Fasting is one of those Christian disciplines that is usually misunderstood, and therefore usually neglected. I once had someone tell me they were unable to fast. When I enquired as to why they told me, “Because it makes me hungry.” As a great Theologian once said…. “DUH.”
Actually, there are physical reasons that can prevent fasting. Diseases and maladies, some temporary, and some permanent. However the most common reason not to fast is a lack of discipline, coupled with a lack of understanding. What’s the point of starving yourself? If you only see fasting as “starving yourself” then there really is no point. The main reason to fast is to develop a hunger for God that is greater than your hunger for the things of this world. Rather than have a cheeseburger at lunch, you spend 30 minutes in prayer. Rather than a Bueno-chilada platter for Dinner, you spend 30 minutes reading your Bible. At first it might seem really painful. But fasting, when done right, can bring you into deep levels of intimacy with God….and in so doing, loosen your dependence upon the world.
Are you struggling with a particular sin? Consider fasting. The disciples once tried to cast out a demon and were unable. Jesus showed up on the scene and succeeded. When they asked why they were unable, Jesus mentioned their lack of faith AND said, “This kind can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.” (Matt. 17:21; Mark 9:29) While the more reliable manuscripts don’t have the word “fasting” (which is why the NIV omits this part) we can clearly see from Jesus’ life, that He considered fasting to be an integral part of Godliness. When Jesus began His ministry He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he fasted for 40 days. Then Satan showed up to tempt Him. (See Matthew 4:1-2) If Jesus felt the need to fast for 40 DAYS…..how much more you and I?
It’s important to keep in mind that fasting is not commanded in Scripture…but it is assumed. Jesus gave instructions for it saying: “WHEN YOU FAST…do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, WHEN YOU FAST, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18 NASB emphasis added) Not only does Jesus assume fasting will take place (“when you fast”), He also gives instructions for it. Jesus’ point is clear. If you fast, don’t draw attention to it so that everyone will be impressed with how holy you are. Fasting should be a time between you and God.
With that said, there were also “public fasts” which were sometimes called for in Scripture. The Day of Atonement had a fast that coincided with it, and I’ve heard of other times when churches have asked people to voluntarily fast for some cause. Public fasts are OK, if they are voluntary. But the emphasis must be upon a heart hungry for God, rather than a heart hungry for man’s praises. One of the most humble men I know fasts every Friday to pray for world missions. He mentioned it to me one day in passing, when I was enquiring as to why he seemed so shaky. He made his fasting known to me….but I truly believe it was not out of conceit, but simply informational. When I fast, I have to let my wife know….since she cooks most of my meals. If I didn’t clue her in, she would perhaps feel like I was sick of her cooking….and I sure don’t need that misunderstanding causing problems in my house (otherwise I may be spending more time in the kitchen than I care to). My point is…you may have to sometimes let people know when you’re fasting…that’s OK, as long as your heart is not seeking their glory because of your spiritual endeavor.
Do you have a major decision to make? Consider fasting. In 1999 I was considering moving my newlywed bride and myself to Kansas City to attend Seminary. I felt a calling to preach, and a calling to prepare…which meant a major move for the Kastlers. My wife and I both had good jobs in Tulsa, and family close by. Moving 300 miles is not something you do flippantly, and I wanted to be sure of God’s will. So I fasted. For one week I did a “lunch time fast.” For one hour everyday, I went to a cemetery close to my work and prayed and read my Bible rather than eat. (Cemeteries are a great place to find solitude, even in a big city.) By the end of that week I had an overwhelming assurance that Seminary was the right decision…and Kansas City was the right locale. I might have made the right decision with or without the fasting….but I sure had a lot more assurance because of the fast.
One more verse I’ll mention regarding this. It also comes from the lips of Jesus. “Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:14-15 NASB) Did you notice what Jesus said? When the bridegroom is taken away….THEN THEY WILL FAST. Fasting shows our longing for the return of our Lord. If the longing is deep enough, the fasting comes naturally. Have you ever been so bereaved that you had no appetite? It’s something you feel when a loved one dies…or a loved one leaves you. Sometimes we lose our appetite because of excitement, like when a loved one is returning from a long journey. Sometimes our affections trump our appetite……and we fast because of our love for another. Sometimes, our affections (for God) are WAY TOO LOW….and we must fast to deny our appetite, and increase our love. Do you feel distant from God? Have you considered fasting?
In closing…here are some tips on fasting. First, don’t let me guilt you into doing it. If God isn’t leading, then you’ll probably get nothing out of it. Second, don’t assume fasting is only for “super-Christians.” Jesus assumed all Christians would fast after He went back to Heaven. Shall we disappoint Him? Third, don’t become legalistic with fasting. As I said earlier, it’s not commanded in Scripture, but it is assumed. Fourth, to the best of your ability, make it a matter between you and God alone. As I mentioned earlier, that’s not always possible. But if you must tell someone, make sure your motives are pure. Fifth, consider doing various kinds of fasts. As mentioned earlier, I once did a “lunch only fast.” Usually, when I fast, I’ll still drink water (sometimes juice and milk too). There’s no law on how many meals to miss, nor on the specifics of the fast. You might even consider fasting from something other than food. A week without TV? A week without the newspaper? A week without the internet? The Bible even mentions married couples fasting from something else in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5. (I’ll leave you to look that one up on your own.) Finally, don’t just skip meals….use the time to pray or read your Bible. Skipping meals alone is just starving yourself…..skipping meals TO SPEND TIME WITH GOD is fasting.
Are you struggling with sin? Are you facing a major decision? Are you lacking a closeness to God?.........Have you considered fasting? Try it. You might be surprised. You may pass on a meal, and find a new taste for the “bread of life.” (John 6:35) You may lose 5 pounds of blubber, only to add a new layer of holiness. You may think it will bring you misery…only to find it has brought you unspeakable joy. Have you considered fasting?
P.S.----John Piper has a great book on fasting called “A Hunger For God” that explains the discipline, and why it’s important. I strongly encourage you to read it…and you don’t even have to buy it. He has the entire book online at his website, click here to read it. If you prefer the hard copy, click here to buy it. Best wishes…and “happy fasting!”