Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. (Matthew 9:14–15)
FASTING AND COMMUNION WITH GOD
Communion is a two-way street. When we hear from God in his Word and talk to God in prayer, we enter into communion with him. These two spiritual disciplines form the bedrock of our spiritual lives and move us toward maturity. We rejoice as we hear the voice of God in Scripture and we magnify his goodness and greatness as the great giver in our prayers. No day should pass in which we do not open our Bibles and fall on our knees. God’s Word is the ground beneath our feet and prayer is the breath in our lungs.
However, most of us, if we are honest, will admit that consistently spending time in God’s Word and continually praying are challenging in and of themselves. Sometimes it feels as if we have to fight to spend time reading our Bibles and praying regularly. This struggle is why God has given us more weapons – more spiritual disciplines – with which to wage war. Many of the other spiritual disciplines we are considering in this series are designed to strengthen and support our communion with God; that is, they help to us to treasure God more fully in reading and praying, the foundational spiritual disciplines of our lives.
Fasting helps us by freeing us from earthly pleasures and focusing us on heavenly delights. Of course, we are not distracted only by sinful pursuits; we are often drawn away from God by the good gifts that God himself has given us. We are tempted to set aside prayer time for work; we are stay in bed and enjoy our sleep instead of opening our Bibles. This is where fasting can be an immense help. Fasting targets our most basic physical need (hunger) and starves it so that our hunger for God will grow. Fasting takes our focus off of what seems to us to be our most pressing need, and forces us to consider deeper, spiritual needs that we have. Every hunger pain is a reminder to pray. Every growl of our stomach is a call to read God’s Word.
WHAT IS FASTING?
Before we move forward, though, we need to talk about what fasting is and what it is not. There continues to be a great deal of confusion about fasting in the church. Obviously, it has something to do with abstaining from eating food. We know, almost instinctively, that fasting is not dieting. We can’t give up bread or sugary snack so that we can fit into our favorite pair of jeans and count that as fasting. So, while fasting involves some sort of abstinence from food, it is not just giving up food for any reason. Put simply, fasting is intentionally giving up food a spiritual purpose.
When we turn to the Bible for a consideration of what fasting looks like, we see a fairly consistent picture. When people fast in Scripture that do not eat any food for a specified period of time. One of the earliest examples is Moses on Mt. Sinai:
And the LORD said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 34:27–28)
Jesus, in assuming his role as both a new Moses and a new Israel, likewise fasts for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. At the end of these forty days we are told that he was “hungry.” In other words, he didn’t eat any food during those forty days.
There are places where partial abstinence from food takes place in the Bible. Daniel and his friends ate only vegetables and drank only water rather than drink the Babylonian king’s food and wine. However, this is not called a fast in the book of Daniel. Daniel’s diet seems to be instead concerned with remaining pure from any defilement that might be brought on by the foreign king’s food. Fasting, properly considered, means eating no food. There is no indication that refraining from water was normal (Moses seems to be an exception), but total abstinence from food was/is the norm.
In addition, most fasting in the Bible takes place in the midst of some sort of crisis. Israel often fasted as they prayed for deliverance from enemies (Judges 20:23) or as a sign of their repentance (1 Samuel 7:6). Sometimes the crisis that called for fasting was the loss of a great leader or loved one (2 Samuel 1:12; 2 Samuel 12:16). Even personal trials could be a cause for fasting (Psalm 35:13; Psalm 69:10). You’ll notice, however, that all of these examples are found in the Old Testament. We are not, however living in that time period. We live under the New Covenant. What, then, is the primary crisis that leads us to fast as New Covenant believers?
FASTING, LONGING, AND LOOKING
It may surprise you to know that when Jesus was upon the earth, his followers did not fast. This was somewhat strange and even suspicious in the eyes of other Jewish religious devotees. Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Jesus primary critics) fasted. The disciples of John the Baptist fasted. Jewish religious zealots and splinter groups of all sorts practiced fasting. Fasting was a normal part of Jewish religious life in the time of Jesus. So strange was his disciples’ failure to fast, that Jesus himself was questioned about it:
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. (Mark 2:18–20)
Jesus’ answer reveals the primary crisis of Christian fasting: his absence. After his resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven. For more than two thousand years we have been waiting for his promised return. New Covenant believers fast because we long to see him face-to-face. While we enjoy the benefits of the Spirit’s presence in this age, we are still looking foward to the great wedding feast of the lamb, in which the church, his bride, will be united with him in the new heaven and earth.
We fast now as we look for his return. This truth is a powerful reminder that Christian fasting is not about personal strength or impressive asceticism; it is an acknowledgement of our weakness and longing and our dependence upon Jesus. Christian fasting is about expressing and strengthening our desire for more intimate communion with Christ.
Of course, we are adept at taking the good gifts that God has given to us and pressing them into service to sin. Even fasting can be done in a sinful manner.
