment in my autobiography, ‘Congratulations, You’ve Got MS’ (also available at Koorong –, ‘Like exercise, hunger hurts at first, but once you break through the wall, it’s not that bad’, so ever since then, I find fasting has never “cost” me that much (and likewise never found joy) so I became legalistic and ran on automatic instead. I haven’t read your book yet (good that it’s at Koorong already), but look forward to it and what God has to teach me.

    • Matt Madigan June 18, 2019 at 2:44 pm - Reply

      Thanks brother, should be available there next week.

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