What Is Fasting And Why Should You Do It?
What does fasting mean for a Christian?
It is a grace of God which allows His people to respond to His provision and kindness by humbling themselves before him. In practice, fasting normally means going without food for the sake of seeking God, either personally or as a group. In the Bible, this most often means eating nothing and only drinking water for a period of time. Some Scriptural examples exist of partial fasting through dietary adjustment (such as Daniel 10:3) but that is not normative. In Scripture, fasting is often accompanied by mourning a lack or loss and undertaken in hope of God moving powerfully to bless His people and achieve His work.
What did Jesus say about fasting?
Jesus made some vital references to fasting in his teaching to his followers. In Matthew 6:16-17 Jesus is depicted teaching on the futility of making a holy spectacle of things that should be done for God; specifically giving money, praying and fasting. In this statement a couple of things are interesting.
- Firstly, Jesus mentions fasting in the same breath as two other important Christian disciplines, praying and financial giving.
- Secondly, He says ‘when’you do these things and not ‘if’ which tells us that fasting today is just as normal for (and expected of) a Christian as the other two actions He mentions.
It is worth noting that, although prayer and fasting often go together in experience, Jesus observes them as separate actions. This tells us that fasting stands as a discipline in its own right - not all fasts will be accompanied by prayer and not all prayers will be accompanied by fasting and yet if they are done by His leading, they will still be acceptable to God.
What do I get out of it?
When asking the question ‘why should I fast?’ people are usually in fact asking ‘what do I get out of it?’ Although there might indeed be personal benefits from fasting, that isn’t really the point. As we’ve already seen, Jesus’ first point in talking about fasting concerned the issue of motive. In a real sense, God is far less concerned with what we do than why we do it (c.f. 1 Samuel 16:7) and goes as far as rebuking fasts done under false pretences (Isaiah 58:3-5, Zechariah 7:5) and Jesus hammers the point home in Luke 18:11-12. The true fast is the one that is motivated by a desire to see God’s glory made paramount. Real prayer is interactive: God leads us by putting things on our heart to pray. You can be sure that He hears those prayers. In the same way, it is God who leads us into true fasting - the duration, the objectives the form etc. If it is going to be a group fast, this call and leading may well come to us through the leaders that God has put in place for us in His church (Romans 13:1, Hebrews 13:17.)
What are the purposes of fasting?
Having established that fasting is a normal Christian practice that should be pursued today and that the motive must be God’s glory, the questions might arise ‘What purpose does fasting have and what should we expect to happen?’ Here are a few reasons from the Bible:
- To humble oneself - Feeling proud, comfortable and self-satisfied in life is a sure-fire way to miss the purposes and priorities of God (i.e. Deuteronomy 8:11-14.) When we are feeling ill or otherwise humbled, it can be much easier to hear and respond to God. In fasting, we find a way to humble ourselves before God and learn ‘war-time lessons’ in peacetime.
- To prepare for important works - In Acts 13:3 we see Paul and Barnabas sent out on mission directly after a fast. In Acts 14:23 we are told that the normal practice for installing elders in the early church entailed corporate prayer and fasting. In church life today, when we are embark on new mission ventures such as multi-site church, prayer and fasting is a great provision of God. Individually too: In the life of David (the ‘man after God’s own heart’) we see him fast before he was crowned, when his child was ill, because of the sins of his people and even when his enemies were ill!
- To make clear our intention to be heard by God - In no way do Christians need to twist God’s arm; He has made us His children and He loves us unconditionally. But fasting helps us in affirming that we want nothing more that God’s kingdom coming. This kind of urgency is seen in Matthew 11:12 where seekers of God’s kingdom are depicted by Jesus as ‘violent’ in their urgency to see God’s will come about. God calls His people to this kind of wholeheartedness: “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12)
- To change God’s mind - This can seem confusing: Doesn’t God know everything? Hasn’t He made all of His decisions? God speaks in Jeremiah 18:7-8 about how it is possible - if people repent - for Him to relent from punishing a particular nation. God knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) and what people do is no surprise to Him. However, we have the privilege of playing our part; pleading for God’s blessing and restoration of the peoples and nations that we live amongst.
- To bring about social justice - In Isaiah 58:6, God says “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” People live under all kinds of oppression, imposed by themselves and others. God purposes to fulfil the hunger of hearts that seek spiritual and physical fulfilment in all the wrong places and to lift the downtrodden from out of their shame. Only in the gospel of God is the power available to free to the utmost. Through fasting, this power can be released through us.