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16–18)
Jesus expects his followers to fast after his ascension. He says, “When you fast…,” not “If you fast…” However, in the face of this expectation he issues a warning to us. We are not to fast gloomily. To fast in this manner is to fast so that we garner the attention of others. How easy it is to casually mention on our hunger or abstain in an obvious way when we are fasting! If we do, then we will forfeit the reward that God offers to us in favor of the praise of men. We will forfeit the joy of more intimate communion with him for the pitiful pleasure of being admired (for a short time) by others.
Just as we should not pray to be noticed and admired by others, we should not fast to impress those around us. Just as we should not study God’s Word so that we can put our doctrinal knowledge on display, so we should not fast in such a way that others will look on in awe. Fasting is not a spiritual badge but a weapon to be used against the sin of using spiritual badges for self-exaltation (and every other sin!).
HOW SHOULD WE FAST?
Since Christ expects his people to fast, we ought to consider how to go about using this weapon in spiritual warfare. In light of the purpose of fasting, we should always choose a timeframe that will drive us to dependence upon God. It does us no good to fast in ways that minimize our hunger and discomfort. The whole point of fasting is to leverage our physical hunger to help us focus us on the greater spiritual needs that we have.
The Time for Fasting
When we fast, we may choose to fast for one day, or three days, or thirty days. The length of time does not matter. We must simply choose a time frame that will result in real hunger. We need to challenge ourselves and push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. You may be pushing your limits to skip lunch for a few days and fast during the day. If you’re like me, and only eat two meals a day on a normal day, this kind of fast probably will not result in much hunger. You may be a fitness buff and accustomed to fasting for health reasons. You may need to fast for a longer period of time before you feel its effects.
Whatever your situation, you need to set a timeframe that is challenging. It is not usually helpful to fast without a predetermined time set, as you may find yourself tempted to call the fast off as soon as your hunger grows beyond what is comfortable.
Prayer and Fasting
When we fast, we want to set aside time for additional prayer. The time that we might normally spend preparing or eating meals should be devoted to prayer. In addition, our hunger pangs should drive us to more prayer. When our stomach growls at us we should cry out to the Lord in prayer. The rumbling we feel when hunger sets in should become for us a call to fall on our knees and cry out to the one who is the “bread of life” and who call us to “Come to me, all you who thirst!”
If we do not devote more time to prayer while we fast, we are turning our fast into a personal battle with hunger rather than sin; we are making hunger for food the goal rather than hunger for God. This defeats the entire purpose of a fast. Instead, we should give more than our usual amount of time to prayer. We should have specific prayers continually on our hearts and frequently on our lips during a fast. You may find it helpful to maintain a prayer journal during your fast (and even when you’re not fasting!). Pray for the same people and the same circumstances day after day. Be like the persistent widow, who would not give up in her pursuit of justice and “do not lose heart,” (Luke 18:1-8).
The Word and Fasting
When we fast, we should expect God to remind us of our dependence upon him. Jesus tells us that, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” (Matthew 4:4). Every hunger pang is a reminder that we have better food to eat. Every mealtime becomes meditation time. The purpose of fasting is to express our longing for Jesus, and he is made known to us in the Scriptures; that fasting should lead to Bible reading makes all the sense in the world.
If we do not turn to God’s Word for strength and guidance in the midst of our fasting, then we will find some other source to supply us with the strength we need to endure. If we do not meditate on the Word with increasing frequency and zeal during our fast, we will find some other source of nourishment for our weary souls. Instead, we need to resolve to look to Christ as he is made known to us in the Scriptures and trust that the “bread of life” will supply all of our needs and answer the call of our hunger.
Focus in Fasting
When we fast, we should have a specific goal or focus in mind. We may fast for deliverance from some sinful habit or behavior. We may fast because we are mourning some great sin in the world around us (abortion, racism, etc.). We may fast for God’s healing hand to be upon us or upon those we love. We may fast for spiritual growth or the building up of the church. Whatever our reason, it must be stated. Just as we must pray for specific, practical needs in our normal prayer life, so in our fasting we should pray for God to move in some extraordinary way. Without this kind of focus, we may never know if our fast has borne fruit. More importantly, without this specific goal, we may never know when to glorify God in his supernatural provision for us.
Even though Jesus expects his people to fast, we should acknowledge that not everyone will be able to fast. Some may have medical conditions that prevent fasting, such as diabetes or intestinal disease. These limitations may be temporary or permanent. No one should be discouraged by this. The point of fasting is to increase longing for Jesus in more fervent prayer and Bible study. There are other practices that can achieve these goals. While not technically considered a fast, those who cannot abstain from food can devote time normally spent watching television or playing golf or combing through social media to prayer and Bible study.
Indeed, when those who can fast do so, they should also consider eliminating these time-consuming, attention-grabbing obstacles. If fasting is for increased prayer and Bible study, then filling our time with other activities during a fast is counter-productive. Don’t turn to social media to fill your lunch hour simply because you are not eating lunch. Turn to Christ.
In all that we do, in times of fasting and in times of feasting our goal should be to gain a clearer sight the glory of God in the face of Christ – in our own lives and in the world around us. As we fast, we should long for Christ. As we enjoy God’s good gifts, we should long for the superior gift of Christ’s presence, and look forward to the great wedding feast of the Lamb, when we shall see him face-to-face.