What comes to your mind when you hear the word “fast”?
You might think of an extremist approach to becoming more spiritual. Spiritual extremism makes us nervous. You might think that fasting isn’t needed today. This is something they did long ago but since Jesus came, it is no longer necessary. Or, perhaps you don’t think about it at all.
This isn’t a subject we hear too much about. There are some reasons for this. First, we do not have an explicit command in the New Testament to fast. Second, in our memories, faint though they be, are stories of people fasting to the point of absurdity. Third, the line between legalism and fasting es easily blurred. Finally, our indulgence to food and lots of it, maybe influencing us more than we realize.
When Jesus addressed this subject in his Sermon on the Mount, he assumed its practice but did not speak to the “why” behind it. I suspect his audience knew the “why” behind fasting and did not need reminding. I’m not sure that is true of us.
I would like to suggest that fasting is a delightful discipline that yields incredibly rich rewards. These rewards consist of a simpler love for Jesus, a greater dependence upon God, and a heightened awareness of our limitations. There are lesser gains too. The mind gets clearer. The disposition calms down. The body gets a break and is able to reset its systems.
What I would like to do is make a case for biblical fasting in the paragraphs below. We’ll look at how biblical characters fasted and why. Then we’ll draw some general conclusions about why fasting is still appropriate today. We’ll also touch on the role of spiritual disciplines in a believer’s life today.
First things first, what does it mean to fast? In the plainest sense, to fast is “to refrain from food for a spiritual purpose.” This definition is drawn from the biblical uses of the word. Now, let’s get to the actual stories of biblical characters fasting. Since we cannot do every story, we’ll explore those stories that highlight differing reasons for fasting.
Let’s first look at Moses. The details are recorded for us in Deut. 9. Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights, twice. The first time he fasted to receive a word from God, the Ten Commandments (v. 9). The second time he fasted to intercede for Israel because of the golden calf debacle (v. 18). Amazingly, he fasted from food and water both times! Undoubtedly Moses was divinely enabled because it is physically impossible to fast from water for forty days. The “why” behind these fasts is two-fold: receive a word from God and intercession.
Another example comes to us from Judges 20. In this context, a man from the tribe of Benjamin committed great evil. His tribal leaders declined to take action against him. When the other tribes collectively confronted Benjamin it was to no avail. Subsequently, with God’s blessing the other tribes declared war. Twice Israel attacked Benjamin and twice they were defeated. With God telling them to fight and outnumbering Benjamin 15 to 1, these results were puzzling. Why no breakthrough? Did we hear correctly? With these tensions in place, the remaining tribes fasted for one day. They needed confirmation that their mission was right. The “why” behind this fast was simple: get clarification. God answered in the affirmative. The next day they fought and prevailed.
Another example is given to us in Ezra 8. Ezra and the exiles are about to begin a journey from Persia back to Israel. Ezra’s position is nuanced. He didn’t feel free to ask for help since God was on their side. Yet, this journey would be anything but safe. Does he swallow his pride and ask for secular help or does he just go for it? Neither. Ezra proclaims a fast for all those who will travel. Here we see a very interesting sequence. The fast brought about a baseline of humility which facilitated a more honest petition (v. 21). The “why” behind this fast was the need for divine protection.
We come now to Daniel 9. Daniel perceives that the seventy years of decreed desolation is almost complete. Realizing this, he begins a work of confession attended with fasting. We note two oddities. First, why fast and confess? The seventy years is set, regardless, right? Isn’t this much ado about nothing? Second, if he is going to confess then why add fasting? Is it not sufficient to just confess? Why complicate the matter with fasting?
Daniel is entering into a partnership with the God of heaven. He works with God to bring into being those things which are already declared. Far from embracing fatalism, Daniel yields to the difficult work of intercession in agreeing with what is certain. We come then to his rationale. Daniel’s primary work is intercession. Yet, the fast is an expression of his utter devotion to this work. His fast is the exclamation point to intercession.
All the examples above are drawn from the Old Testament. There are many examples we didn’t consider that are worthy of further study in other contexts. We now turn our attention to the New Testament.
The first significant fast we encounter in the New Testament is conducted by the Master. Matthew and Luke both record this fast in chapters four of their gospels. Here is some context. Jesus just experienced a high point. John baptized him, the Father spoke affirmation over him, and the Spirit fell upon him in fullness. It was a big day and there was the promise of great things to come. Into this context, the Spirit compels Jesus to go into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights. He was hungry. Within the context of the temptation, we still wonder why Jesus fasted? Yes, he was compelled to go into the wilderness to be tested. Did the Spirit also compel him to fast? We do not read this in the text. It seems best to conclude that Jesus’ fast was directly tied to his testing. With the launch of his ministry pending, this test could not be treated lightly. It would have to be met head-on and nothing could be left to chance. This fast better prepared Jesus for the temptation. It seems then that the “why” behind this fast was full-on spiritual warfare. In a general sense, fasting can be connected to spiritual warfare but here that connection is direct.
We will treat one more example from Acts 13. A common thread in Luke’s writings is the connection of fasting and prayer to missional work. Here the believers are worshipping and fasting. Into this context, the Spirit speaks. He directs that Barnabas and Saul be set aside for missionary work. The group fasted and prayed some more. Then they laid hands on Barnabas and Saul, sending them off.
Why were the believers fasting here? The context indicates an atmosphere of focused worship. Yet, there is also a readiness to hear from the Lord. They were dialing in on one thing, they left no margin for even food. Perhaps the “why” here is a desire to receive direction from the Holy Spirit. Accompanied with worship, fasting prepared the way for a clear word from God.
Let’s draw some conclusions from the data we have before us.
Why would anyone fast today?
The primary reason we see, stretching across both testaments is to receive direction from God. Time after time, God’s people receive direction from God. Like labor pains that precede a birth, so fasting often precedes an influx of direction. This direction is revelation.
Secondly, fasting provides a baseline of spiritual readiness. When food is removed from our schedule, spiritual perception increases. With an uptick in margin comes an uptick in spiritual readiness. At a practical level, good and evil become clearer. The answers are either yes or no. Spiritual warfare is easier and less complex.
Thirdly, humility necessarily comes. When earthly appetites are ignored for a season, humility and brokenness enter. How so? Our dependence upon food and other coping mechanisms are glaringly revealed. The result is a spiritually broken state of mourning. This mourning is directed to God. And, it is gladly received by God!
Having noted these things, we should note that fasting, like anything, can be relegated to mechanism. If the heart is not contrite, if we are manipulative in the practice, we cannot expect God to meet us. He will not meet us in any context where our practices are rote and devoid of contrition.
On a personal note, I cannot count the number of times I’ve been warned about legalism, in conjunction with fasting. These cautions are good. I suppose most of us have felt the soul-crushing effects of legalism. However, there is an opposite error too. A declination to submit to rhythms that move us closer to Christ is equally soul-crushing. A chaotic undisciplined life is devoid of joy and ultimately in conflict with the Spirit.
Perhaps we can say it this way. Christ is our love. He is our vision. He is truly the source of all pleasure. The disciplines, in this case fasting, must serve us to gain more of the Master. They are helps only. If these disciplines become the master, then joyless living has come upon us and we have lost our way.
Let me conclude with the following thoughts. Jesus did fast. We have evidence of the early church fasting. These two points indicate rhythms. Fasting is a tool that can serve you. There are rich rewards for those who employ this tool for more access to Jesus. Listen to the Spirit and seek his face about this. Perhaps he will call you to this to reveal more to you.