The spiritual discipline of fasting is one that many modern day Christians do not know much about or do not do much with. We are a have-it-now culture that is not patient and is not quick to go without. We love what we love and love lots of it. But this is not a lesson on moderation or regulation, but on intentional surrender unto exaltation.
Let’s define fasting before we move much further. Fasting is voluntarily going without a good thing that God allows or has provided for a determined time for the sake of some spiritual purpose.
When thinking of fasting, many people only think of going without food, but a fast can be a voluntary going without any good thing. There is not a singular way that the Bible prescribes us to fast. Because we can’t fast air or shouldn’t ever fast water, food is naturally a good thing to set aside in part or whole as it affects us without hurting us.
Fasting is something many Christians rarely or if ever practice even though God made it clear that we should. Jesus doesn’t say “if,” but “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16). And he doesn’t say his followers might fast, but “they will” (Matthew 9:15). So, now that we are clear that it is indeed a spiritual discipline, we should talk about what it is and what it isn’t and then some practical ways to make fasting a regular spiritual discipline of our life.
What it is: Fasting is a mode of surrender during a time of request
In Old Testament passages like Isaiah 58 and Ezra 8:21-23, we see the people of God fasting as a way to focus on bringing their request to the Lord in prayer. When the people of God were serious about a need that they were to put before the Lord, they would clear the deck and strip back normal things for the sake of prayer and focus on God. For example, when you fast from food and you feel the hunger pains, you are reminded of your dependence on God. You are reminded to pray and pray hard.
What it isn’t: Fasting is not a potency power pack to convince God to do something
I have heard people turn fasting into a manipulation to put God in their debt. By fasting you are not attaching more power to your prayer life and/or some kind of obligation on God to do what you ask him. We never put God in our debt or put him to the test by our works. As we study the Old Testament on these topics we must remember that the old covenant God made with his people was fulfilled in Christ and we who are now in Christ live under the new covenant.
What it is: Fasting is a hunger for God
The first thing Jesus did after his ministry formally began was to get away from the normalcy of life and fast from food for 40 days and nights in Matthew 4. In this, we can see fasting as a template of simplicity and stripping away the activities and happenings of life in order to focus on the Lord all the more. In this, fasting is a form of clearing the table of life from distractions and normal enjoyments to have a time of greater focus on the Lord. It is a way to say, “God is better than…” as good and God-honoring as that thing is… “God is better.” There are a lot of days where we seem to be satisfied in the basic provisions and happenings of this life. Fasting is a way to disrupt that flow and routine to remind your mind and soul that God is better. As the Psalmist says in…
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food.
Do you hear the holistic desperation David has for God above all else? Many days we don’t feel this way about God and we should. Fasting is a way to reconnect ourselves to this reality. That we would better hunger for God over any other thing.
What it is: Fasting is a great way to focus on the leadership of God
In Acts 14:19-23, we see the early church leadership committing themselves to fasting as a part of the very important appointing and ordaining church elders. In this, we see that fasting is a good practice when faced with big decisions of life. Stripping back other things to better focus on God’s written word and submit to God in prayer is a practical help to us along the road of life. There is so much noise in our modern world and there are so many things coming at us that clearing the deck to seek God is a great way to be still and know that He is God.
What it is not: Fasting is not something we do for prideful gain
In Matt. 6:16-18, we are given examples of those who fast in order to be recognized and respected by others. This is a self-seeking aim for practicing this spiritual discipline. It is not for spiritual edification or sacrificial living or worship to God. Jesus says that the recognition they seek is their reward. But for those who fast humbly and truly to honor and grow in the Lord will receive a reward of far greater value- namely God himself. God who is the prize. Our sin causes us to say, “look at me… look at how spiritual I am”, but this pride and showmanship is the opposite goal of what fasting is intended to produce. Fasting instead says, “I want to look at God to focus on him and enjoy Him.” Fasting is a humble action by which we seek God to reign in our lives. It is a setting aside of self and not a puffing up of self. David said, “I humbled my soul with fasting” [Psalm 35:13].
A few clarities and practical applications:
First, going without something like food, haphazardly is not fasting, it is just going hungry. Fasting is only fasting when it is an intentional spiritual discipline with the aim of spiritual edification and spiritual purpose. Second, fasting is something you can start slow and in smaller bites. You don’t need to start by fasting for a week from food. Start by fasting for a day from food or by fasting from TV for a day. Use that time to make time to be with the Lord in His word and in prayer. Third, fasting is something you can do alone or in a group. For all the reasons above, fasting can be very fruitful alone or with a group of brothers in Christ. Finally, like all other spiritual disciplines, it will not happen on its own. You have to make time to do it. When you fast, don’t just go without, but reach out to God and enjoy Him for all that He is. So, when are you planning your next fast? From what will you fast? What will you do to get time with God when you fast? Will you do it alone or with others? I am praying for you as you hopefully begin or improve the spiritual discipline of fasting.